In a late September 1919 letter H.P. Lovecraft singled out “Henry B. Walthall” as a silent cinema star he held to be “above the rest”, the only other being the young Japanese star Sessue Hayakawa.
Walthall possess tragic potentialities all too seldom utilised on the screen. His part in the “Birth of a Nation”, though a leading one, failed to do him justice. He could create a sensation if some of Poe’s tales were dramatised — I can imagine him as Roderick Usher or the central character in “Berenice”. No one else in filmland can duplicate his delineation of stark, hideous terror or fiendish malignancy. — Lovecraft.
What movies would Lovecraft likely have seen Walthall in? The annotations in the volume of Galpin letters suggests only… “Judith of Betthulia [1914, Biblical melodrama], Avenging Conscience [1914, horror-drama, Poe], and Birth of a Nation [1915, family drama, war-epic].”
Avenging Conscience was based on Edgar Allan Poe stories, and featured Walthall playing Poe himself.
But a quick look at Walthall’s filmography suggests that Lovecraft might also have been thinking of “The Raven” (1915, Essanay), a remake of a lost 1912 D.W. Griffith short. The expanded 1915 version was a major ‘melodramatic bio-pic’ movie of Edgar Allan Poe, and Walthall again played Poe.
Lovecraft may have been impressed by what were reported (in the 1915 movie press) to be uncanny double-exposure FX scenes such as Poe fighting a duel with himself, dream-levitating, and by the general visual inventiveness of the sets. Also with the fact that it been filmed in an exact life-sized reproduction of the interior of Poe’s home in Fordham, built on a stage-set after Essanay sent an architect to take the exact measurements. Lovecraft would likely have been less impressed by what is said to be a curt re-write of Poe’s life history, including giving him a thirty-five year old Virginia.
Apparently the movie was immensely popular, and Lovecraft would almost certainly have seen it despite its biographical shortcomings. Perhaps it was too popular, as movie buffs note that there was no screen representation of Poe for many decades afterwards. Originally running as much as 80 minutes (six reels, lost), there’s an approx. 40 minute survival which appears to have been crudely butchered for length and which is now on a 2007 DVD. It’s not currently on Archive.org or YouTube.