The Kleptomaniac (1905)
This is another social message movie from Edwin S. Porter, which contrasts poverty and riches, and the double standard of justice which existed between them. It also gives us some very interesting images of New York at winter time.
The movie begins by showing a wealthy woman getting into a horse-drawn carriage for a day on the town. She crosses from her front door to the street, which we see is covered in snow. The next shot is of a snow-free street, although the visible breath of the horses indicates that it is still quite cold. The woman gets out of the carriage and crosses the sidewalk to a door marked “Macy’s.” The next scene is the interior of a department store, and we see a number of well-dressed women as they move from counter to counter, asking clerks to display various items for them. The woman from the previous shots is there also, and she takes something from one of the counters when she thinks no one is looking, then moves to the center of the stage to speak to a friend she recognizes. She has been observed by the store detective, however, who comes over and escorts the two women off screen. The next scene is in the manager’s office, where the friend tries to plead for the rich woman, but when the rich woman produces the goods, the manager has her escorted down to the street and into a carriage that takes her to the police station (more snow here than in any other shot).
The story is now interrupted and we see “The House of Poverty,” where a small child sits on the floor screaming while a woman is doubled over at the table. Her older daughter comes home and asks her mother for something to eat, but the cupboard is bare. The poor woman puts on a scarf and goes out to find food. The next scene shows a snowless sidewalk in front of a simple storefront. A delivery boy comes out of the door with a basket, but the shopkeeper calls him back inside, so he puts his basket carelessly on the sidewalk. The poor woman walks up and sees the unguarded basket, looks around to see if anyone is watching and takes a small loaf of bread. The shopkeeper instantly runs out of the store and grabs her by the elbow. He hails a cop, who takes the loaf and the woman back to the same snowy police station. Next, we see the police court, where a series of minor criminals, including a prostitute and a hobo, are quickly processed. Then it is the poor woman’s turn, and the shopkeeper testifies angrily about his stolen goods. The only advocate for the poor woman is her daughter, who runs up and hugs her mother, but the judge orders them separated, and the mother is taken away. Then it is the rich woman’s turn. The manager of the department store is also fervent, but her friend is there to testify and she has a lawyer as well. The judge decides to let her go. The closing shot is an image of blind justice, holding a scale where a bag of money clearly has more weight than a loaf of bread.
This movie has a lot in common with the later movie by D.W. Griffith, “A Corner in Wheat,” which contrasts the rich and the poor and the effect of stock manipulation on hungry people versus the rich who profit from it. Porter’s style is a bit less sophisticated, but the message is still clear: a woman who acts from desperation is punished for something while a rich woman looking for a thrill is let off. Porter does not so much use cross-cutting to get this across as he shows one story almost to the end, then interrupts it and tells another story before giving us the conclusion of the first one. Withholding the end of the first story still serves to build a degree of suspense as we wonder how it will turn out. I made a point of noting the level of snow we see in the various location shots, because I suspect that it demonstrates that these were shot on different days, although it’s also possible that Macy’s just had better street-clearing service than the other locations. We still get to see some great images of New York from another era. The interior of the department store is also illustrative: there is little merchandise on display or accessible to the customers, most of it is kept in drawers behind the counter, and customers have to ask to see it. Interestingly this system is not shown to prevent theft very effectively.
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Starring: Aline Boyd
Run Time: 11 Min
You can watch it for free: here.