The Usurer’s Grip (1912)
This educational film from Edison was made in collaboration with a Progressive-Era nonprofit that was fighting for equitable credit for working people. It has a clear message about the “right way to get a loan,” but is rather basic in terms of film technique.
The movie begins by introducing our protagonists: The “Jenks,” a middle class family with a sick daughter (Edna May Weick) on a set that appears to be a crowded urban apartment. The Intertitles inform us that they are having financial concerns due to the unexpected expense of her malady, and there is concern that they will lose their rented furniture. Then, Mr. Jenks (Water Edwin) spots an ad in the paper for a loan company that promises low rates and easy payments. The next scene shows the office of the loan company. Here, a poor woman on one side of a counter pleads for assistance, but is turned away by the female clerk on the other side. Then, our couple enters. The wife (Gertrude McCoy) takes a seat while the man goes up to the same counter the poor woman was turned away from. He is chastised when he steps a bit too far into the workspace of the clerk. She takes his information, however, and in the next scene we see the loan agent (played by Charles Ogle, who was the Frankenstein monster in the 1910 “Frankenstein”) visiting their home to make certain they have adequate collateral. He offers them a $25 loan, to be paid back in six “easy” payments of $7.50 per month – totalling $45! Mr. Jenks at first refuses, but the loan shark won’t negotiate and he needs the money, so he reluctantly signs the papers. The loan shark gives him the money, then takes a bill off the top to cover “drawing up the paperwork.”
The next sequence shows the difficulties the family has to suffer under the terms of their contract. At first, Mr. Jenks is able to make his payments, but as time goes by we see the crowded furniture in the apartment start thinning out. The child doesn’t seem to be recovering, and the loan shark seems increasingly insistent with each visit. One time, he visits when Mrs. Jenks is alone, and appears to be interested in forgiving some of the debt in exchange for an “in kind” payment from her. Luckily, Mr. Jenks comes home before he can do anything. Now delinquent on his payments, he gets a visit at work from a “bawler-out” (Louise Sydmeth), a middle aged lady who accuses him in public of being a poor father and bad person for being in debt. This causes his boss to fire him. Now the agency puts a “trailer” on him – a private detective who follows him to see if he gets another job from which they can garnish his wages. Sure enough, he is hired by a kindly older man (Robert Brower) and soon the bawler-out shows up again.
This time his boss is understanding, however. He escorts Jenks to a philanthropic savings & loan, where he can get a $25 loan at 6%, paying back only $25.38! When Mr. Jenks tries to give back a part of the loan to cover the paperwork, the friendly young clerk laughs and refuses him. Now Jenks reports the illegal loan operation to a government man, who comes along with him to see the loan shark. Said shark is at the Jenks’ apartment at that very moment, repossessing all the remaining furniture, including the child’s sick bed! Fortunately the government man has the authority to halt this, and also to make the shark pay back all of the illicit interest he has charged. The final scene shows the family living within their means, the little girl finally healthy and happy.
Thomas Edison and his company’s executives never really wanted to go into show biz. They thought that their cameras and studio ought to be paid for by other people who wanted to make movies, although they always tried to make sure they would get the profit from distribution of a hit. To a certain degree, the movies they made during the Age of Attractions were intended more as demo reels to show what could be done with motion picture technology. This model didn’t really work out, partly because Edison was so greedy with his patents (if he would have just sold motion picture equipment to aspiring studio heads, this all might have gone differently), but they were still trying to get investments up front even into the Nickelodeon Era. Where this sometimes panned out was with larger nonprofits looking to educate the masses or fundraise. In this case, the Russell Sage Foundation, Division of Remedial Loans, paid for this public service movie to demonstrate the importance of their work in equitable lending.
From that point of view, the producers made some smart choices. The Jenks are a white (non-immigrant), middle-class family with a hard-working father and a sick child. They are not given to extravagance or to vices that might exacerbate their financial situation. Unexpected medical bills remain one of the leading causes of unmanageable household debt today. The offices of the loan shark are contrasted with the pleasant environment of the legitimate savings & loan. The decency of the boss who does not judge Jenks for his financial condition is contrasted with the heartlessness of the loan shark and the bawler-out.
Still, compared to the better commercial movies being made in 1912, this is not a great film. The camera is stationary, each scene takes place in a proscenium-style theatrical space, and the sets and mise-en-scene appear quite random. At first I rather thought the Jenks’ problem was too much furniture in too little space, which seemed to minimize the threat of someone taking it away. The only close-up shots are frequent inserts of documents which are somewhat hard to make out (this is probably due to the quality of the current print, audiences in 1912 may have had no problem reading them). The structure is entirely sequential, with no cross-cutting to heighten tension, even in the final sequence where the government man and Mr. Jenks rush to the rescue. Not every movie in 1912 did it as well as “The Lonedale Operator,” but even “The Great Train Robbery” had more effective editing than this!
Of course, the progressive message of the Russell Sage Foundation was well-intended, but it was also somewhat misguided. Small-scale credit operations run at considerable risk, and 6% annual interest wasn’t going to keep even philanthropic operations solvent. The commentary on the “Treasures III” disc comments that Russell Sage-backed savings & loans eventually resorted to 2% monthly interest, and still lost money, even with seed funding from the state. The problem of debt hasn’t gone away, and isn’t likely to under capitalism, although independent operators like Charles’ Ogle’s loan shark have been replaced by Visa and Mastercard, and paycheck advance companies and the legions of collection agencies that are employed by them.
Director: Bannister Merwin
Starring: Walter Edwin, Gertrude McCoy, Charles Ogle, Edna May Weick, Robert Brower, Louise Sydmeth
Run Time: 15 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).