From the Submerged (1912)

by popegrutch

This short from Essanay uses Chicago locations in a melodrama about urban poverty and redemption. While not an entirely believable story, it contains a message about the worth of every human life.

The opening shot shows a vagrant (E.H. Calvert) waking up on a park bench, assessing his surroundings, and walking away. There are two other homeless people sleeping in the background. He walks out onto a bridge and looks ready to jump when a woman (Essanay co-founder Ruth Stonehouse) restrains him. She speaks to him a bit, gesturing towards the sky, perhaps in reference to God, and the man appears grateful to her for her intervention. Now he goes to a bread line, where he collapses with hunger before he can get any food. A sympathetic fellow-bum gives him a piece of bread, a coffee, and a newspaper, then goes to the back of the line again for himself. He eats eagerly, and looks at the newspaper, spotting a small item in the personals. It is addressed to “Charlie” and says that his father is dying and that all is forgiven. Calvert leaps up and runs off to answer the ad.

We now see the sick room, where a doctor, a nurse, and a maid are in attendance to an older man in the bed. The news comes of Charlie’s arrival, and he is brought in as the old man expires. Charlie, still in rags, is now the heir to a great fortune. The next scenes show Charlie in his finery, entertaining rich friends at his well-appointed home. He shows particular interest in a beautiful young woman (Dolores Cassinelli), and makes several attempts to get her alone, presumably so that he can propose. He is unable to, however, and winds up accompanying her on a “slumming party” to the poorer part of town. They briefly visit an opium den, then wind up going to the same bread line where Charlie found his father’s ad. The rich people look annoyed by all of the poor ones, but Charlie makes gestures to show that he, too, was once among these people. The girl laughs at the idea, and we can see that Charlie is upset by her attitude, seeing that she can never truly understand him. She walks off and Charlie dispenses coins to all of the men standing in the line.

Now Charlie finds himself alone, back at his mansion. He tears up a picture of the rich woman and a double-exposure shows the scene of the young girl preventing his suicide (from a different camera angle). He gets a determined look on his face and gets up. The next shot shows Charlie in the park, again wearing the clothes he wore when he was homeless (they look cleaner now). He approaches a woman sitting on a park bench, but realizes at the last moment that it isn’t the girl he was looking for. He walks away and now the girl from the beginning walks into the shot, looking much worse for wear, in a dress with holes in it. She appears to be considering jumping into the lake. Charlie finally sees her and walks over, reminding her of their first meeting. At first she looks dubious, but then accepts him.

The ending is a bit strange, because the next thing we see is the inside of the office of a pastor. He opens the door to find Charlie and the girl, and they ask to be married. He performs the ceremony quickly, and then we cut to the front of Charlie’s house. The girl looks astounded to find that it is such an extravagant home, and all the more so when she steps inside to see the furniture and servants. They embrace happily at the end.

When I hear the name “Essanay,” think of either Broncho Billy Anderson or Charlie Chaplin in his sophomore year in the movies, but like any studio, they produced a wide variety of films. The use of Chicago locations gives this one an interesting urban feel that doesn’t look like New York or LA. “Slumming parties” are a common element of many movies about social issues, including “Regeneration.” Apparently rich people really did like to visit crime-and-poverty-ridden areas as “tourists” at the time and many social reformers criticized the practice.

Like many melodramas, this story depends on a series of pretty improbable coincidences to drive the plot. Charlie finds his father’s ad on the very day he dies, which is also the same day he was rescued from suicide himself. He is “saved” from marrying the rich woman because of accidental interventions by his guests and his butler. The slumming party just happens to go to the same breadline where he discovered the ad. He manages to find the girl in the same park just as she is reaching the end of her rope. Partly, these coincidences can be accepted as part of the shorthand of early film – it’s the same park and the same breadline because that’s all the locations they could manage on the budget for a one-reel film. I actually give them some credit for shooting the rescue scene twice, from two different angles, for the event itself and the flashback.

There’s a lot going on here.

A review for “Moving Picture World” said that Calvert was unconvincing as a tramp, but looked right at home in his rich man character. I would agree that he seems more at ease in the tailored suit, although part of the reality of homelessness is that you are rarely at ease anywhere. Perhaps his discomfort in the role actually works to improve his performance. I don’t think the script gives either Stonehouse or Cassinelli much chance to show their ability, although Stonehouse is good when she talks Calvert down from his suicide attempt. Cassinelli has sort of an Italian diva-quality that I’d like to see more of. The filming is pretty standard for the time, with limited camera movements and simplistic editing, but it works to propel the story. One shot I found confusing was the first trip to the bread line. There were a lot of actors in the shot, and I wasn’t sure which part of the action I was meant to follow. I wound up noticing that they seemed to have stopped serving bread after the other man got back into line, which I thought was going to cause controversy, when the director had intended me to be watching Calvert as he found the ad. A close-up or at least a change in camera angle could have helped here.

Director: Theodore Wharton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: E.H. Calvert, Dolores Cassinelli, Ruth Stonehouse, William Walters

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.