Trial Marriages (1907)
This short from Biograph draws from then-recent controversy in the news to create a rather over-the-top slapstick comedy. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the weak production values at the studio prior to the arrival of D.W. Griffith.
A man is shown in medium-shot, reading a newspaper. Whatever he reads causes him to grin, and then to erupt in laughter. The next shot shows an insert of a (real) newspaper headline: “Mrs. Parsons Advises Trial Marriages.” What follows is a sequence of such “trials” on the part of the man, who we now presume is a bachelor looking forward to enjoying a string of low-commitment affairs. The first is labeled “The Crying Girl” in a forward-facing intertitle. The scene is set as the girl, apparently reading the same article in a newspaper, confers with her father in a small apartment. The father appears happy to have her off his hands, and he invites the bachelor in and introduces them, encouraging his daughter when she pulls back a bit in the initial handshake. Then he leaves the young people alone. The bachelor makes what efforts he can to woo her, but ultimately it is the father who returns and proudly shakes hands with him. After an edit, we see their home life, evidently in the same apartment. The girl cannot stop crying. The former bachelor tries to calm her, but eventually becomes annoyed and she runs offstage, soon to be replaced by her father, who angrily seizes the man and beats him, ultimately throwing him through the window.
The second affair is with “The Jealous Girl.” This “girl” appears a bit older, and their romance is comparably affectionate, she throws her arms gleefully around him when he proposes. An edit takes us again to their home life, this time showing a dining room in what looks like a comfortable home. There is a maid, who brings out a service with tea and food. The wife looks disapprovingly as she serves her husband. After she leaves briefly, the man moves to the maid, holding her shoulders and speaking softly. The wife comes back in and goes ballistic, throwing everything on the table at her husband, hitting him with a chair, and turning over the furniture. The next sequence is “The Tired Girl.” This time, we skip the romantic scene and begin in what seems a relatively squalid combined living-dining room. The man is running a floor sweeper across the floor, while the woman (the youngest-looking so far) reclines on a divan. She occasionally rises to give a big yawn with her arms, and then returns to a horizontal position. The man brings her some tea, then puts on an apron starts doing the dishes, breaking each one as he finishes. The woman gives him her teacup and goes back to sleep. Finally, he forces her upright and puts the apron on her. She reluctantly moves toward the basin. An edit finds the man in the coal cellar, where he is sawing a log (a visual pun?). The wife comes down the stairs and asks him to move a heavy tin of coal up the stairs, without offering to help. He makes it about halfway, then the tin crashes down on top of him.
For the final affair, we see “In Union There Is Strength.” Here, we return to the pattern of first seeing the romance, but this time the single woman brings along a brood of children, presumably from a prior trial marriage. The kids are loud and disturbing, and make it impossible for the couple to be alone. Despite this obstacle, the next scene finds the man in a kitchen, struggling with domestic duties while the kids run around and cause chaos. When an older daughter causes a shelf full of dishes to collapse, the man, at his wits end, prepares to administer a spanking. At this moment the wife appears and begins the most violent scene in the film, literally destroying the entire kitchen by throwing the man about the room. When he collapses, she sits on him and weeps. The final shot is the man in a hospital bed with bandages and bruises, holding a newspaper and shaking his fist at it angrily. “Never Again” reads the intertitle.
In November of 1906, Elsie Clews Parsons, the wife of a prominent Republican congressman, published a sociological study of the family. Towards the end of the 300-page text, she speculated that American families could be made healthier if young women would wait longer before having children, and if relationships between young people could be of a less “permanent” basis than lifelong marriages. She suggested something fairly similar to modern dating: premarital sex, birth control, co-habitation, and easy separation, all predicated on the assumption of no children being born during these “trial marriages.” The moral outrage she triggered resembled a modern Internet flame war, with epithets, death threats, and refusal to listen to opposing viewpoints. Much of it centered around the idea that she was undermining the decency of young women, who were supposed to remain chaste until marriage according to the morality of the day.
Biograph, always willing to rip its subject matter from the headlines, eagerly leapt into the fray with this parody. They avoided raising serious questions about the morality of young women by suggesting that men would be the worst victims of this arrangement. We see our bachelor systematically feminized and weakened by the process of his marriages. It’s notable that he winds up doing housework fairly early on, especially in light of earlier films like “Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce” or contemporary ones like “Troubles of a Grass Widower” that use this “unnatural” gender-reversal as a source of comedy. But the real comedy comes from the ways in which he is abused by the wives. Again notably, at the beginning of the film it is the girl’s father who attacks him, but by the end the violence comes from his wife.
The movie is pretty poorly-made, even by the conventions of 1907. The sets are bare-bones and props are only brought in to be smashed, not to add any atmosphere. The “glass” window the man is thrown through is clearly made of paper. The stairs look like they were thrown together at the last moment and one doubts if they would hold both actors at the same time. Apart from the opening and closing shots, the camera is held at a great distance from the actors, who must broadly pantomime to get their emotions across. None of the story is told through lighting, effects, or editing. Compare this to “Troubles of a Grass Widower,” from the next year, in which Max Linder uses the conventions of the time to create an effective farce. There are far fewer laughs to be found here, though it is certainly representative of what the troubled studio was putting out at this time.
Director: Francis J. Marion
Camera: Billy W. Bitzer
Run Time: 12 Min
You can watch it for free: here.