Toil and Tyranny (1915)
This short movie was released by Pathé as episode twelve of their series “Who Pays?” but I saw it alone and am reviewing it as a single film. The series was not linked by characters or situation, but thematically by examining problems of the time, and this one takes on the highly topical subject of labor disputes in the timber industry.
The movie begins by introducing its actors through “living credits” – each actor is depicted on a stage in costume, standing beneath a big question mark. I suspect that the question mark was a part of the “Who Pays?” branding, but unlike other credits of this nature, the actors just look out at the audience and bow, rather than depicting their characters in any way. The action begins by showing us David Powers, the “Lumber King” (Daniel Gilfether) at work in his office. He calls in his foreman, Jake Snyder, who is described as a “petty tyrant” and tells him that the unpredictable price of lumber requires that he get his shipment off as quickly as possible. “Don’t spare your men,” he advises. One of those men is Karl Hurd (Henry King), who “has known nothing but toil his whole life.” He makes the mistake of sitting down to rest soon after the conference between his bosses, and Jake decides to make an example of him. Karl fights back, however, and the fight escalates until Jake hits him on the head with a 2-by-4. The fight is observed by Powers, and by Perry Travis (Edward J. Brady), his “ruthless legal adviser,” who comments that violence is the only language the workers understand. Karl’s fellow workers carry him home, where a sickly-looking wife does piecework to help make ends meet, and a little girl plays with a single doll. A doctor makes a house call to inform Karl and his wife that he will need “several weeks” of bedrest before he can work again. The doctor refuses to accept payment from the poor family.
Her life is contrasted with that of Laura Powers (top-billed Ruth Roland), the spoiled idle daughter of the Lumber King. She lazes in a hammock, playing with a cat, and takes a single sip of a drink brought to her by her maid before sending it back. Travis, we come to understand, has designs on Laura as a future wife. While their flirtation proceeds (with the gentle approval of Powers), we cut back to the workers’ home, where Karl’s wife is increasingly ill under the strain of the extra work she’s putting in while her husband has no income. Karl finally decides to go back to work despite his injury, but of course there’s no place for him at the lumber mill now that he has a reputation for violence. His wife soon takes to bed, and there’s little Karl can do but try to tend to her needs.
Meanwhile, the lumber king has decided that more production is necessary, and makes the decision to lengthen work shifts by one hour and add mandatory Sunday work – all without additional pay. Jake the tyrannical foreman accepts the responsibility for enforcement. His announcement of the new requirements agitates the workers, who are soon banding together and listening to the words of a skinny labor activist, whose dramatic gestures suggest fiery rhetoric. The foreman responds by trying to eject the troublemaker, but the men dump him over a dock into the water instead. The boss responds to the workers with a lockout, and soon the strike is in full force. This all happens on the same day as Laura’s birthday party, which she celebrates with other idle rich friends, but the party is invaded by a delegation from the workers, who present their demands to the boss, arriving just at the moment he is announcing his daughter’s betrothal to the evil lawyer. Laura is horrified by Travis and her father’s response to the workers, threatening to let them starve rather than agree to their demands. She pleads in their defense, but Travis and Powers decide to use their ownership of the “company town” the workers live in to begin evicting the strikers from their “half-paid for” houses.
On the day the evictions begin, Laura Powers is visiting the worker’s town on a mission of charity, and she encounters Karl’s daughter, who reports that her mother has just died. Laura brings the little girl back to her father, gives her some money, then goes to find Travis and shame him for his heartlessness. At home, she informs her father that the engagement is off, and continues to be a voice for the needs of the workers. Karl has finally broken under the strain (and possibly due to brain damage from his injury). He throws the money to the floor and goes out seeking revenge. He discovers that the labor agitator has a pistol in his pocket and he steals it. He then fires into the curtained limousine of the lumber king, but of course it is Laura who is shot. She was on her way to join the striking workers, and apparently didn’t expect there to be any problem with showing up in a fancy car. Karl is quickly arrested and the three men – all of them in the wrong in some way – stand around the body of the dead girl.
This movie was very well-made for 1915, particularly in light of the budget limitations French film studios were suffering during the First World War (the movie was shot in California, but financed by Pathé ). It is particularly impressive in terms of its editing and use of cross-cutting. I’ve largely reorganized the sequence of events in my summary above to one narrative thread at a time, but in general we cut between two and sometimes three situations multiple times within each paragraph or even sentence of what you just read. Sometimes, this goes a bit overboard. I had a hard time tracking the significance of the Travis character because as soon as he was introduced we cut away to Karl and his family – before he even does anything but say hello to Powers. But to a large degree what Harry Harvey (the director) is doing is playing up the contrasts between the worlds of the rich and the poor to make it clear how desperately unfair it all seems. It’s very likely that he got the idea for this kind of narrative structure from D.W. Griffith, and particularly from “Birth of a Nation,” which came out the same year and has various narrative parallels to this movie, especially in terms of contrasting two families and how they are affected by larger events.
The timber industry in the United States was among the most unregulated and exploited of the early twentieth century, and their labor organizations among the most radical. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) became particularly active among timber workers in the teens, and even called a general strike in Seattle in 1919. Unfortunately, the small union never possessed enough strength to effect much real change, and became a victim to the post-war “Red Scare” which largely crippled it. At around the same time, some of the most extreme pro-labor activists were calling for and performing “propaganda by the deed,” and assassination attempts were made against major industrialists like Henry Clay Frick by radicals in the late nineteenth century. In 1901, the anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot and killed president McKinley, and this memory would still be strong in the minds of audiences of 1915. These real-world political developments inform this movie, although considerable license is taken with reality to create a good story. The delegation of workers showing up at the birthday party, as well as the labor organizer losing his gun to a mad worker, are among the most improbable events which serve mostly to drive the narrative. If you can suspend disbelief enough, however, it’s a very good example of a reasonably pro-labor film from a century ago.
Director: Harry Harvey
Starring: Ruth Roland, Henry King, Daniel Gilfether, Edward J. Brady, Mollie McConnell
Run Time: 35 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music).