Movie Of The Month by JB Kaufman

The Usurer's Grip (1912)

May, 2024

Edison, 1912. Director: Bannister Merwin. Scenario: Theodora Huntington, Arthur H. Ham. Cast: Walter Edwin, Gertrude McCoy, Edna May Wieck, Charles Ogle, Louise Sydmeth, Robert Brower.
            To the film enthusiast, the years 1908–1913 are permanently enshrined as the reign of D.W. Griffith at the Biograph company. During that five-year period, Griffith directed a staggering output of nearly 500 Biograph films (most running one reel or less), in which he accomplished nothing less than the establishment of the principles of filmmaking—harnessing the existing technical devices of cinema and organizing them into a language for telling a story on film. Like everyone else, I’m constantly fascinated by the Griffith Biographs, especially as more and more of them become available for viewing. (As mentioned in an earlier column, we owe a debt of thanks to our friends at Film Preservation Society, who have taken on the equally staggering task of restoring and preserving every one of those essential films!)
            On a corresponding note, I’m also intrigued by the films produced by other studios during those same years, reflecting the contemporaneous advances and innovations of the Biographs. The Edison company has proved a rich source of these unknown titles, and I’ve featured a few of them in this space in the past. I’m not suggesting that any of the Edison directors was another Griffith—but they were fully capable of absorbing Griffith’s principles and applying them in their own films, creating a solid, and largely forgotten, body of work in their own right.
            In one respect, the Edison films offer a remarkable historical sidelight that the Biographs do not. The “Biograph years” corresponded to the height of the Progressive movement, a time when enlightened leaders sought to take action against a host of social problems, from crime to poverty to labor inequities. Griffith and other filmmakers were fully on board with these social crusades, and often addressed them in their films. But the Edison company went a step further, not only tackling social ills but collaborating with, and sometimes obtaining sponsorships from, the agencies that were actively engaged in combating those problems. The sin of usury—lending money at exorbitant interest rates—is a case in point. During the early twentieth century, despite nominal laws to regulate the rates of moneylenders, many unscrupulous loan sharks preyed on the poor, exploiting their helplessness to exact unconscionably high fees, and ruining untold lives in the process. In 1910 Griffith produced The Usurer, a one-reel Biograph that graphically dramatized the problem.
            Two years later the Edison company weighed in with The Usurer’s Grip, another one-reeler illustrating the wrongs perpetrated by unethical loan sharks. This time, however, Edison partnered with the Russell Sage Foundation, which was actively engaged in exposing and prosecuting the wrongdoers, as well as conducting a public-information campaign to alert the unwary potential victims. This film, The Usurer’s Grip, was shown in theaters as part of that campaign. It gives explicit credit to the Russell Sage Foundation on the screen, and one of the Foundation’s principals, Arthur Ham, collaborated on the scenario.
            The film begins with a young couple living in the city, decent and hardworking but financially challenged. Months behind in their rent and trying to care for a sick child, they struggle to make ends meet. They see an ad for a loan agency, promising easy terms, and are overjoyed, feeling their problem has been solved. That illusion is quickly shattered upon meeting the loan officer, played by Charles Ogle, who specialized in unpleasant character roles. (He is perhaps best remembered today as the Monster in Edison’s 1910 version of Frankenstein.) Surly and rude, Ogle completes the paperwork, hands them the cash, then immediately snatches back a sizeable share of it as his fee: “Do you think I work for my health?” Soon enough the couple fall behind on their loan payments, and Ogle and company begin a pattern of harassment that makes their lives even worse than before.
            Director Bannister Merwin and the writers depict this story with admirable restraint, resisting melodramatic excess. Subtle touches abound; in one scene the couple, attempting to economize, share a meager meal. The husband puts a generous share of the food onto his wife’s plate—then, as he is distracted by the baby, the wife quietly scrapes some of the food off her plate and back onto his. It’s an understated action, played in the background and easily missed on first viewing, but for those who do notice it, it’s a sweet moment that underscores the couple’s mutual devotion. Later the wife, played by lovely Gertrude McCoy, makes an impassioned plea to Ogle for mercy, and gets a lascivious reaction that is not what she had in mind. Here again, what might have been a scene of frenzied histrionics is played with a refreshing lack of exaggeration.
            The episode of the “bawler-out,” who follows the husband to his place of employment and publicly berates him in front of his boss and coworkers, may appear today as melodrama. In fact, however, history tells us that these disreputable agencies did employ such tactics. (Kevin Brownlow has documented a later three-reel production, The Bawlerout, that focused specifically on this practice.) The public shaming has its intended effect: the husband loses his job and is still worse off than before. In this film, however, he obtains a new position with a more enlightened employer (Robert Brower). The new boss, learning of his employee’s predicament, takes him to a legitimate lending institution that gives him a new loan at a decent rate, superseding the old one. The boss doesn’t stop there; he also puts the case in the hands of the district attorney, who confronts Ogle and compels him to return the excess payment he has extorted. By reel’s end the loan is paid, and the couple’s happy future is assured. Not shown here is the city-wide campaign to shut down predatory loan sharks, conducted by the Sage Foundation in a similar real-life case a few months earlier.
            The Usurer’s Grip is yet another of the precious silents restored through the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation, and released in the Foundation’s essential DVD collections. Mounted according to the highest technical standards, and accompanied by Scott Simmon’s indispensable program notes, these collections have the highest possible recommendation.

J.B. Kaufman