The Usurer’s Grip
R: Charles Brabin. B: Theodora Huntington (story), Bannister Merwin (scenario). D: Walter Edwin, Gertrude McCoy, Edna May Weick, Charles Ogle. P: Edison Company. USA 1912
Print: Library of Congress
“The optimism of the pre–World War I Progressive Era — when belief in reform of society’s ills through investigative research and government action was at its height — is given its most lively illustration in a fascinating series of films produced between 1910 and 1915 by the Edison company in collaboration with a wide range of enterprising nonprofit organizations. Each film dramatized — and resolved — a social problem within 15 minutes. (…)
The film encapsulates real-world lending practices. Interest on household loans, secured by furniture and other property, was limited legally in New York and most of the nation to 6 percent annually, although virtually all such small loans were made at vastly higher rates, especially after ‘fees’. (…) ‘The loan shark evil’ was thus a long-standing topic of muckraking journalism, peopled with real-life melodramas of ‘rapacious money lenders’ and their ‘loan slave’ victims. By far the most effective investigation was undertaken by the sponsor of this film, the Russell Sage Foundation (…).
The name given the film’s beset husband and father, ‘Thomas Jenks’, may be a nod to two of the New York Supreme Court justices — Edward B. Thomas and Almet Jenks — who had in March 1912 struck down ‘fees’ above legal interest rates. As in the film (released seven months later), the case, brought by lawyers for the Russell Sage Foundation, centered on a $25 household loan. The court decision freed the District Attorney’s office to prosecute 1,000 lenders before the year was out. The resolution of The Usurer’s Grip relies on just such legal action by a New York district attorney, not on the customary change of heart or poetic justice (as in D.W. Griffith’s The Usurer , in which the lender suffocates in his bank vault). (…)
The loan shark is played with convincing coldheartedness by Charles Ogle, remembered now as the movies’ first Frankenstein monster, in Edison’s 1910 version. He is ready to take sexual favors from Jenks’s wife in place of the second payment.”
National Film Preservation Foundation