In this Vitagraph short, anarchism threatens to ruin lives and families. Luigi and Rosa are a couple with an adorable child, but trouble is afoot – Luigi has become an anarchist!
Rosa and her daughter had been out walking; the girl had been running around, and if not for the intervention of Princess Marie Louise, would have been flattened by a motorcar. When Rosa returns home, Luigi is drinking with his anarchist buddies, who include a man with a very fake beard and a man in blackface, or at least some kind of ‘ethnic’ face- darkening makeup. (The way in which anarchism is coded as an immigrant, not-real-American pastime in this film is not exactly subtle). Anyway, the gang is plotting against that very same Princess, who is to make a public appearance that day. Rosa tells her husband about their fortuitous encounter, but Luigi and his friends aren’t having a bar of it. They only live to get radical!
Rosa gets banished to the bedroom while the men plot, and we get this great keyhole shot:
The men are talking about their plan of hiding a bomb in a bunch of flowers (!), but they see Rosa spying through the keyhole. Her husband forces her, at gunpoint, to write a note promising that she won’t betray them. Oh, well if there’s a note attesting that she won’t betray their criminal activities! These anarchists really are masters of foolproof planning.
Then they gag and tie her up. Luckily, she manages to get free and make her escape out the window.
At the keystone-laying (for a hospital for the Italian community – again reinforcing the idea of anarchism occurring in the immigrant sphere), Luigi gets his child to present the bomb-laden bouquet to the Princess. But just in time, Rosa runs in, grabs the bouquet, and throws it in the sea. Saved!
The next scene opens in the hospital, where Rosa is convalescing. Luigi shows up looking pathetically hangdog, his body language conveying shame and contrition.
Rosa seems to accept this (and the title card that precedes the scene reads ‘le pardon’ – ‘forgiveness’). But then comes the coda where Luigi leaves, putting on his hat, only to feel the heavy hand of the law:
Vitagraph was a leading studio in this era, and it seems that they were especially prolific in the years 1912-14: Marianne Lewinsky of the Cineteca di Bologna writes that “According to the IMDb filmography, the Vitagraph Company of America produced a total of 3,121 films between 1898 and 1925 – of which a third (1,073 titles) were in the three years from 1912 to 1914”. She also writes that during her archival research, Vitagraph productions stood out for the quality and style of their productions. Indeed, The Anarchist’s Wife is a well-made film with clear direction and a nice stylistic flourish in the keyhole shot.
This film isn’t mentioned in any of the usual places (IMDb, AFI Catalogue, etc), but I found an advertisement listing it (description: “A deep-laid plot”) in the December 1912 edition of Motion Picture Story Magazine.
The lead is played by Florence Turner, “the Vitagraph Girl”, one of the first big movie stars in the US. It is generally agreed that she and Florence Lawrence (“the Biograph girl”) were the first American actresses to be famous purely on the basis of their screen work (rather than initially via theatrical work), and among the first performers to make personal appearances in promoting their films. At the height of her popularity in 1912, Turner was unequivocally the most popular film actress in America. She left for Britain in 1913 to have more autonomy over her career, starting her own studio there; although she didn’t maintain the same level of popularity as in her Vitagraph days, her films from that period were still extremely successful and contained the wonderful Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914; look out for a 100 years ago post on that later this year).
Anarchism on film
Anarchists were very much a part of popular culture in America in the early twentieth century; consider well-known fictional portraits such as Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907, which I still haven’t read), and The Man who was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton (1908; a favourite). It seems that they frequently appeared in films of the teens, too. Browsing around the Media History Digital Library brought up the following titles (a non-exhaustive list):
- Lulu’s Anarchist (Vitagraph 1912): No description, but it sounds like wholesome entertainment: “A comedy that the people appreciated and liked […] it can be shown at churches or other private entertainments and will be popular”. (Moving Picture World, 16 March 1912)
- Los Anarquistes (Republic 1912): “A sensational story of some European republic, in which an anarchistic plot to kill a president is utilized as the background of a love story, in which the chief of the secret service and the abused wife of the anarquist feature in the principal roles. [..] The story is fairly well woven and the figures are distinctly drawn.” (Moving Picture World, 27 April 1912)
- The Recoil (Reliance 1912): a love story featuring a crazy anarchist. Commentary on it is rather intriguing: “A great factory with its environments, serves as the background to this picture. [..] Labour troubles are utilized but are not brought directly into the story; they and the agitator’s attitude to capital, merely serve as the springboard for it. [..] This is the tensest picture we have ever seen. It is terrific.” (Moving Picture World, 25 May 1912)
- The Anarchist (IMP 1913): some star power here, as it’s a King Baggot film directed by Herbert Brenon. “Heart interest is established at the very beginning (this is worthy of especial note) and the picture was shown without titles; none were needed.” (The Motion Picture News, 22 November 1913)
- Cupid in a Hospital (L-KO 1915): a crippled anarchist is in love with a nurse, plants a bomb under the bed of his rival to her affections, and they both end up being blown into a lake. (Moving Picture World, 02 January 1915)
- The Painted Anarchist (Alhambra 1915): “Syd tries to put one over by posing a live subject as his masterpiece.” (Moving Picture World, 13 Feb 1915)
- The Funny Side of Jealousy (Universal 1915): a man is incredibly jealous of his wife and disguises himself as an anarchist to blow up her supposed lover (it’s actually her brother). Luckily, he is quite an inept anarchist, and comedic situations ensue. (Moving Picture World, 13 March 1915)
- The Lost House (Majestic 1915): a Dorothy Gish film; she plays “the unfortunate young heiress whose unscrupulous uncle places her in the clutches of an anarchist”. Considered a good production by the reviewer, except that “the beard of the anarchist is too noticeably false”. (Moving Picture World, 27 March 1915). [Note: Other sources list this as a Lillian, not Dorothy Gish film; is this a mistake in MPW or in latter-day research?]
Judging from the commentaries available, anarchists unsurprisingly seem to have appeared in films primarily as bomb-wielding comedy villains and/or actual villains. It would be very interesting to view some of these titles, if they still exist!
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The Anarchist’s Wife. Dir. William V. Ranous. New York: Vitagraph, 1912. Available to watch here on European Film Gateway.