The Pardadoxical Altruism of a Money Lender
Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker (1908)
(VHS, 1980) National Center for Jewish Film (NCJF)
A small girl in an urban slum goes out to seek aid for her sick and starving mother. She goes first to the offices of the Amalgamated Association of Charities, where she is caught up in red tape as the case workers ask questions and offer no immediate aid. Desperate, the little girl then goes to a neighborhood pawnshop hoping to get some money for food. She brings in a pair of old shoes which the pawnbroker's assistant rejects. Then she returns with her doll. This innocent gesture of selflessness attracts the attention of old Isaac, who runs the shop. Hearing the little girl's story, he sets out for her apartment where he stops the men who are trying to evict the sick woman. He pays the rent, provides food and medical care, and even gives the girl a big new doll.
This is a significant film in the history of American cinema. One of the first films scripted by D.W. Griffith, not only does it herald many of the social themes of his later films, it also contains the earliest known example of parallel editing used for social realism.
The portrayal of Old Isaac here contrasts sharply with the comic scheming merchant characters of the time. Not only is Isaac not interested in profiting from others misfortune, he is charitable and compassionate, and in a way that differs sharply from the heartlessness of official charities. It is interesting to note that antisemitism appeared in American cinema almost exclusively in comedies. Melodramas generally presented Jewish characters sympathetically and this film inaugurated a series of films involving compassionate Jewish pawnbrokers.
Source: National Center for Jewish Film
The film is preserved by The National Center for Jewish Film.
"And now abideth faith, hope and charity, these three; and the greatest of these is Charity - for charity is the scope of all God's commands."
How beautiful, and yet how rare, is unostentatious charity. It is the most luminous, scintillant ray in the aureola of human virtues. The portrayal of this laudable quality is the theme of the Biograph’s story, which dissipates the malignant calumnies launched at the Hebraic race.
In a squalid apartment lies a poor woman ill with fever, attended by her six-year-old daughter. Meager indeed are their possessions, and to make matters worse, they have been served a dispossess notice by order of a merciless landlord. In desperation, the poor woman sends the little one to ask aid of the Amalgamated Association of Charities. Associaticn of Charities - how irrelevant seems the title? What an apathetic bunch of parsimonious almoners the poor child encounters. She is sent from "post to pillar," until finally they send her home with the comforting intelligence that the association will next week send around an investigator. How benevolent; how generous; how munificent. Is it not beautiful? Yes, it is not beautiful.
From sheer exhaustion the poor woman falls asleep, and the little one tries to devise a plan by which they may have at least a bite of food, so taking up a pair of old shoes goes to the pawnshop, but they of course are of no value, and she returns home empty-handed. Next she takes her dollie, and bidding it an affectionate adieu, runs off with it to the pawnshop, and is about to be turned away again, when Old Isaacs, who is now in his office, becomes interested, questions the little one and orders his clerk to give her what she asks. The old man makes a note of the address and follows after, collecting on the way articles of need to ameliorate the condition of the poor woman, arriving at the home just in time to prevent her eviction by the officers, whose demands he satisfies. He has ordered for her medical attention, food, clothing, and at the same time, returns to the little heroine, her dollie, together with a larger and more beautiful one. The sunshine of hope now bathes the little home, and - "And the greatest of these is charity."
While this film story is of an apparant lachrymal nature, there is enough of the lighter shades to relieve it; the pawnshop scene affording many bits of good, clean comedy.
Source: Biograph Bulletin