In addition to its print publications, the Russell Sage Foundation also harnessed the new medium of film to promote reform in lending. In 1912, the foundation funded the production of The Usurer’s Grip, a fifteen-minute silent film about a family man who falls into the clutches of a loan shark, only to be redeemed by a paternalistic businessman who directs him to the nearest Credit Union for a loan on better terms.
The melodramatic style of the film, together with its didactic message, makes The Usurer’s Grip a period piece. But its plot and the plight of its protagonists are eerily modern. Nearly one hundred years ago, unwary borrowing from unscrupulous lenders had the power to drive a family to the brink of disaster
The makers of The Usurer’s Grip are careful to mark their protagonists as middle-class and respectable. The surname Jenks suggests a solidly Anglo-Saxon heritage, and the actors display a loving family life. It is not heedless consumer spending that drives Mr. and Mrs. Jenks into debt, but a doctor’s bill during the illness of their daughter. The message is clear: anyone might become the prey of a loan shark.
The bawler-out is one of the more baffling figures in the film, and certainly the most foreign to twenty-first-century viewers. Hired by a loan shark, the bawler-out was an agent, usually a woman, who would visit a delinquent borrower’s place of work and threaten to expose him if he didn’t pay up. This tactic was effective because many employers refused to employ workers who resorted to salary lenders. In the film, Jenks loses his job when the Bawler-Out visits.
When the bawler-out visits Jenks at his new job, he thinks he’s done for. But instead of firing him, his new employer directs him to the loan bureau of the not-for-profit Credit Union, where he receives a loan at the bank rate of six percent and exposes the illegal loan shark to the authorities.