The Trust; or, The Battle for Money (1911) A Silent Film Review

A nefarious rubber baron’s plans to create a cartel are spoiled when a rival’s loyal scientist discovers a formula for artificial rubber. Since the director of this film was Louis Feuillade, madcap criminal antics follow, from drugged incense to disappearing ink!

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

Poof!

While Louis Feuillade doesn’t enjoy the same name recognition as directors like Abel Gance and Erich von Stroheim, he is beloved in silent film circles for his trio of mad, anarchic serials: Fantomas, Les Vampires and Judex. However, before he began his crime spree, Feuillade made a series of shorts and mini-features for the French Gaumont company.

Rubber formula ahoy!

Like most directors of the pre-feature period, Feuillade made pictures in any genre that struck his fancy and that of the front office. Social dramas, comedies, historical epics… and, yes, crime pictures.

The Trust; or, The Battle for Money covers nefarious doings in the rubber industry. Rubber is, of course, produced by tapping rubber trees and the production was a major colonial pastime with the development of artificial rubber being an area of particular interest before and during the First World War and in the leadup to the Second World War. And, like any valuable resource, someone is always out to corner the market.

Get used to seeing these.

The film opens with rubber baron Émile Darbois (Paul Manson) receiving word from his trusty inventor, Jean Bremond (Jean Devalde), has finally discovered the secret of perfect artificial rubber. Bremond doesn’t trust anyone to deliver the formula and will be bringing it to Darbois personally.

Coincidentally, fellow rubber baron Jacob Berwick writes Darbois a letter to ask him to join a rubber trust and control the market. Darbois isn’t terribly bright and refuses the offer, which makes Berwick suspicious. He calls on the services of Julius Kieffer (René Navarre, Fantomas himself), a private detective known for playing dirty.

Julius Kieffer is on the job!

Kieffer’s scheme is… elaborate. He wants to sneak into Darbois’ office disguised as his efficient private secretary, Juliette Michaud (Renée Carl), who wears a distinct hat and coat. Now, I think the obvious solution would be to call on the services of a tailor but such a dull scheme is unworthy of Kieffer!

Instead… he lures her to an apartment labeled as a business office, has his accomplice take her hat and coat and then drug her with a powerful incense. Then Kieffer arrives, pretends he’s found a random lady in his home (the business office sign was taken away in the meantime) and throws her out as an intruder. Then he dons the hat and coat and steals the telegram from Darbois.

The secretary disguise doesn’t exactly hold up to scrutiny.

Bremond the inventor is on his way to Darbois but afraid of being waylaid, so he asks his boss to hire bodyguards. Darbois looks in the directory and hires a great detective by the name of Julius Kieffer. At this point, I would imagine that Bremond would be rethinking his terms of employment but he is loyal to a fault and has a plan of his own in case he is kidnapped.

He gives his kidnappers the formula… written in ink that disappears once he makes his exit. Ha ha! Take that, Julius Kieffer!

The formula: now you see it, now you don’t.

Fans of Feuillade’s serials will probably recognize that this was the sort of thing his characters would regularly get up to. If anything, it’s a bit staid compared to the antics of his gangs of criminals and glamorous detectives. Fantomas himself used reappearing ink on his calling card and can anything beat the hero’s poodle delivering a taunting message to the villains in Judex? I think not.

The Trust is a fairly straightforward crime drama of the period. Corrupt businessmen and cartels were popular cinematic villains. The playful invisible ink plot twist gives us a preview of the kind of zany antics that Feuillade would include in his famous serials but there is another interesting detail that makes this film worthy of discussion.

Writing yet another letter for the plot to move forward.

The exact date of the first intertitle cannot be determined due to the sheer number of lost early films but the general period is reckoned to be in the early 1900s. To make things more difficult, when films were re-released, they were sometimes retitled and given entirely different plots. It’s a murky business but I am confident that intertitles were reasonably new in 1911.

Early title cards tended to summarize the events that the viewer was about to see play out on the screen, so that there would be no confusion during the action. Dialogue title cards were far less common in the early days.

The Trust does not have dialogue cards. Instead, everything is communicated by gesture and the written word in the form of telegrams, letters and notes. Was this just the Feuillade style or was it a deliberate artistic choice for this film? Well, again, I don’t want to get too fixated on absolutes because so many pictures are lost but I did watch available films directed by Feuillade before and after The Trust. Not only do they use dialogue intertitles, they do not make unusual use of the written word. So, we can conclude that this likely was an experiment in conveying dialogue.

Now, the next question: was the experiment successful? Well, the fact that Feuillade himself did not keep up the all-letter, all-telegram dialogue indicates that it was not. Feuillade serials do use letters, ads, newspaper items and other documents regularly but no more than other filmed entertainment of the period. Still, the theory was sound. Epistolary novels were popular and this can be considered a close cousin.

Hiring the trusty Julius Kieffer.

There was a silent era movement to do without title cards entirely. They were seen as clunky and they could make a film’s flow choppy. While I agree that bad or overused title cards are a menace, there are also a great many witty ones, so I am not on the “no titles” team. However, I have to say that Feuillade’s experiment is highly awkward. Characters stop and write notes to one another when there is no logical reason for them to avoid speech. The same telegram is shown onscreen multiple times to convey its information.

I did think that the way the invisible ink ploy was revealed was clever, by writing “this is the ink I used” and then showing is disappear. However, the surprise is somewhat spoiled by the villains already being shown discovering the blank page with some rather overblown pantomime.

Kidnapping their scientist.

So, we can put this in the category of an interesting experiment that was not entirely successful but, what the heck, it didn’t hurt to give it a shot. If you are interested in the anti-title filmmaking movement, Warning Shadows (1923) quite successfully told a tale of adultery, jealousy and murder with almost no intertitles and some very interesting design to boot.

The Trust is amiably goofy and a fun little trip for any fans of Judex, Fantomas or Les Vampires. The unnecessarily elaborate schemes are pretty delightful and, while it’s no masterpiece, I enjoyed myself.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD as part of the Gaumont Treasures Volume One box set.

☙❦❧

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2 Comments

  1. Stephen Robertson

    Thanks for your one of your typically informative and entertaining reviews. I am a great fan of Feuillade serials and will now try to see some of these shorts. The thing that struck me most (this says a lot about me) is that the secret formula was still using “Az”, rather than “N”, as the symbol for nitrogen, as recently as 1911. I realise that very few people probably care!

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