An anarchist’s domestic bliss is destroyed when his wife and mother-in-law catch him kissing the maid. A madcap apartment chase, chaos and explosives ensue in this early Danish comedy from pioneer Viggo Larsen.
Home Media Availability: Stream for free courtesy of the Danish Film Institute.
Denmark was an early film capital, most famous for its white slavery exploitation films and as the birthplace of Asta Nielsen, the Danish queen of German cinema. However, the output of the early Danish film industry was just as varied as any other major producer and Viggo Larsen was one of their most exciting talents.
A director and sometime actor, Larsen worked in a variety of genres, from fantasy to melodrama, starting in 1906. However, his comedies are of particular interest due to their zany style and their topical references. Still in his twenties when his career launched, Larsen poked fun at everything that was then the current mode, from hats and hobble skirts to bicycles. And terrorism.
The Anarchist’s Mother-in-Law was made during his first year in the movies and Larsen himself starred as the anarchist. His calm apartment life and domestic bliss are spoiled when he attempts some hanky-panky with the maid (his anarchist beliefs do not extend so far as to do his own dishes) and his wife catches him in the act. And, more importantly, so does the mother-in-law.
As was often the case at the time, the formidable mother of the anarchist’s bride was played by a hulking man in drag. A chase ensues through the apartment building with our diminutive lothario trying desperately to escape and finally falling out of an upper floor window. He recovers and rushes back in but this cannot go on, he needs a real escape…
And at this point, most viewers would be likely wondering where the anarchist bit of the story comes into play. So far, we’ve just had a bit of domestic slapstick. Well, here it comes. The husband sets up a trap with a chair and a tub of water. When his mother-in-law trips and collapses, he rushes into the next room and returns with a box of dynamite. One lit fuse later, all that is left of the mother-in-law is a tattered dress. The main obstacle to their happiness out of the way, husband and wife embrace.
So… that was dark. And the husband getting away with his philandering is an example of the “boys will be boys” and “leave them alone and they’ll come home wagging their tails behind them” philosophy that we find in later films like The Women. The mother-in-law from hell was a popular target of comedic malice as well. But anarchists… That’s quite an addition to a domestic comedy.
To put this film in its proper context, it’s important to understand what was happening in the world at the time. 1906 was smack in the middle of what is now known as the golden age of the classical anarchist political movement.
While the actual definition of anarchism is slippery—and the irony is not lost—the general movement viewed political systems as oppressive and hoped to create an equitable society without the traditional trappings of government. In practical terms, this meant that the assassination of political figures became a signature of the movement. Elisabeth, Empress of Austria, King Umberto I of Italy and President William McKinley of the United States of America were all killed by anarchists between 1898 and 1901.
Radical anarchists were also noted for their use of explosives and bombings became their signature. The Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886 was a violent confrontation between pro-labor activists and the police. Seven policemen were killed and sixty injured when a bomb was thrown into the crowd.
French anarchist Emile Henry also favored bombs and his most infamous deed, a bomb detonated in Café Terminus in 1894, earned him a trip to the guillotine the same year. Henry hoped that his acts would draw attention to the plight of the poor and he is considered a pioneer in the use of terrorism for political gain.
In American silent films, anarchists were generally portrayed as bomb-happy foreigners (xenophobia and anti-labor sentiments went hand-in-hand) with extremely opaque political views and unfortunate taste in haircuts. (See The Ace of Hearts for a prime example.) In contrast, our Danish anarchist is downright respectable with his tidy apartment, domestic help and neat mustache. It seems that he is less of a true believer in the plight of the worker than he is a very firm believer in dynamite curing all the world’s ills.
Anarchists had struck before The Anarchist’s Mother-in-Law was released and they would strike again, attacking everything from Wall Street to the Los Angeles Times newspaper headquarters. They were a going concern and a real threat but, as has so often been the case in comedy, the humor here can be taken as whistling through the graveyard.
However, for the sake of discussion, we can indeed say that “anarchist” was used in the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the way “terrorist” is used today: its meaning was stretched broadly in both colloquial speech and comedy. “Bolshevik” was used similarly later in the silent era, with the term being employed humorously to describe Gloria Swanson’s saucy shopgirl in Manhandled. The Anarchist’s Mother-in-Law was designed to be funny and its maker chose a very grim subject but it clearly was not meant to be a political statement.
The picture was very much in keeping with the comedy tastes of the time. Macabre humor, revenge and chases all figured into cinematic comedy from the beginning and this picture had all three. Further, criminals winning in the end was not uncommon, so the anarchist going unpunished and enjoying a happy reunion with his wife after blowing up her mother would have been accepted without argument.
While it’s not the best of Viggo Larsen’s early comedies, The Anarchist’s Mother-in-Law is nevertheless amusing and enlightening. It fits neatly in with such sick early comedies as Mary Jane’s Mishap (1903, accidental self-immolation by paraffin), And the Villain Still Pursued Her (1906, brain surgery on the fly using a saw and hammer), The Maniac Barber (1899, decapitation) and The Big Swallow (1901, cannibalism) and it also is a close relative to The Sprinkler Sprinkled, one of the very first scripted comedies in projected film.
If you have a spare four minutes, check this one out and then take a dive into the other Viggo Larsen pictures available for streaming. It’s a journey well worth taking.
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