When a woman’s lover jilts her for another woman, she takes violent action in this short Biograph production. A lurid film likely based on the lurid coverage that such crimes enjoyed in the press of the day.
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the Library of Congress
Murder on the dance floor
Sometimes, I just start looking into film collections by year to see what new-to-me treasures I can unearth. I stumbled on A Ballroom Tragedy thanks to the Library of Congress’s online collection and I’m glad I did because for such a short picture, it packs a heaping helping of historical interest.
It’s a release from the Biograph film company and was shot by Billy Bitzer. Unfortunately, I do not know who the performers were because Biograph had a hard policy of concealing the identities of actors in their pictures. This was standard in American film at the time but Biograph remained a stubborn holdout long after the star system proved to be viable.
A Ballroom Tragedy tells what seems to be a simple story. During a dance, couple stands in a small sitting room. A glamorous lady in a daring gown is introduced to the man, who is enchanted and discards his previous companion. The new couple canoodle on the settee but the jilted woman returns with a dagger and stabs her rival in the back. The glamorous lady dies in the throes of a dramatic pose while the murderess slips away without anyone trying to stop her. Curtain.
Well, that certainly escalated. A Ballroom Tragedy was released at 50 feet and runs a little less than a minute in its current form. Biograph could make and was making longer films for release, so the short runtime of this picture was a conscious decision. The goal seems to have been the creation of a dramatic vignette. Around this time, dramatic living scenes were quite popular and it’s easy to see that this was a cousin of the practice with a bit more background information provided. (Basically, performers would pose in costume and hold the scene before an audience.)
Now, for the story itself…
A jealous lover taking a knife to their rival was a common dramatic device in fiction with both men and women taking their turns at the blade. The spoken stage, operas, novels… they were all pretty stabby. In the immortal words of Spike Jones, he “stabs the louse who stole his spouse.” The coed nature of the stabbings is significant. You see, the fact that the killer in A Ballroom Tragedy was a woman has been described as unusual for the time. It really wasn’t. Not with those 1900s hatpins.
Fictional examples of jealous stabbings are all well and good but early motion pictures, especially ones covering lurid topics, often referenced real incidents of the time. I decided to dig into love triangle stabbings in the United States just before A Ballroom Tragedy was shot in June of 1905.
There were some truly bizarre cases, like that of Miss Birdie Russell. She was speaking to a certain Warren Hayes at the doorway of her St. Louis home when a jealous rival stabbed Hayes. Hayes survived but Russell refused to name his attacker, claiming that “love had sealed her lips.” Warren, sweetheart… run.
However, the biggest story of the early 1900s in New York was surely the case of Lulu Youngs of Rochester. Youngs had been married to Frank E. Youngs for two years but he had been carrying on a lengthy affair with Florence McFarlane. In November of 1902 Lulu Youngs confronted McFarlane at her boarding house and, according to the cook who witnessed the attack, began chasing her rival around the house, stabbing her as she went. Once McFarlane was dead, Youngs announced her motives (“She came between myself and my husband”) and retreated to her father’s house, where she was later arrested.
Two attractive young women engaged in a death feud for a man was red meat for the gutter press and Youngs’ trial received prominent coverage. (Frank the stinker seems to have exited, stage left.) Lulu’s trial was over quickly with an all-male jury acquitting her in June of 1903 and then immediately wining and dining her at a lavish party they threw in her honor.
Lulu Youngs’ defense relied on what was called “the unwritten law.” Basically, temporary insanity brought on by indignation at adultery was seen as a suitable defense for murder and it met with success when employed at trials. However, it was most commonly used (and abused) by men to justify violence against their spouse or her alleged lover. Youngs was an unusual case of a woman using the defense, a fact remarked upon by coverage of the day.
There are also parallels to the events that inspired Chicago, in which charming murderesses waltzed away, leaving the less alluring cellmates to hang. A sarcastic op-ed in the New York Evening World pointed out that one Rosie Quinn, an unmarried mother, was convicted of murdering her infant and was sentenced to life in prison. Describing Quinn as plain and awkward, the op-ed contrasted the treatment of the “strikingly handsome” Youngs. It concluded by stating that any woman contemplating murder “take an account of stock of their personal charms before doing the deed.”
However, most coverage of Youngs, after the initial breathless report of the murder, was positive and the unwritten law remained a popular defense, both with attorneys and the general public. Understanding this tells us why the murderess was not immediately apprehended in A Ballroom Tragedy. The audience is fully expected to be on her side as the innocent, jilted spouse to a certain degree. Certainly, the murder is tragic (see title) and the victim’s death is framed sympathetically but the killer was driven to it. The focus of the story is jealousy, not crime and punishment.
It’s worth noting that the coverage of the McFarlane murder and Youngs trial was framed in an extremely lurid manner and there were likely many legal and moral nuances that have been lost to time. It can be compared to reconstructing an infamous modern trial using only TMZ as a source. This is not an examination of the justice system of the period but, rather, a look at how the events would have been likely perceived by New York filmmakers of the period.
The internet likes nothing more than creating absolutes where none should exist, so, from the top: I am not saying definitively that the Lulu Youngs case directly inspired A Ballroom Tragedy. I have no direct evidence, only certain similarities between the film and the real-life murder. What I am saying is that the media coverage of the case provides important context for understanding the filmmaking decisions of the Biograph team.
A Ballroom Tragedy is an example of a tiny early motion picture containing for more complexity than is obvious upon first viewing. The scene is a bit goofy in its rapid escalation but early films frequently worked in a kind of visual shorthand, expecting the audience to immediately understand the implied message. Therefore, full appreciation of films made during this period requires a bit of background and context.
A Ballroom Tragedy is not a masterpiece by any means but it is a prime example of the visual language of cinema at the time and it illustrates the importance of context and the value of digging deeper. Definitely worth your minute.
Where can I see it?
Watch for free courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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