An Evil of the Slums (1914) A Silent Film Review

What is that evil? A pool hall! When a young man starts hanging out with bad company and quickly manages to get himself implicated in a murder he did not commit. A morality tale on the popular subject of cue sports.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum.

Ya got trouble!

One of the funniest scenes of the hit musical Music Man involves its main character, the conman Harold Hill, stirring a tiny, early twentieth century Iowa town into a frenzy by singing about the dangers of… pool! Since the 1962 film adaptation is one of my favorite movies, when I stumbled across An Evil of the Slums and learned that the evil was pool, I naturally was excited to review the picture.

The wicked pool hall.

Was the anti-pool frenzy a fun exaggeration created for a charming and nostalgic musical comedy? Or were they invoking a shared memory of moral scares of the recent past? Not a question I had pondered on previously but now that it had come to my attention, I was curious.

(The EYE Filmmuseum, which holds the print, lists the cast as Edwin August, who also directed, Burton Law, Maurice De La Parelle but I am not 100% sure of who plays what.)

A gleeful robbery.

The film opens with an older man (that is, a younger man aged up with whitened hair) making a jittery entrance into a pool hall. Later, a well-heeled young man shows up and begins to play a game of pool. The older man warns him to stay away, the pool hall led to his own downfall and now he is a penniless drug addict. The young man doesn’t listen and quickly becomes obsessed with the pool hall, even committing burglary to fund his drinking and gambling.

Meanwhile, an argument between gamblers turns deadly and there is a body on the floor beside the pool table. And wouldn’t you know it, our young man is standing there with a gun he was holding for a friend. Nobody is going to believe that story, so the older man decides to confess to the murder in order to save the young man. Fortunately, the real killer is discovered hiding in the closet and everyone lives happily ever after.

Bang bang

There’s some discrepancy in the release dates of this film, I have seen it listed as a 1913 and 1914 production. It looks like it was released in very early January of 1914, so that’s the date I will be going with, barring any other evidence arising.

As such, it’s a bit of a throwback. 1913 saw the rise of the feature film in the American industry (the earliest confirmed all-at-once feature-length American film was released in 1912—there’s a mouthful!) and 1914 would only lean into the trend. So, a little one-reel drama was already looking a bit dated but the acting is pretty good, particularly the main character (described as a “dope fiend” in one synopsis of the era). The young man does stand around with his mouth open in shock quite a bit but he also nicely conveys the snotty arrogance of a self-destructive youth.

“Go to bed, old man!”

The direction isn’t too risky for the era but, again, there are some nice touches. I particularly liked the murder scene, which cuts between the young man playing with his borrowed pistol and the escalating argument of the gamblers. The scene reaches its height when one gambler shoots the other and the dead man tumbles into the door of the main pool hall, breaking it down and landing at the feet of the young man. Nothing too experimental but effective.

An Evil of the Slums was produced by the Powers Picture Plays company and, from what I can tell, it was a concern that often went for the family moviegoer market. That is, they kept things light with kid-friendly stories and moral fables. It had been founded in 1909 and incorporated into Universal in 1912, so An Evil of the Slums would have been made during that era.

The old itchy addict.

A good number of morality plays of the silent era were just an excuse to show vice in loving detail while condemning it. I have not seen enough Powers productions to comment definitively but An Evil of the Slums does try to keep things strictly and sincerely PG. The murder is shown onscreen, which would be a strike against it among censors who preferred to have no gunplay at all, but the vice of the pool hall is pretty much limited to drinking and gambling.

I didn’t realize that the older man was supposed to be addicted to drugs when I first saw the picture. I read him described as such in two vintage synopses and, upon rewatching, noticed his compulsive scratching, presumably intended to convey the “skin crawling” of drug withdrawal. No drug use is shown onscreen (such portrayals were very common at the time).

Catching the real killer.

And, finally, the film makes it clear that it is a moral lecture from beginning to end. Don’t go to the pool hall! Don’t steal! Don’t gamble! See? If he had listened, he wouldn’t have gotten in trouble but he has certainly learned his lesson.

Of course, the limitations of its one-reel length leads to plot contrivances and a hurried story. The murderer has not fled and is only hiding in the closet. It strikes me that maybe everyone involved should have performed a thorough search of the area before they started confessing and trying to earn themselves the death penalty.

Trying to set the kid straight.

But what about the big question: were pool halls actually scandalous at the time? Well, as you probably surmised from the plot of An Evil of the Slums, yes, they very much were. A quick skim into the old newspaper archives quickly netted a treasure trove of proposed bans and regulations that ranged from limiting business hours to imposing a patron age minimum.

Now, one thing I noticed about all these news items (and I barely scratched the surface, there were hundreds) is that, while some of them had concrete issues related to specific locations (“traffic on X street has increased”), most kind of took for granted that pool halls were just bad and assumed that the readers felt the same. However, since I have never been involved in the anti-pool hall movement, I was a bit fuzzy as to why pool specifically was being targeted, rather than cards or horse racing or other activities that lent themselves to gambling.

The loafing place.

Fortunately for me, I found a 1913 issue of The American Home Missionary that laid out the religious objections to pool halls in a convenient list. Its opening salvo: “The most insidious enemy of the Church in most small towns is the public pool hall. Insidious because it is not so openly bad, and thus does not fall under the ban of respectability as does the saloon.”

The list is as follows:

  1. It is a loafing place. People loaf there!
  2. It is a harboring place for the worst elements of the community.
  3. People swear in them and going to the pool hall is just one step away from going to a brothel.
  4. They are dens of crime and gambling.

Again, this list could describe a lot of places but the Harold Hills of America chose pool halls and bans cropped up across the country, some of the restrictions are still being enforced, particularly if alcohol is served.

Happy ending.

So, however we may feel about pool halls today, An Evil of the Slums was very much dealing with a popular and topical argument: don’t let your boys go to pool halls, beware, beware!

As for the movie overall, An Evil of the Slums is pretty good for what it is. I have certainly been educated about the Trouble with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and that stands for pool! The performances are pretty good and I liked the way the murder is handled. All in all, there are worse ways to spend ten minutes.

Where can I see it?

Stream online courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum. It’s an international release print and the intertitles are in Dutch but the simple story is easy to follow even if you do not speak the language.


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