Old Isaac, The Pawnbroker

USA, 1908, 10 minutes, B&W
Silent without intertitles
American Mutoscope and Biograph Company
Directed by Wallace McCutcheon

by The National Center for Jewish Film

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"The portrayal of charity is the theme of the Biograph's story, which dissipates the calumnies launched at the Hebrew race."
-Biograph Bulletin March 28, 1908


A small girl in an urban slum goes out to seek aid for her sick and starving mother. She goes first to the offices of the Amalgamated Association of Charities, where she is caught up in red tape as the case workers ask questions and offer no immediate aid. Desperate, the little girl then goes to a neighborhood pawnshop hoping to get some money for food. She brings in a pair of old shoes which the pawnbroker's assistant rejects. Then she returns with her doll. This innocent gesture of selflessness attracts the attention of old Isaac, who runs the shop. Hearing the little girl's story, he sets out for her apartment where he stops the men who are trying to evict the sick woman. He pays the rent, provides food and medical care, and even gives the girl a big new doll.

This is a significant film in the history of American cinema. One of the first films scripted by D.W. Griffith, not only does it herald many of the social themes of his later films, it also contains the earliest known example of parallel editing used for social realism.

The portrayal of Old Isaac here contrasts sharply with the comic scheming merchant characters of the time. Not only is Isaac not interested in profiting from others misfortune, he is charitable and compassionate, and in a way that differs sharply from the heartlessness of official charities. It is interesting to note that antisemitism appeared in American cinema almost exclusively in comedies. Melodramas generally presented Jewish characters sympathetically and this film inaugurated a series of films involving compassionate Jewish pawnbrokers.

Home Use DVD: $19.95

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Classroom/Library Use DVD: $50

Does not include Public Performance Rights. More Information

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