'Devil's Assistant,' Silent Drama About Opioid Addiction From 1917, Now on DVD

By Paul Gaita 10/18/17

The 23-minute film follows the downward spiral of a young society woman who becomes dependent on morphine through her doctor.

still from The Devil's Assistant
Photo credits: courtesy USCH Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive

The role of physicians in fueling the opioid dependency epidemic gets some unusual historical perspective in The Devil's Assistant, an obscure silent drama from 1917 that addresses the devastating impact of overprescribing medication to patients, albeit in a highly surreal and metaphorical manner.

The 23-minute film follows the downward spiral of a young society woman who becomes dependent on morphine through her doctor, a former suitor with malevolent designs on her newfound marriage. His machinations lead to an overdose, which is depicted as a literal descent into Hell—a melodramatic yet potent metaphor for the agony of opioid dependency.

A new high-definition scan of The Devil's Assistant by the USC Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive will be released on DVD by Undercrank Productions on October 17, and will be available through Amazon.com.

Photo courtesy of USCH Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive

The film, produced and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Harry A. Pollard, stars his wife, actress Margarita Fischer (Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1927) as Marta, the scion of a wealthy New York family engaged to marry the upstanding John Lane (Jack Mower, later a prolific character actor on television Westerns).

However, their impending nuptials are no cause for celebration for Dr. Lorenz (Monroe Salisbury) and Marion Dane (Kathleen Kirkham), who carry unrequited torches for Marta and John, respectively. When Marta falls ill after the birth of her child, Marion seizes upon the opportunity to enact revenge, and finds a willing partner in Lorenz, whose inherent evil nature is spelled out in bold terms by Pollard, who employs a special-effects dissolve to superimpose horns and a Satanic goatee over Lorenz's leering face. 

Photo courtesy of USCH Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive

Marion suggests that Marta seek help from Lorenz, who prescribes morphine syrup for her ailment; she is immediately dependent on the opioid and under the influence of the doctor, who spirits her away to a remote cabin for nefarious purposes.

His scheme is cut short by a lightning storm, which causes the building to collapse upon them, and it's here where The Devil's Assistant kicks into visual overdrive, with the arrival of Death on horseback to spirit Marta to an underworld teeming with souls in torment and overseen by Satan himself, who stirs a massive cauldron of morphine. The scenes in Hell are tinted crimson red—an impressive effect for an independent production of its time.

Photo courtesy of USCH Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive

"Drug use is literally demonized in The Devil's Assistant," says silent film historian Ben Model, who produced the DVD, and notes that the film places the blame for the dependency squarely on Lorenz, not Marta. "The drug is administered to calm the woman's nerves, and is not labeled as evil, but rather the character the physician is… he is using it to control the woman whose heart he has lost to a rival." A title card also echoes this sentiment: "Drugs are SOMETIMES merciful when they are properly and scientifically administered."

This perspective stands in sharp contrast to other drug-scare films of the silent era and early talkies, which frequently blamed the user for their fates. Model notes a similar stance in another recently remastered silent, If My Country Should Call (1916), which is also available from Undercrank Productions.

"The use of a 'cardiac depressant' by the mother of a young man who wants to enlist in the army is seen as a positive," he says. "It is out of maternal love that the woman steals the vial from the doctor (played by Lon Chaney) to administer to her son, without his knowledge, so that he will be unsuitable for duty." That non-punitive stance—combined with its overripe Gothic imagery—makes The Devil's Assistant a unique and surprisingly timely addition to the drug cinema canon.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, Amazon.com and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.