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"Five hundred dollars was too much to pay for girl 384."
DVD ReviewIt may seem odd in a day when immigrants are hated and feared and literally fenced out to release a DVD of silent films sympathetic to the plight of immigrants a century ago. Nevertheless, these effective little melodramas are more than engaging on their own terms, and help to remind us that such immigrants, then as now, were subject to exploitation and victimized as they struggled to carve a life for themselves in America.
The first disc features The Italian (1915), a Thomas Ince production for Paramount that centers on the story of Beppo Donnetti, a singing gondolier in Italy who loves Annette Ancello (Clara Williams). Her father (J. Frank Burke), however, has his sights set on marrying her off to aged merchant Gallia. Finally relenting to the pleas of Beppo and Annette, the father agrees to give Beppo one year to provide a home for Annette, or else she will be married off to Gallia. Only by going to America could he hope to do so, and Beppo heads for New York, full of hope. Setting up a bootblack stand, and working for the local slum boss, he makes enough to send for Annette. Soon they have a son, little Tony, but when a heat wave strikes, his health takes a turn for the worse. Matters rapidly fall apart for Beppo as he cannot provide pasteurized milk for Tony, is mugged for the few pennies he does have, and is thrown into jail for attacking the men who robbed him. Having been spurned by the slum boss when seeking mercy, Beppo determines to take revenge upon him.
The style of this picture is rather melodramatic, though that's to be expected since Beban was a popular vaudevillian actor used to playing to the back rows. Ince, who co-wrote the screenplay, offers a clever framing device that features Beban as a wealthy man reading a book that dissolves into the story proper. The picture offers plenty of opportunity to be outraged at Beppo's poverty and ill treatment, but perhaps the most effective sequence is the painful one in which he waits expectantly for Annette to come off the boat, but he cannot find her; simultaneously, she stands alone and friendless on the dock and is escorted away by a man who seems to have sinister intent in mind (especially for audiences who had seen the companion picture, Traffic in Souls, a few years before). The production values are reasonably good, with the Spanish missions of California masquerading as Italian monasteries, and plenty of detail of life included. The slum sequences are very effective, with the appeal of free beer and political corruption lending a sense of the seamy side of democracy in the early 20th century.
The more famous of the two features, Traffic in Souls (1913), centers on the issue of forced prostitution, euphemistically referred to as "white slavery." A gang of criminals in New York City is seizing young women just off the boats, or off the trains and holding them prisoner, using drugs and violence until they are broken and do the gang's bidding. Heroine Mary Barton (Jane Gail) works in a candy shop with her sister Lorna, who falls into the gang's clutches. Mary must then try to save Lorna, with the help of Mary's honest police boyfriend, Officer Burke (Matt Moore).
Thoroughly in the style of the print muckrackers, Traffic in Souls doesn't bother with suspense; it's known almost from the beginning that hypocritical philanthropist William Trubus (William Walsh) is in charge of the prostitution ring. His daughter, Alice, hopes to make a grand society catch, demonstrating that Trubus' veneer of respectability is thin indeed; his daughter is just as avaricious. Even the rather ordinary business class is considered villainous, as we see Mary dismissed from her job at the candy store for bringing disrepute to the place through Lorna's seduction, a fine case of blaming the victim. Sympathetic in the extreme to the immigrants and sneering at the wealthy snobs of the city, the picture is certainly an effective piece of work. One of the earliest features from Universal, it offers a nearly science-fiction contrivance in a dictagraph invention that causes writing to appear from dictation, as well as an invention by Mary's father to record conversations on Edison wax cylinders.
There's some interesting editing for the time period, with a particularly effective sequence of intercutting between the gang at the house of sin and the police getting ready to raid the suspicious houses of the neighborhood. Another instance of this editing prowess features quick cuts from Lorna being broken by the gang with a desperate Mary trying to come up with a way to find her sister. On occasion the action is a bit hard to follow, since there are scant intertitles, but on the whole it's not too difficult if fairly close atention is paid. The finale is suitably popular, with a blazing gunfight as well as an angry mob ready to tear Trubus apart. The acting is a bit on the stiff side, but the heavy use of actual New York locations helps provide a verisimilitude that helps keep the melodrama grounded in reality.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B
Image Transfer Review: The Italian, which is presented as sepia, looks splendid, with what appear to be original intertitles throughout. The picture is often gorgeous, with tons of detail and fine greyscale, indicating that the source print was a very early generation nitrate. There is some of the expected wear and tear on the print, but on the whole it's more than acceptable. There is a little artifacting visible on Annette's wildly patterned bedspread, and it seems rather alive onscreen, but otherwise there's very little to complain about here.
Traffic in Souls looks a slight bit more dupey, splicey and worn, but much of it is nevertheless quite attractive for its age and popularity. There's still plenty of greyscale and few sections have blown-out whites. Speckling is fairly comon but there's hardly any serious damage.
Image Transfer Grade: B+
Audio Transfer Review: The score for The Italian is provided by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra; the compilation score is quite effective in support without being obtrusive. The recording quality is expectional, with a vividness and a sense of presence that is duplicated on few other discs. It truly feels like having the Mont Alto right there in your living room, with excellent depth and resonance. Philip Carli contributes a piano score for Traffic in Souls. That score works quite well without mickeymousing but keeping the mood shifting effectively. The recording quality doesn't have the immediacy of the Mont Alto score but it's certainly serviceable and there's no hiss or noise to interfere with the viewing enjoyment.
Audio Transfer Grade: A-
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 35 cues and remote access
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by Professor Giorgio Bertellini, Professor Shelley Stamp
Packaging: Gladiator style 2-pack
In support of the pictures are three shorts from the same period that came from the Edison studios. The Police Force of New York City (1910) is an 8m:32s actuality that demonstrates the police stopping runaway horses, or motorcycle cops catching speeders, and the harbor police performing rescues. There isn't much connection with the main theme of the set, but the views of Central Park a century ago are undeniably interesting. McQuade of the Traffic Squad (1915) (15m:41s) is a rather slender melodrama featuring Pat O'Malley in the title role as a policeman who is under suspicion of corruption and has to clear himself.
The Call of the City (11m:38s) ties in nicely with the thematic material of Traffic in Souls. It tells the story of Bessie (Bessie Learn), who tires of drudgery in the country and heads for the city, but lacking usable skills she is soon on the streets and falls in with a violent pimp. Only novelist Jim Ross (Robert Walker) can save her from a dreadful fate in this one-reel melodrama.
Extras Grade: A-
Final CommentsTwo venerable muckraking pictures and several supporting shorts illustrate the plight of the vulnerable immigrants of the early 20th century, in quite attractive prints and sporting very fine musical scores.
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