George Beban plays Beppo, an ex-gondolier and current Italian immigrant who finds life in his new country to be harsh when his child falls ill. One of the most famous social issue films of the silent era.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
Making films that were sympathetic toward immigrants was good business in the silent era. The cinema was cheap entertainment and narrators (or bilingual children) could translate title cards for appreciative immigrant audiences. The new Americans embraced film and kept on embracing it when the novelty factor wore off but the middle class had not yet accepted it universally. By 1915, movies were pretty well in the mainstream but immigrant stories were as popular as ever.
That’s not to say that Italians always benefited from this fad. The Black Hand (1906) fell into the Italians = Mobsters trope and it was by no means the only one. Even films that dealt with immigrants had titles like The Wop (1913). In fact, The Italian was originally supposed to be titled The Dago but star George Beban sensibly asked for a title change.
Beban can be predominantly credited for the film’s success on other fronts. There are few things in this world that age worse than fine acting. One generation’s genius is another’s ham and silent era acting is even dismissed by people who claim to admire the era. In Beban’s case, his performance has aged remarkably well and while 1915 was a strong year for movies, I have to say that Beban’s acting in The Italian makes him a contender for best actor.
The film opens with a prologue in Italy. Beppo (George Beban) is a gondolier in love with Annette (Clara Williams), whose father lays down an ultimatum. Beppo must either offer his daughter a stable life with her own home or he will make her marry a well-to-do merchant. With no way to make that amount of money in Italy, Beppo sets sail for America.
Settling in New York running a shoeshine stand, Beppo manages to save the needed money and send for Annette. Soon, they have an infant son named Tony. Unfortunately, a heat wave hits the city and makes the baby sick. The doctor tells Beppo and Annette that if Tony is going to survive, he needs to only drink pasteurized milk.
Beppo dutifully buys the milk but two petty criminals beat him up and steal his money before he can buy more. Enraged, Beppo attacks the thieves but is arrested for assault. Corrigan (Leo Willis), the local political boss, was friendly enough when he wanted the Italian vote but now has no use for Beppo and kicks him away when he begs for help.
Trapped in jail with no way to send money to Annette, Beppo does not know that little Tony has died. When he is released and realizes what has happened, he begins to think about revenge…
Well, Beban certainly lives up to his reputation and its easy to see why he returned to Italian roles throughout his career. In Beban’s hands, Beppo is a man of extremes but always sympathetic. He delights in his family, he is enraged by the robbery and the death of his child breaks him entirely.
Beban’s performance was praised in the silent era and is now praised by modern critics but Clara Williams also deserves kudos as Annette. The role is thin compared to Beppo but Williams, a William S. Hart regular, is equally sympathetic. She particularly shines in her brief scene of mourning, broken and melancholy. (The film was directed by her future husband, Reginald Barker, who certainly photographed his wife in a flattering manner. Good future hubby!)
As for the basic plot, well, let’s just say that it’s a good thing that the lead performances are so good. The prologue isn’t terribly dynamic with its marzipan and gingerbread view of the old country and maudlin scenes. (Though there are some very attractive shots, courtesy of an uncredited cinematography.) Once the immigrant experience begins, though, things get darker, grittier and much, much more interesting.
The Italian is a film with a deep subtext and that’s one of the secrets of its continued appeal. There is just so much packed into a relatively tiny parcel. For example, the politicians who court Beppo and the Italian vote but then leave him in the lurch are named Corrigan and Casey, as Irish as can be.
The Irish had gone through their own period of being the immigrant scapegoats (“No Irish Need Apply”) but were now in positions of authority and responsibility. In one of America’s longest traditions, some members of the previous immigrant group busily try to pull the ladder up behind them and leave the next wave of immigrants to fend for themselves.
(I’ve personally seen this in my family, which has a tree that includes Dutch immigrants who snuck across the border in the dead of night, as well as numerous immigrants from countries and regions deemed less socially acceptable who were blotted out of the family lore or rehomed in more acceptable places of origin. The Dutch branch dropped a ton of extra vowels and Js and Xs in their names, the Irish became Scottish, Alsatian became German, etc.)
This certainly was not universal (as the many Irish-Italian marriages prove) and there were plenty of Irish coded characters (as well as Jewish) who were kind to Beppo and his family in the film but the message seems to be that Corrigan had lost his connection with his roots.
For contrast, see how Irish immigrants to America are portrayed in The Lad from Old Ireland and Little Old New York. In both cases, the protagonists go to America and make their fortunes, happy endings all around. (Both films were directed by Sidney Olcott, who was proud of his Irish lineage.) That’s not to say that anti-Irish sentiment was completely gone, of course, but that Irish immigrants and their descendants were in a better social position than their forebears.
Italians had been vigorously protesting the gangster tropes since they first emerged and would enjoy more leverage against negative stereotypes later in the silent era. In The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920s America, author Giorgio Bertellini brings out that the Italian embassy carried on a lively correspondence with Will Hays during the 1920s and 1930s, demanding that Italians not be portrayed as gangsters and villains. (Obviously, Scarface pleased them not at all.)
(Spoilers) Part of what makes The Italian so haunting is the ending. After his son dies while he is in jail, Beppo is tempted to kill Corrigan’s daughter as revenge but is unable to harm the child when he sees her sleeping with her hand under her chin just like little Tony. Instead, he goes to Tony’s grave and weeps. There is no resolution, no do-gooder armed with pasteurized milk, no idealistic lawyer ready to save the day. Corrigan will likely keep being a selfish local boss until retirement or assassination. Nothing will bring little Tony back.
And the fact it, that’s what happened in too many of these cases. Children died at an alarming rate in those days, from everything from typhus to measles to cholera. As heartbreaking as the film is to modern viewers, it must have been even more of a tearjerker for audiences of 1915.
Pasteurization, of course, is the process of heating a food or beverage to about 100 °C or less in order to kill pathogens. Contaminated milk was a major source of disease and everything from tuberculosis to E. coli could be lurking. Junk science peddlers have tried to vilify the process but dairy or not, unpasteurized beverages are simply not safe for children, as the Odwalla E. coli outbreak proves. (I consider any attack on pasteurization to be dangerous and irresponsible and no comments advocating unpasteurized products will be published.)
At first, I wondered if pasteurized milk was significantly more expensive than raw milk at the time. I discovered that per the report on retail prices published in 1917 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, pasteurized milk was generally the same price as raw milk or a little cheaper and some municipalities (such as Indianapolis) had already mandated that only pasteurized milk could be sold.
It seems that the issue was not so much that the milk was pasteurized as the manner in which it had to be purchased. Before the doctor’s visit, the family’s milk was stored in a pail and was likely procured as needed from some fellow with a cow. Pasteurized milk would have to be delivered and delivery required payment in advance. While the per-bottle price was lower (per the Bureau of Labor Statistics), the consumer had to pay out a larger sum at once. (Say, $1 for twelve bottles as opposed to $0.10 per bottle.) That wouldn’t have been a problem but Beppo was robbed and with the loss of his income, Annette could not hope to pay the fee.
Essentially, we are talking about the innate tax on being poor. The cost of a month’s supply of milk would be about $25 in modern money, so hardly an outrageous sum for middle class consumers. But for people like Beppo and Annette who were clearly living from shoeshine to shoeshine, it was a financial burden and so they had to buy less-safe milk.
This brings up more subtext: do-gooders offering solutions that are not actually practical for the people they are trying to help. Beppo and Annette could have heated the milk in the pail on their stove and cooled it before giving it to their baby and the doctor would have known that this was a possibility. This reminds me of Margaret Sanger recounting that a doctor’s solution to a woman who could not survive another pregnancy was to “make your husband sleep on the roof.”
In fact, The Italian would make an interesting double feature with Where Are My Children, a pro-birth control social drama inspired by Sanger and directed by Lois Weber. Poor women were expected to do nothing to prevent pregnancy yet help for families once they had the babies was not forthcoming.
In the end, though, there is a question of what message producer Thomas Ince hoped to put across with this film. In Behind the Mask of Innocence: Sex, Violence, Crime: Films of Social Conscience in the Silent Era, Kevin Brownlow points out that given Ince’s politics, it is entirely possible that this film was meant to encourage immigrants to stay in their own countries and not venture over to the United States.
The fact that this message is ambiguous can be credited to Beban’s moving portrayal. The audience cannot help but sympathize with him and wish him success and happiness in his new home.
Between the skillful performances of Beban and Williams, the meaty political context and the high production values, The Italian is one of those film that stays with you for years and always offers more to discuss with each viewing. It’s one of the most acclaimed social dramas of the silent era for a reason and I hope you will give it a watch.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD by Flicker Alley as part of their Perils of the New Land set. The film is accompanied by a fine score from the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra.
Like what you’re reading? Please consider sponsoring me on Patreon. All patrons will get early previews of upcoming features, exclusive polls and other goodies.
Disclosure: Some links included in this post may be affiliate links to products sold by Amazon and as an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.