ITALIAN, THE (Reginald Barker, 1915, USA, 78m, BW)
Directed by Reginald Barker
Produced by Thomas H. Ince
Written by Thomas H. Ince
C. Gardner Sullivan
Starring George Beban
Music by Victor Schertzinger (uncredited)
Cinematography Joseph H. August
New York Motion Picture Corp.
Distributed by Paramount Pictures
Country United States
The Italian is a 1915 American silent film feature which tells the story of an Italian gondolier who comes to the United States to make his fortune but instead winds up working as a shoeshiner and experiencing tragedy while living with his wife and child in a tenement on New York's Lower East Side. The film was produced by Thomas H. Ince, directed by Reginald Barker, and co-written by C. Gardner Sullivan and Ince. The film stars stage actor George Beban in the title role as the Italian immigrant, Pietro "Beppo" Donnetti. In 1991, this film was deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.
The film tells the story of Pietro "Beppo" Donnetti. Donnetti is a poor, but happy, gondolier in Venice, Italy. Beppo falls in love with Annette Ancello, but her father, Trudo, wants her to marry another suitor, one who is a successful businessman. If Beppo can prove himself within a year, Trudo agrees to allow him to marry Annette.
Beppo sails for America to make his fortune, making a living working as a shoeshiner on a street corner in New York City. He borrows money from an Irish ward boss, Bill Corrigan, and sends for Annette to join him. In exchange, Beppo agrees to help Corrigan's candidate win the Italian vote in the ward.
When Annette arrives in New York, she and Beppo are married, and the following year they have a son, Tony. Beppo, Annette and Tony live a happy life in their Lower East Side tenement. The happiness is interrupted when the baby contracts a fever during a heatwave. The doctor instructs them to feed pasteurized milk to the baby. Beppo works hard to earn the money to purchase the expensive milk. While walking to the store to buy the milk, Beppo is robbed. He attacks the men who robbed him and is arrested. Beppo asks Corrigan to help his baby while he is in jail: "I must get-a-de-milk or my babee is die." Corrigan rebuffs Beppo, and Beppo's baby dies during Beppo's five days in jail.
When Beppo is released from jail, he learns that Corrigan's young daughter is ill and vows to avenge his son's death by killing Corrigan's daughter. Beppo sneaks into Corrigan's house, but when he sees Corrigan's daughter lying in her crib, he cannot act on his plan, and he leaves the child unharmed. In the final scene of the narrative, Beppo is shown placing flowers and sobbing over his son's grave.
The Italian of producer Thomas Ince’s 1915 film is Beppo Donnetti, played by George Beban in a performance that much improves once he sheds the gondolier’s outfit he wears (with strolling guitar) in the initial “Old Italy” sequences. In his native land, which features an odd mishmash of Venetian canals and rustic, southern Californian countryside, Beppo is something of a narcissistic wastrel who proves he can support his intended, Annette (Clara Williams), by sailing to America and snagging a position as shoeshine boy.
Established with a living wage, Beppo sends for his sweetheart, whereupon a wedding ensues, and baby makes three. Tenement life looks dingy enough here, but a title card proclaims, “one touch of nature makes the whole world kin,” and Beppo’s ethnic exuberance wins over the Jewish landlord when the Italian can’t pay the rent. At street level, the melting pot seems to hold a happy stew, but there’s the Irish, who got there before Beppo and have had time to learn the ropes of corruption and power on which you climb to a house in the ‘burbs.
Just such an Irishman is Alderman Corrigan, a backslapping slumlord who gets a laugh from his confederates when he calls Beppo a wop. Beppo himself is blind to the mechanics of rich vs. poor until the day — his baby deathly ill from unpasteurized milk while the city suffers an unending heat wave — Corrigan denies the desperate father aid (a few pennies for healthy milk) and drives off in his motor car dragging the unfortunate Beppo along the street as he clings to the running board.
When the desperate ironies of the American dream prove too much for Beppo’s kindly nature, he snaps and seeks vengeance in a not so credible plot twist that nonetheless provides the film with a powerfully downbeat conclusion. Projecting overwhelming grief, Beban reveals some hefty acting chops, and The Italian certainly gets its liberal point across, a model of how American movies dress social consciousness in the garb of melodrama. Even here, in its infancy, feature film was eager to pick up the call for social reform that sounded out in urban America before the First World War.
George Beban apparently had a previous successful career playing “ethnic” characters on stage, but this was his first break into movies. His portrayal is ultimately a caricature (emphasized by intertitles with typical Italian broken English), but it is sympathetic almost to a fault. No doubt producers at Paramount were aware that much of the audience for silent films came from immigrant groups, including many Italians, and a hateful portrayal would have worked against them. If you stop to think about it, the portrayal of Italians in later films, including “Marty” and “The Godfather” would be similarly stereotypical, but would nevertheless appeal to Italian Americans’ sense of identity.
The film employs a prologue and epilogue to frame the narrative story. In the prologue, a stage curtain rises and shows the lead actor, George Beban, in an upper class apartment wearing a smoking jacket. He sits on a couch and opens a book titled "The Italian" by Thomas H. Ince and C. Gardner Sullivan. As he begins reading, the film fades into the narrative story. In the epilogue, the film shifts from the image of Beppo kneeling at his son's grave to Beban turning to the last page of the book, closing the book and looking thoughtful. The stage curtain is then drawn closed. Some critics have suggested the prologue and epilogue were intended to demonstrate the care with which Beban, a noted stage actor, had selected a story worthy of his talents.
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