As part of their Classics line, Kino, in conjunction with the Library Of Congress, offers up three silent films from the 1910s, each of which focuses on 'incendiary issues' of the time in which they were made. While these may seem tame in some regards, at least by modern standards, when approached in the proper historical context it's easy to see why these three films would have ruffled a few feathers by having the gall to approach subjects as sordid and immoral as prostitution drug use and child labor. Here's a look at what you'll find underneath the menus of this single disc Blu-ray release...
The Devil's Needle (1916):
The main attraction is director Chester Withey's The Devil's Needle, a sixty-six minute silent that stars Tully Marshall as a painter named David White who falls in with his model, Renee, played by the gorgeous and prolific star of many silent films, Norma Talmadge. They get involved despite the scandalous nature of their relationship but it soon comes to pass that Renee's bad habits, chief amongst those her reliance on morphine to calm her nerves whenever she starts to get upset, are contagious. During this time, he marries Wynne (Marguerite Marsh) the daughter of a well to do attorney, William Mortimer (F.A. Turner), something that his relationship with Renee is obviously going to have an effect on. When David's tendency to worry and fret over various things starts to wear at Renne, she introduces him to the drug in hopes that it will calm him the way that it calmed her. He becomes addicted seemingly overnight, at which point his world comes crashing down around him and his personal and professional life both pay the price for his indulgence.
Supervised by none other than D.W. Griffith, who took director Withey under his arm to show him the ropes, the film was made for the Fine Arts company and was re-released in 1923 to capitalize on the death of Wallace Reid who had just passed away as the result of an overdose. It's from this 1923 reissue print of the film that this disc was mastered. Regardless, The Devil's Needle is quite an interesting little shocker. It's quite blunt in its depiction of drug related domestic issues and it's quite fascinating to watch Marshall deliver his take on his character's descent into morphine induced madness. He really goes all out in the physicality of his performance and even without the aid of dialogue, we're able to completely grasp what it is that he's going through. His interactions with Talmadge as Renee become increasingly strained as do his relationships with pretty much everyone else that he comes into contact with and all of this show in his facial expressions and his body language quite well.
The movie is shot with a bit of style but not so much that it takes away from the storyline. There's an effective simplicity to much of the camerawork and although things can be a bit on the stagey side more often than not, the picture is quite well put together and it has a good flow to it. It's also interesting to see how Marshall's character eventually kicks his habit - but to go into further detail on that would spoil an interesting aspect of the storyline, one that is very much a product of the time in which it was made.
The Inside Of White Slave Traffic (1913):
Directed by Frank Beal, 1913's The Inside Of White Slave Traffic stars Virginia Mann as a woman who leaves home only to be conned into marrying a man she barely knows. From here, she's sent off from New York City to New Orleans where she's forced to work as a prostitute in a Big Easy brothel, or house of ill repute if you will. Eventually she manages to escape and make her way back to New York City where she hopes to put her life back together but unfortunately she finds that the world is a cold, cruel place. With no other way to support herself, she soon resorts back to the world's oldest profession to pay her bills in a society that has no sympathy for her nor understanding of her plight.
Made the same year that Universal released the better known Traffic In Souls, a more successful film that dealt with similar themes, Beal's film was supervised by Samuel H. London, a federal agent recognized as an authority on the slave trade and related issues. The film is of interest more for where it was shot and how it was put together than for the storyline, which doesn't differentiate from other similar morality tales and cautionary tales made around the same era. Shot in and around New York City we do get some interesting location footage used to nice effect here, and additionally the film includes an intertitle card that includes a glossary of underworld slang which was supposedly used in the prostitution racket of the day.
At only twenty-eight minutes in length this one doesn't have as much meat on its bones, story wise, as the other two features in the set but it does feature some interesting moralizing, even if its message seems to be fairly confused.
Children Of Eve (1915):
Last but not least is the most ambitious of the three films in this collection, a 1915 feature directed by John H. Collins also known as Fifty-Fifty Mamie filmed on location around the New York City harbor front area of the day for Edison Studios. The film was inspired by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 where the aforementioned factory, based in New York City near Washington Square East, caught on fire. Because of the working conditions inside the factory, 146 immigrant workers were killed in the ensuing blaze and the event had a fairly massive impact on the labor movement of the time.
When the story begins, a student named Henry Clay Madison (Robert Connessfalls in love with the girl next door, Flossy Wilson (Nellie Grant), who works as an. He asks her to marry him but she declines, feeling that she's not up to his standards and that it wouldn't work. From here her life goes downhill quickly and she winds up living in the projects. She gives birth to a daughter named Mamie but dies soon after. We catch up with Mamie (Viola Dana, the wife of the director) as she gets involved with a young man named Bennie (Thomas F. Blake). Madison, however, is still around and doing just fine. He's filthy rich and not seemingly nearly as concerned about the child labor allegations that have been raised against his factory as he should be. Soon, Mamie gets involved with a social worker named Bert (Robert Walker) who just so happens to be Madison's nephew. They hit it off and she decides to help him make the city a better place but when Bert takes ill, Madison does what he can get her out of the picture. When Mamie goes undercover to work in Madison's factory in hopes of exposing the horrible conditions and child labor practices, she becomes injured when the place catches fire. As there's only one staircase going up and down and no fire escape, many perish and Mamie, in her injured state, puts together the puzzle pieces of her past.
While the story very definitely falls into melodramatic traps, there's no denying the impressive finale that Collins creates here depicting the fire without the aid of digital effects. This was all done in camera and even by modern standards it seems dangerously impressive. The acting is decent, if a little overwrought at times, and the film definitely seems to have had its heart in the right place by exposing an issue that was very definitely a serious problem in its time. The film moves at a good pace and does a pretty good job of recreating the horrible working conditions that existed during the real life incident from which it took its inspiration. It's a bit of a soap opera for most of its running time but stick with it, the ending wraps the story up quite well and the end result is quite impressive, at least on a technical level. Collins died in 1918 a few years after this film was made from influenza.
All three films are presented in their original fullframe aspect ratio in AVC encoded 1080p high definition transfers taken from the only existing film elements left and which are now stored in the Library Of Congress. There are plenty of instances of age related wear and tear evident throughout each of the three movies but they remain pretty watchable save for a few minutes of nitrate decomposition that does get pretty distracting. This was obviously unable to be removed or restored any further as the damage was just too severe. Understandable source related issues aside, the authoring here is fine. Detail and texture is about as good as you'd expect for films of this vintage and there are no problems with compression artifacts, edge enhancement or noise reduction. It's doubtful that, unless additional materials surface somewhere, these films are going to look much better than they do here.
As these are silent films, there isn't a whole lot to discuss here but the LPCM 2.0 stereo tracks that handle the scores used sound quite good. There are no issues with hiss or distortion and the levels are nicely balanced.
Given the age and obscurity of these three films, it's not surprising that there aren't a ton of extra features included on this release but Kino have been able to include a few items of interest starting with some unedited out-take footage from Children Of Eve. There's roughly eight minutes of material here and it concentrates on the fire that happens at the climax and includes some fairly disturbing footage of (obviously fake) bodies falling from the factory as it burns. Also worth checking out is the raw surviving footage from The Inside Of The White Slave Traffic. There's nineteen minutes worth of material here and while it doesn't have the same context as the version presented as part of the feature attraction, it's interesting to compare them. The disc also features menu and chapter selection. Inside the keepcase is a booklet of liner notes written by film historian Richard Koszarski which do a nice job of putting this material in its proper historical context and in providing some welcome background information on the movies included here and the people who made them.
Kino's release of Devil's Needle & Other Tales Of Vice And Redemption is a good one. Film history buffs will appreciate seeing these preserved and brought to a modern audience in the best condition possible while exploitation fans will get a kick out of the more salacious elements that are indisputably a key part of the appeal of these pictures. The technical side of the presentation is about as good as it's likely going to get and the extra footage from two of the three features is a nice touch, as are the liner notes. Recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.