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The Italian
Traffic in Souls
Perils of the New Land

Perils of the New Land: The Italian & Traffic in Souls
Blackhawk / Flicker Alley
1913 - 1915 / B&W + Tinted / 1:33 flat full frame / 194 min. / Street Date July 15, 2008 / 39.95
Produced by Thomas Ince, Jack Cohn
Directed by George Loane Tucker, Reginald Barker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

"Films of the Immigrant Experience (1910-1915)"

History, sociology and vintage exploitation converge in Perils of the New Land: The Italian & Traffic in Souls, a fascinating duo of 90 year-old melodramas just released by Flicker Alley. Producer David Shepard of Blackhawk Films has once again done an outstanding job of restoration and presentation. Thanks to near-pristine prints -- one of these treasures was actually rediscovered in a barn -- these shows seem almost contemporary in theme and structure. In 1915 Europeans were still arriving by the thousands, and for background color one of the films stages a scene using actual new Americans debarking at Ellis Island.

The Italian (1915) is a melodramatic tragedy sympathetic to the immigrant experience. The simple story shows poor Venetian gondolier Beppo (George Beban) leaving for America to earn enough money to send for his beloved Annette, (Clara Williams) before her father gives her away to an elderly suitor. The lovers are reunited in New York, marry and are blessed with a son. Local gang members steal the money needed to buy Pasteurized milk for Beppo's sick baby, but it is Beppo who is sent to jail. How will his helpless family survive?

The American-made film conjures a rather curious Venice recycled from Spanish Mission sets. Clever angles allow a set of canal bridges (at the Los Angeles beach town of Venice?) to pass for the real thing. The folksy histrionics of the Italian section mostly disappear in New York, replaced by more natural acting in ghetto settings that do not look like studio constructions. Much of the lighting is natural, with the scene of Beppo meeting his new son filmed in glowing, hopeful sunlight.

The drama shows surprising restraint; no exaggerated stereotypes appear. The local thugs are just typical predators, not stage villains. The low status of Italian newcomers like Beppo is contrasted with the neighborhood political boss Corrigan, an established Irishman who patronizes menial laborers and buys their votes. The film scores political points when Corrigan denies help to the desperate Beppo, and returns to his fine home to see his young daughter. Freed from prison months later, Beppo sneaks into the politico's house, determined to make Corrigan suffer what he suffered.

The Italian is even more surprising for not confecting a traditional happy ending, opting instead for a bitter conclusion that real immigrant audiences will recognize as "their story." The visuals are also advanced. The film opens and closes with "curtain" wipes to black, but no idealized cameo close-ups are used, and we even see some smooth trucking shots. Staging and compositions are less formal than in D.W. Griffith's films of the same year.

Blackhawk's presentation has tinted scenes and is accompanied by 'authentic photoplay music' performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Professor Giorgio Bertellini provides a full audio commentary.

Traffic in Souls is a 1913 thriller about the white slavery racket, or to be more accurate, the popular interpretation of the practice of kidnapping women and forcing them into prostitution. The clever and resourceful story folds three crimes into one. On a ship coming to New York, a criminal scout singles out a pair of Swedish sisters in traditional dress. He uses the wireless telegraph to radio ahead for them to be met by the racket's con men. A housewife is also lured from the streets by underhanded means, and brought to a notorious house of prostitution. The main story is developed in parallel with these stories. An agent of the rackets sees the impressionable Lorna (Ethel Grandon) at work at a candy store, and pretends to be a gentleman suitor. When Lorna disappears, her sister Jane (Jane Gail) appeals for help to police officer Burke (Matt Moore), her boyfriend. Although hindered by a jealous colleague, Burke saves the other victims from a fate worse than death; Jane discovers that her new job at a Morals League office is really a front to launder racket money.

Although mussed up somewhat, none of the women are confronted with sexual situations. The most we see of the house of sin are some ladies in frilly nightgowns. But Traffic in Souls makes a big point of the fact that the kingpin behind the racket is none other than the Morals League president, Mr. Trubus (William Walsh). The wealthy executive runs his organization remotely, using microphones and dictographs for essential communication. The technical trappings and action scenes mix Dr. Mabuse- like serial thrills with serious social comment. While committing terrible crimes against New York's women, Trubus is preparing to give his own innocent debutante daughter away in a high society marriage.

The commentary by Professor and author Shelley Stamp is particularly acute. Ms. Stamp points up the specifics of the historical white slavery scare, and explains how Traffic in Souls obscures the social realities of the time. Although innocents have been tricked into the sex industry throughout history, the real source of prostitution at large was and still is poverty and a lack of opportunities for women. The film stresses police heroics, when urban police forces were more often than not participants in the racketeering and corruption.

Traffic in Souls instead shifts much of the blame to the 'new permissiveness' of 1913, linking prostitution with the relatively new situation of young working women. Females living alone and seeing men socially without familial oversight is seen as an invitation to disaster; the apparent solution is to keep them locked up at home. The film both distorts a social problem, and then uses it as an excuse to suppress the victims.

Traffic in Souls is accompanied by a piano score by Philip Carli. The two-disc Perils of the New Land also contains three amusing Edison one-reelers about urban crime: The Call of the City, McQuade of the Traffic Squad and Police Force, New York City. Of added interest is an insert containing contemporary reviews and perfectly preserved press books for both films. A reviewer for Traffic in Souls tells us that the evil crime lord Trubus is an intentional dead ringer for John D. Rockefeller, a noted investigator of white slave practices.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Perils of the New Land: The Italian & Traffic in Souls rates:
Movies: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentaries, 3 Edison Short subjects
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 4, 2008

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson

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