#534) The Italian (1915)

#534) The Italian (1915)

OR “The Least Happy Fella”

Directed by Reginald Barker

Written by Thomas H. Ince and C. Gardner Sullivan

Class of 1991

The Plot: In Venice, Italy, Pietro “Beppo” Donetti (George Beban) is a lowly gondolier who pines for the beautiful Annette Ancello (Clara Williams). Her father (J. Frank Burke) wants Annette to marry someone with money, but gives Beppo one year to earn a decent wage and marry his daughter. Beppo heads to America and while working as a shoeshine, gets enough money from politician Bill Corrigan (Leo Willis) to send for Annette. But their happy life in America doesn’t last long, and things take a surprisingly dark turn.

Why It Matters: The NFR praises George Beban, saying that the stage actor “mastered the nuances of film acting better than many of his contemporaries”. The write-up also highlights the Ince style of filmmaking, contrasting its “less structured, less rigid technique” to that of D.W. Griffith.

But Does It Really?: “The Italian” is not without its cultural misrepresentation, but the film holds up far better than you’d expect from a 106-year-old movie. The Ince/Barker/Sullivan collaborations are highlighted elsewhere on the NFR, but I’m willing to give a slight pass to “The Italian” for, if nothing else, a representation of the Immigrant Boom of the 1910s.

Everybody Gets One: San Francisco native George Beban was one of the big names in theater and vaudeville, specializing in…ethnic caricatures. After being pigeonholed for his French characters, he branched out by playing an Italian in “The Sign of the Rose”, a vaudeville sketch that evolved into a full play. “The Italian” was Beban’s film debut.

Wow, That’s Dated: It should go without saying that no one in this 1915 movie about Italians is actually Italian. For example, George Beban was of Irish and Dalmatian descent (Dalmatian as in from the Dalmatia region of Croatia; he was not part dog).

Title Track: Because of course it was: this movie’s working title was “The Dago”, but changed at the request of George Beban.

Other notes 

  • Despite having four of his movies on this list, we’ve never really talked about Thomas H. Ince. Largely overshadowed today by the scandal surrounding his death (more on that later), Ince was a major figure in early Hollywood. His “Inceville” was the first major Hollywood studio facility, and he streamlined the filmmaking process by creating something akin to Henry Ford’s assembly line manufacturing, a process that stayed the industry norm for over 50 years. Ince could be, however, a bit of an attention hog: in early prints of “The Italian”, while Ince’s name is all over the credits, director Reginald Barker’s was removed.
  • This is a very meta opening: A curtain parts to reveal George Beban (playing himself?) in a smoking jacket settling down to read “The Italian”, authored by this film’s screenwriters (there’s Ince’s name again!). What a weird way to bookend your movie. It’s like if “The Wizard of Oz” began with Judy Garland reading the book in her dressing room.
  • Every intertitle features the heading “George Beban In The Italian” at the very top. He must have had a great agent.
  • Watching Beppo navigate a gondola and talk with his hands, I have to ask as a person of Italian descent: Are we better off being stereotyped as mobsters and thugs?
  • Most of the film was shot on location in San Francisco (the city’s immigrant neighborhoods doubled for Manhattan’s Lower East Side), but apparently the crew actually traveled to Italy to film the scenes of Beppo and the gondola. Seems excessive, did Ince take pointers from Erich von Stroheim?
  • I feel like a 1915 audience would respond well to this movie: Many of them would have been part of the Immigrant Boom depicted in this movie. Speaking of, did Beppo skip Ellis Island when he got to America? There’s a whole process…
  • Despite the movie’s inherent insensitivity, there’s only one instance where a character refers to Beppo as a “wop”, and I ain’t talking about Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion.
  • When Beppo and Annette get married, the film turns a little slapstick-y with Beppo running around trying to find a wedding ring.
  • The version of “The Italian” I watched was restored from three different surviving prints. It’s obvious what parts of the film came from which prints, a reminder of just how fragile tangible film is. Also a reminder of how lucky we are that so many of these silent films have enough surviving elements to reconstruct them to their entirety.
  • When Beppo finds the two men who robbed him, we get what may be film history’s first extreme close-up. Cameras were still pretty rudimentary, and the close-up is achieved when Beban walks right up to the camera lens.
  • It took us most of the movie, but at last we get an intertitle that simulates an Italian accent: “I must get-a-de milk or my babee is die.” Mamma Mia indeed.
  • This movie loves shots of people in moving vehicles that clearly aren’t moving. At least rear-projection shots have some sort of background movement.
  • Side note: George Beban is apparently doing his own stunts in this film, including being pushed out of a car onto the busy street. After a near-brush with death involving Beban and a streetcar, Thomas Ince had Beban insured for $25,000.
  • So even back then politicians would go back on their promises? Can we all just admit this is a systemic issue and not a case of a few bad apples?
  • [Spoilers] The third act of “The Italian” veers quickly into melodrama territory, including the death of Beppo’s child Tony. I cannot in good faith endorse a movie where they kill off a character named Tony.
  • One character in this movie succumbs to “brain fever”, a medical condition that seemed to exist only in the Victorian era. Modern day equivalents would be meningitis and scarlet fever, among others.
  • Wow, this got very dark very fast. There’s a little bit of redeeming humanity in the proceedings, but ultimately this is a typical melodrama. I guess the moral is “Never come to America”? I mean, that’s not wrong.

Legacy 

  • “The Italian” was well-received in its day, and George Beban’s next film was an adaptation of his play “The Sign of the Rose”, now retitled “The Alien”.
  • Many of the creatives behind “The Italian” pop up elsewhere on the NFR with their films “The Bargain“, “Civilization”, and “Hell’s Hinges“.
  • Of course the most infamous story to come from this creative team was the death of Thomas Ince at age 44 aboard William Randolph Hearst’s private yacht. Could it have been….murder!? …No. It was heart failure.

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