Film Review: The Italian
In 1915, Reginald Barker released The Italian, starring George Beban, Clara Williams, J. Frank Burke, Leo Willis, and Fanny Midgley. Beban’s first film role, having gained acclaim on Broadway and vaudeville, the film had an unknown box office gross. It was released in 2008 as a DVD, part of a compilation entitled “Perils of the New Land: Films of the Immigrant Experience (1910-1915).” It was also mentioned Peter Bondanella’s 2004 book, “Hollywood Italians,” detailing the depiction of Italians in Hollywood films.
Beppo, a gondolier in Venice, is in love with Annette, but her father won’t let them get married until he can make enough money to support her. He then travels to America and sets up a shoeshine stand and has a side job turning out the Italian vote for an Irish politician. But when Annette joins him and the two get married, they soon find out that life in America isn’t all happiness.
A good film, The Italian presents an interesting story that’s also a fascinatingly early critique of the American Dream. Beppo wants to make something of himself so he can prove to Annette’s father that he’s the one she should marry. And while he does find an honest living initially as a shoeshine and political activist, which does convince said father, that’s really about as far as Beppo ever ends up getting. The dream practically skids to a halt right there and Beppo’s life takes a turn opposite the American Dream, involving living in the slums of New York City’s Lower East Side, getting mugged and going to jail for attacking those who robbed him and a politician denying him any help (even though Beppo worked so hard for him in the first place), causing his baby to die. What it does show is that the majority of people who come to America in search of their fortune won’t find it. Though many do end up having a better life than they initially had, others don’t. Beppo being one of those people, seeing as he seemed to enjoy his life as a gondolier in Venice much more than his time in America. That’s not to say he didn’t have enjoyable moments, seeing as his marriage to Annette and the birth of his son might have been two happy days for him.
But in everything that happens to him, it appears that Beppo is quite the upstanding character. As stated above, he’s arrested for fighting the muggers that attack him and the politician he spent so much time working for blows him off, leading to the death of his baby. Understandably, Beppo’s not in the best of minds following his release from jail, causing him to want revenge. However, when he finds out that the politician’s own daughter is ill, Beppo sets out to enact his vengeance and finds his way into the house. But the upstanding character comes in that he can’t bring himself to carry it out. Despite the hand Beppo’s dealt, he decides he’s going to be better than the politician that ruins his life and lets the girl live. It’s quite heartwarming to see that he ultimately chooses to forgive.
The film also has an entertaining framing device where Beban is seeing playing himself, opening a novel going the same name as the film, written by Tomas H. Ince and C. Gardner Sullivan, who actually wrote the film in the first place. Further, as the film closes, Beban finishes the book. It works quite well for a couple of reasons, one being that it works to show give the film a feeling of a well-told story. But the other has to do with Beban himself. As a celebrated stage actor, it shows that he had taken great care to find a story that would properly showcase his talents.
However, while the above makes the film a good one, it presents some strange personification when it comes to portraying Beppo as an Italian. The most notable example is in the title cards, which presents his accent rather peculiarly, with him exclaiming that he must “get-a-de-milk or my babee is die.” Granted, Beppo was a recent immigrant and the film was trying to show that he was attempting to convey the seriousness of his situation. But it still just comes off rather strangely.
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