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As film was taking up residence

A collection of 1910s immigrant tales, 'Perils of the New Land,' recalls life in a rough- and-tumble New York.

July 13, 2008|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

"Perils OF the New Land," a new two-disc set from the specialty distributor Flicker Alley, journeys to the days of early cinema and uncovers burgeoning styles and primal anxieties that are still central to the movies nearly a full century later.

These pre-World War I films -- two features and three shorts -- date to the final days of unrestricted immigration, when thousands of prospective Americans arrived daily in the nation's primary port of entry, New York City. The set, out Tuesday, is subtitled "Films of the Immigrant Experience 1910-1915."

"The Italian" (1915), produced and co-written by Thomas Ince and directed by Reginald Barker, is a shameless melodrama that, despite unfortunate stereotypes, musters considerable sympathy for its titular immigrant. George Beban, the silent-era star known for his ethnic impersonations, hams up a storm as Beppo, a jaunty Venetian who must compete for his beloved Annette with a wealthy old suitor.

Determined to prove his economic worth, he journeys from picturesque Italy to the mean streets of Lower Manhattan. He sets up a shoeshine stand and makes enough money to import his fiancee, but the American dream is quickly dashed by the racist callousness of the Irish ward boss and the harshness of close-quarters tenement life. There are unmistakable shades of "How the Other Half Lives," Jacob Riis' photojournalistic chronicle of poverty on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

The better known of the two features here, "Traffic in Souls" (1913), was an enormous hit and offers a remarkable window into the popular consciousness of the time. Produced by Jack Cohn and directed by George Loane Tucker, this white-slavery expose was made for about $5,000 -- and, so the legend goes, without the knowledge of the bosses at Universal. It went on to gross nearly $500,000. Pitched between sensationalist exploitation and cautionary social drama, this quintessential "vice film" taps into the then-prevalent fear/fantasy that young women were being plucked off city streets and forced into prostitution by vast crime networks.

With its extensive location cinematography, "Traffic in Souls" has considerable documentary value. Actual immigrants are seen arriving on the southern tip of Manhattan in a boat from Ellis Island. Gullible female newcomers are portrayed as easy targets -- two Swedish damsels narrowly escape a grim fate, thanks to a vigilant cop -- but the film ultimately focuses on a local shopgirl (Ethel Grandin), who succumbs to a suave syndicate operative and lands in the clutches of a cackling madam who locks her up and threatens her with a whip.

A Rockefeller connection

The FILMMAKERS claimed to have based their movie on the Rockefeller "white slavery report" -- an assertion clearly designed to confer an air of legitimacy -- but somewhat cheekily, they also depict the reformers as the ultimate culprits. As film professor Shelley Stamp notes in her audio essay, the villain, identified in the titles as "the man higher up," bears more than a passing resemblance to John D. Rockefeller.

"Traffic in Souls" was one of the very first full-length American features -- according to Stamp, it was the first not to be based on an existing literary source -- and despite its crudeness, it contains many tropes that would become familiar in urban crime dramas, from the noirish depiction of sin-city netherworlds to the use of surveillance technology to help crack a case.

The set is filled out with three contemporaneous shorts from the Edison Co.: "Police Force, New York City" shows snippets of typical urban police activity; "McQuade of the Traffic Squad" is a cops-and-robbers vignette with a nifty little chase sequence; and "The Call of the City" suggests -- contrary to "Traffic in Souls" -- that young women who fall under the spell of the big bad city need not come to an unhappy end.

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