Friday, 4 September 2015

Immigrant song… The Italian (1915), Kennington Bioscope with John Sweeney

There’s a point at which The Italian really grabs its audience by the throat – cutting across the comfort of a century of cultural remove to push you right back into your seat. The main character has gone from being a caricature to being a man almost pushed into the camera in the desperate struggle to save his young child.

Fighting for his family
Pietro “Beppo” Donnetti (George Beban) is featured in as extreme a close up as you’ll find in a film shot in 1914, eyes popped in rage as he is robbed of the money he needs to buy live preserving milk for his ailing baby. Things get worse… he gets into a fight with his robbers, gets arrested, tries to get help from the local gang boss Bill Corrigan (Leo Willis), who kicks him unceremoniously off his moving car almost into the path of another… and, finally, he ends up in jail powerless to help himself or his family.

As the Los Angeles Times said at the time, a “less clever character artist” than stage veteran Beban might ignore the deeper possibilities of this melodrama and indeed he does help to make what the paper terms as “a story that pulsates with human interest” and he can even bring a tear to the modern eye…

The Gondolier in love with life and his customers
In fairness George had thrown in plenty of comic miss-direction in the film’s opening sequence in Italy. He plays a hapless gondolier who is so distracted by his canoodling passengers and thoughts of his own sweetheart that he crashes into a bridge and tumbles into the canal.

Beppo (no relation to Harpo, Chico, Gummo, Zeppo... Groucho) loves Annette Ancello (Clara Williams) but her father Trudo Ancello (J Frank Burke) isn’t convinced by the boy’s economic prospects – not just his wayward oarsmanship – and will marry her off to a well-off merchant unless he can prove his worth within a year.

Love and freedom in the old country
Beppo sets off to New York to make his fortune certain that the land of opportunity will provide… but we’ve been here before or at least many times since. This immigrant tale is so familiar not just because of the dozens of Italian stories that followed – especially including, The Godfather Part 2 – but because of the eternal truths of immigration.

He ekes out a living shining shoes and then Corrigan buys his vote on the condition he persuades other Italians to vote for him and he becomes obliged to him. With the Irishman’s help he is able to pay for Annette’s passage to America and the two are re-united after one last piece of comedy at the docks as Beppo waits for her at the first class landing.

Clara Williams and Baby "Tony": his star soon faded...
The two marry immediately and twelve months’ later they have a son, Antonio – Tony… of course.

But it’s a hot town, summer in the city and they cannot afford to buy pasteurised milk for baby Tony and he begins to decline… Then comes the fateful moment when their luck runs out.

Beppo returns home after his brief sentence and finds Annette still beside herself with grief… In his anger Beppo looks to the man he now holds responsible and then the fates conspire to offer him the most dreadful revenge imaginable…

There’s an idea that this film may have been intended as a deterrent but in the USA of all places, surely the nation was only as strong as the people who came from all round the World to build it?

Nominally written by Thomas H. Ince (a credit-taker of Thomas Edison proportions and a similarly-significant figure in the development of film) and actually by C. Gardner Sullivan The Italian is superbly directed by Reginald Barker who really shows how much invention there was in 1914: a lovely Bauer-esque camera “zoom” into Beban at the start followed by a number of close ups and some excellent composition as Annette lies in bed with the new born. Credit to cinematographer Joseph H August!

 The film is still moving and is no simple morality tale: the story is unresolved with no simple solution. Whatever Beppo’s naivety, his tragedy is not deserved – it’s not fair - and as his love for Annette endures we can only hope they fight on to build their lives anew.

John Sweeney accompanied with his usual aplomb and, was it just me or was there the odd bar or two of the Godfather theme morphed amongst his deft improvisation?

On tonight’s undercard were a strange French comedy involving a bear – Patouillard et l'ours policier (1911) English title more prosaically Bill and the Bear – which was uncomfortable watching for animal lovers whilst also not being remotely funny… mind you, if the creature could just have loosened his muzzle a few inches; it might well have been!

Spirits were lifted by Felix Gets Broadcast (1922) in which the feline with cattitude gets radioed to Egypt and blows smoke rings to make himself a unicycle: what indeed, were they smoking?

Gustavo and Felix
 There was also a lovely Italian short Stella Marina (1912) which was in magnificent condition following restoration. It featured the grand Gustavo Serena (star of Assunta Spina (1915), Quo Vadis? (1913) and many more…) in pursuit of a, lovely but evasive, fisher-maid played by Enna Saredo (his wife?). The backgrounds were so clear you could almost smell the Neapolitan sea air…

Isle of Death: the test shoot and the painting
Before that we had a glimpse of a new silent… Isle of Death inspired by both Arnold Böcklin’s original painting and Rachmaninov who was in turn also inspired by it… The score is from local favourite Costas Fotopoulos and the project is directed by Alberto Bona who also acts and was on hand to explain the project.

It is a Kickstarter Project and looks really worth your time and investment so take a look at the website isleofdeath.

Accompaniment was also provided by the supernaturally-skilled Cyrus Gabrysch and Lillian Henley who next month, will sing accompaniment to Evangeline (1929) - recently reviewed on this site and a film I can't wait to see on the Bioscope screen!
Another grand evening at the Kennington Bioscope: celebrating past silent and helping promote the next generation! There's plenty more to come...

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