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Races to the Rescue in an Ethnic Urban Milieu: D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Italian Dramas

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Italian Americans in Film and Other Media

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This chapter investigates the representation of non-Anglo-Saxon figures in Griffith’s Biograph shorts, examining how these characters are represented as posing a threat to the nation’s dominant culture and middle-class society. Starting from Griffith’s own description of the multi-ethnic environment of Lower East Side’s Rivington Street—seen as a place of competing, differentiated forces—the author discusses the characterization of the racially coded types populating the films he directed for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company between 1908 and 1913. The infamous allegations of southern Italians’ inadaptability to lawful society popular at the time resonate especially in Griffith’s Biograph shorts. Following Joanne Ruvoli’s analysis of this director’s so-called revenge films, the author focuses on the 1909 one-reeler films The Cord of Life, At the Altar, and In Little Italy (which all portray Sicilians as antagonists), concluding that they present ethnicity as “incompatible with assimilation”. Although Griffith’s categorization of Italian immigrants becomes more articulated in the 1912 film The Inner Circle, the re-proposition of the divide between law-abiding and felonious Italians (at the core of the 1909 ‘revenge films’) here informs the disparity between ‘the happy family’ and ‘the ominous element’.

The Biograph films The Cord of Life, At the Altar, The Lure of the Gown, An Arcadian Maid, The Inner Circle, and The Coming of Angelo discussed in this chapter have been restored by the Film Preservation Society— (accessed April 10, 2023). I would like to thank Tracey Goessel and Benjamin Solovey for providing me with copies of these works and the related essays.

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  1. 1.

    For a brief discussion of ‘the melting pot metaphor’, its popularization, and its critics in the first decades of the twentieth century, see Alfredo Montalvo-Barbot (2019, 5–8).

  2. 2.

    On the representation of race in Griffith’s films, see Bernardi (1996, 103–128), and Hlebowicz (2017, 380–389). For Italian American characters in Griffith’s Biograph shorts, see Ruvoli (2011, 59–67) and Bertellini (2010, 206–207).

  3. 3.

    On the historical coincidence of immigration and moving pictures productions, see Bertellini (2004b, 432–435).

  4. 4.

    See Cesare Lombroso (1876).

  5. 5.

    See Giuseppe Sergi (1895/1901 and 1900).

  6. 6.

    See Alfredo Niceforo (1898).

  7. 7.

    See also Joseph P. Cosco (2003, 25–26).

  8. 8.

    On Riis’ representation of Italians, see also Cosco (2003, 21–60).

  9. 9.

    As observed by Ruvoli, the Biograph Bulletin “highlights Tony’s Sicilian origin as the main motivation for his vengeful actions” (Ruvoli 61).

  10. 10.

    See Nick Browne (1981, 67–72) and Bernardi (1996, 119–124).

  11. 11.

    Giorgio Bertellini has discussed the categorization of Italian immigrants ‘into two clear-cut groups’ in his studies on the ‘Black Hand films’. See Bertellini (2004a, 388; 2005, 216–217; and 2010, 205) and also Ruvoli (2011, 63).

  12. 12.

    Antonine’s endangering of a child’s life as a manifestation of his fierce nature recalls the racial characterization of Griffith’s 1908 film One Touch of Nature, in which an orphan child is forced to beg in the snow and beaten by “a Sicilian couple of the very lowest type” (Bowser 50).

  13. 13.

    On Griffith’s investigation of “the suspenseful possibilities of parallel editing in the first months of 1909”, see Tom Gunning (1991, 190).

  14. 14.

    Referring to Meir Sternberg’s study on the “retardatory structure” of suspenseful narration, Tom Gunning notes that “Griffith soon developed a number of delaying devices with the story, both in the carrying out of the fatal action and the rescue” (Gunning 1991, 191). On the “retardatory structure”, see Meir Sternberg (1978, 159–182).

  15. 15.

    As Charlie Keil has pointed out, delaying effects are employed both at the level of the diegesis (first, Mrs. Galora is about to open the window when a neighbor enters the apartment and then two policemen attempt to stop Galora’s run) and through narrative devices (Griffith interrupts the shots of Mrs. Galora approaching the window with cuts to the alternate shots of her husband rushing home). See Keil (2001, 119–120).

  16. 16.

    About the “stereotypical accessories” of Griffith’s Italian characters, see Ruvoli (2011, 59).

  17. 17.

    In his analysis of Griffith’s The Violin Maker of Cremona (1909), Scott Simmon refers to “Griffith’s geographical hierarchy for Italy”, in which “ethical and racial values increase the closer one gets to the North (and to Pordenone), from the criminal depths of Sicily’s At the Altar (1909) to the spiritual heights of Asolo’s Pippa Passes (1909)” (Simmon 1999, 118).

  18. 18.

    The Moving Picture World echoes the Biograph Bulletin and introduces Griffith’s film as “a good study, illustrating the tenacity of purpose which is such an important component of average Sicilian character” (“Comments on the Films” 1910, 17).

  19. 19.

    J.B. Kaufman (1999) notes how this film demonstrates “Griffith’s increasing facility as a suspense filmmaker” (Kaufman 147).

  20. 20.

    See Ruvoli (2011, 63).

  21. 21.

    See Ruvoli (2011, 64) and her reference to Bertellini (2004a, 217).

  22. 22.

    The Biograph Bulletin explains that the active members of the Inner Circle “have observed with envy the success of another Italian and feel that they should share the proceeds of his industry without working for it” (Bowser 429).

  23. 23.

    On Griffith’s The Voice of the Violin and its contextualization, see Simmon (1993, 50–51) and Porton (1999, 17–18).

  24. 24.

    This character, played by Mary Pickford, is presented as Cataldo’s daughter in the review of The New York Dramatic Mirror. Lea Jacobs, however, interprets this figure as Cataldo’s wife—an interpretation that better aligns with the depiction of the Cataldos as ‘the happy family’, juxtaposed to the image of ‘the lonely widower and his child’. See Jacobs (2002, 119–120).

  25. 25.

    See also Mottet (1998, 120–150) and Gunning (2001, 88–89).

  26. 26.

    A similar association is presented in Griffith’s 1910 film An Arcadian Maid, in which a country girl is persuaded to steal her master’s money by a peddler, whose Italian ethnicity is specified in the Biograph Bulletin (Bowser 217).

  27. 27.

    Mottet (1998, 125) is quoted and translated in Gunning (2001, 89).

  28. 28.

    Lea Jacobs notes that “in its use of extras and evocation of incidental activity”, the street market scene in The Inner Circle “seems to anticipate The Musketeers of Pig Alley, shot two months later” (Jacobs 121).

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Lottini, I. (2024). Races to the Rescue in an Ethnic Urban Milieu: D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Italian Dramas. In: Fioretti, D., Orsitto, F. (eds) Italian Americans in Film and Other Media. Italian and Italian American Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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