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The Devil's Needle: & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption
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In its continuing effort to showcase the great works of early cinema, Kino Classics launches a new series of Blu-ray and DVD releases dedicated to archival rarities -- influential classics that have gone virtually unseen for decades. Presented in association with the Library of Congress, the films have been mastered in HD from the original film elements and are backed with newly commissioned musical scores. In some cases the films survive in less-than-perfect condition. But it is the mission of this series to preserve and promote these films in spite of their flaws, rather than allow them to disappear entirely from the cultural radar.
THE DEVIL'S NEEDLE AND OTHER TALES OF VICE AND REDEMPTION is comprised of three feature films that dared to address incendiary subject matter: drug abuse, prostitution, and the exploitation of labor. By folding these explosive issues within layers of melodramatic storytelling, the filmmakers were able to dodge public criticism while making their political views even more compelling. These films were among the first to demonstrate the cinema's potential as a persuasive cultural force.
THE DEVIL'S NEEDLE (1916, dir: Chester Withey) stars silent superstar Norma Talmadge as Renee, a French artist's model who uses morphine as an escape from the dull reality of her life. She recommends it to a neurotic artist played by Tully Marshall (Queen Kelly), because ''it kindles the fires of genius.'' The artist quickly becomes addicted to the drug and the quality of his work begins to disintegrate. He takes on a new model, marries her, and starts her on the same path of moral degradation, until a guilt-ridden Renee decides to intervene in order to save them both. According to silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, THE DEVIL'S NEEDLE was banned by the state of Ohio, but the censor board reversed its decision after recognizing the positive message beneath the film's scandalous surface. This special edition was mastered from a 35mm preservation print of the 1923 re-release version. The only known surviving copy, the element suffers significant nitrate decomposition during some scenes. (66 min)
THE INSIDE OF THE WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC (1913, dir: Frank Beal) is one of the most notorious films of the silent era, as it not only centered on the theme of forced prostitution, ''It goes in for the utmost fidelity in picturing the evil which has been its inspiration'' (Variety). Demonstrating the methods of the network of American pimps known as ''white slavers'' in meticulous detail (including a helpful guide to underworld slang), the film plays more like docudrama than melodrama. It is easy to see why it was such a public sensation upon its release. The complete four-reel version of the film no longer exists. This edition was mastered from the sole surviving copy, a two-reel version that has experienced significant damage. Explanatory titles have been added to bridge missing footage. (28 min)
CHILDREN OF EVE (1915; dir: John Collins) is most famous today for its detailed reenactment of the tragic fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911, which had become a symbol of unsafe working conditions and capital's apparent disregard for labor. Viola Dana stars as an illegitimate child of the slums who labors in an oppressive canning company, not realizing she has a significant connection to the cold-hearted factory owner. This special edition includes outtake footage of the sensational fire scene, for which the Edison Studios set an actual four-story factory ablaze. (73 min)
BONUS FEATURES: THE INSIDE OF THE WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC: unrestored version (19 minutes), CHILDREN OF EVE: 8 minutes of outtake footage
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The fact that movies could be a powerful tool in the dissemination of ideas was not lost on early filmmakers and organizations. Women filmmakers such as Alice Guy Blache and Lois Weber and men such as George Loane Tucker, John H. Collins, and even D. W. Griffith early on in his career made films that strove to educate their audiences as well as entertain them. This DVD/Blu-Ray is an excellent example of those types of films which were deadly earnest without a hint of camp (not counting the lurid artwork on the posters) that would plague later 1930s exploitation films like REEFER MADNESS. It also clearly illustrates the fate of most of these movies as only one of the three films featured here is in decent shape.
The titular film is clearly the big draw here. Not only is a movie about drug addiction (in this case cocaine) guarenteed to arouse interest today but this 1916 Triangle Films feature showcases two performers who would later make it big in Hollywood. Tully Marshall would become a silent character actor par excellance while Norma Talmadge was one of the silent era's greatest dramatic actresses. THE INSIDE OF THE WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC from 1913 exists only in a very incomplete form (28 minutes) but there is enough there to get the gist of it. While there are no big names here, it does give a penetrating glimpse into the title subject. A better film on the subject that is readily available (and from the same year) is TRAFFIC IN SOULS. Check it out.
The gem of the collection, as far as I'm concerned, is CHILDREN OF EVE from 1915. This is one of the rare surviving feature length films from the Edison Company and it is in remarkable condition. It stars the once popular Viola Dana (whom I only knew from interviews 60 years later) as a down and out dance hall girl with a fascinating history who overcomes her background to become a crusader against the evils of child labor. The film ends with a spectacular sequence that recalls the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory in which dozens of young women were killed because of unsafe working conditions. The film's young progressive director, John H. Collins, died in the great influenza epidemic 3 years later.
Thanks to the Library of Congress for 1) preserving these films even though they weren't given a top priority and 2) for making them available outside their walls so that others could see them. Very special thanks to the folks responsible for restoring these films as best they could despite severe deterioration in THE DEVIL'S NEEDLE and lots of missing footage in INSIDE OF THE WHITE SLAVE TRAFFIC. All three are eminently watchable especially for silent film enthusiasts who are used to prints being less than perfect. Thanks to Kino Lorber for making these films available to the general public in their choice of formats. While it is definitely a specialized release, those interested will not be disappointed.