Kino Classics Presents: The Devil's Needle and 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 culturalradar. THE DEVIL'S NEEDLE AND OTHER TALES OF VICE AND REDEMPTION is comprised of threefeature 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 morecompelling. 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 Ren e, 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 Ren e 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 WHITESLAVE 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)
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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.
In July 2012, Kino Lorber released "Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption" on Blu-ray. The Blu-ray (and also DVD) release is a collection of three films from the Library of Congress that were provocative but tackled the social issues that were plaguing America in the 1910′s.
Included are "The Devil's Needle" (1916) directed by Chester Withey and written by Withey and Roy Somerville. "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic" (1913) directed by Frank Beal and "Children of Eve" (1915) directed by John H. Collins.
"The Devil's Needle", "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic" and "Children of Eve" are mastered in HD from archival 35mm elements preserved by the Library of Congress. It's important for those not familiar with silent films to know that back then, these films were shot in Nitrate and were prone to catching on fire, having damage and it's part of the reason why over 90% of silent films created at the time did not survive and are considered lost. While the surviving films were either taken care of and some that were partially damaged, back then, when it came to restoration, some companies scanned the film with specks and damage included. So, these damages are quite permanent on the original negative.
Kino Lorber is a company that has dedicated themselves to bringing the surviving films to DVD, but knowing that some films are worse than others when it comes to picture quality. For silent film fans, as long as the film is watchable, then it is worth it. So, while these three films have been released on Blu-ray, unlike the Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd films that people are used to seeing in better quality, a lot of these films are not in pristine quality. You will see lines, flickering and white specks but by no means will it affect you're viewing.
With that being said, all three films are watchable and are in better condition than a lot of silent films I have watched from the 1910′s.
The first film "The Devil's Needle" is a film that suffers from nitrate damage. While the majority of the film is watchable, one you reach the final minutes of the film, you will see nitrate damage. Fortunately, the majority of the film is not damaged but the final minute does show major nitrate damage which makes it hard to see the ending scene. Granted, it's not an integral moment but the damage is there. But the fact is that most Talmadge films are hard to come by and as a fan of Norma and Constance, I'm just grateful that Kino Lorber has released another Norma Talmadge film.
The other two films "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic" and "Children of the Eve" are in good shape. They are watchable and there is no major nitrate damage. Bu it's important to note that "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic" is abridged and the bad portions were removed and is featured as a 19-minute special feature.
AUDIO & INTERTITLES:
"The Devil's Needle" and "Children of Eve" feature music by Rodney Sauer and "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic" by features music by Ben Model. The music is presented in LPCM Monaural 2.0. The music is crystal clear via lossless and I give credit to Ben Model for his work on "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic" because the film was edited to show only the clearer versions of the film and thus, he had the challenge of creating music for a film with a story that changes quite a bit. But both Sauer and Model did a fantastic job with the musical score.
Intertitles were easy to read.
"The Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption" comes with a slipcase and the following special features:
Unedited Out-take from "Children of Eve" - (8:41) An out-take of the fire in the factory scene. No audio is present for this feature.
Raw Surviving Footage from "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic" - (19:41) A comparison using another raw surviving footage of the film in 24 frames.
"The Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption" comes with a four-page "Film Notes" by Richard Koszarski (Professor of English and Cinema Studies at Rutgers University" on the three films presented.
As a silent film fan, "The Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption" is a Blu-ray release that you can't help but be excited for.
In this day and age, it's rare to find silent films that are released on DVD, let alone on Blu-ray that is not fixated on a major silent film star. But for a Blu-ray release that revolves around the social issues such as drug addiction, prostitution or terrible corporate practices of the 1910′s, I found this release to be fantastic and a surprise Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber.
First, let's discuss "The Devil's Needle". As a Talmadge fan, any Norma or Constance Talmadge release on DVD or Blu-ray is a blessing! They are hard to find, many films are lost and with "The Devil's Needle", we have a chance to see a younger Norma Talmadge of 1916, months shy of becoming the wife of Broadway and film producer Joseph M. Schenk and forming the Norma Talmadge Film Corporation a year later.
And what we have with "The Devil's Needle" is a film featuring Norma Talmadge as a drug user, something I don't see the film producer Joseph M. Schenk having his young wife from 1916 on (by 1917, Talmadge would become one of America's more popular drama actresses).
But this is a different Norma Talmadge, a little plumper than thinner version we would see of her in the 1920′s. While Tully Marshall and Norma Talmadge were the headlining stars of this film, one can't help but be attracted to the performance and looks of actress Marguerite Marsh. And because Norma's character of Rene is the drug user, Tully Marshall's David White is an artist who is introduced to morphine by Rene, the purist character in the entire film is Marguerite's Wynne Mortimer.
You can't help but feel bad for Wynne because she is the pure young woman who is drawn into the world of darkness thanks to David and there is also a side-story that involves a group of guys who fear that Wynne is a spy. But the story is fascinating for a silent film fan who are curious of how drug use was featured in a film in the 1910′s and to see that there is a moral message that morphine addiction can be deadly.
"The Children of Eve" is another fascinating story and a tragedy that I'm sure, shocked many people watching it back 1915. Especially with the many deaths of children after New York's most deadliest fire ala the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911.
Filmmaker and writer John Collins was able to craft a story to shock viewers of child labor and poor working conditions and while many factory workers chose to make money than care for their employee's needs, the timing of this film was great. And as this is the first film on Blu-ray or DVD featuring the work of John Collins, it is unfortunate that Collins would die at the age of 26 due to the 1918 influenza epidemic.
But what best to grab the attention of the viewer by not giving the happily ever after. As a viewer, you are drawn by the performance of Viola Dana as she dances, flirts and has a energetic aura and later to see it sap away when she falls in love with a good man, but being poor and told by the wealthy money-obsessed Henry Madison (who she doesn't know is her father and vice versa), she chooses to redeem herself by choosing to work undercover for an agency to expose the unsafe practices at the Madison Cannery. Unfortunately, what happens when this factory catches on fire. There is no act of heroism, there is no story to show that all things end happily. The children and women who died at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 did not have a happy ending, nor should the children and young woman of the Madison Cannery.
The message was bold and whether or not it got through to businesses is unknown, but at least filmmaker John Collins used his film as a way to get the message out and to me, that is quite noble.
And last, we have the 1913 film, "The Inside of the White Slave Traffic". Sex Trafficking is still as controversial today as it was back then. While seen as a problem of other countries, back in the 1910′s, with the pouring of immigrants to America, many could not find work and with women seen as beneath men, they couldn't hold great jobs. So, many were forced or got caught up in prostitution.
The message of this film was very clear, considering we are first informed that Frank Beal along with federal investigator Samuel H. London had wanted to get the message through about the problems of sex trafficking and the lingo used by the network and how a lot of these women could not escape. These were based on real experiences and many immigrant women were tricked into fake marriages and were then left with pimps, far from their own families for safety and help and had to survive by using their bodies for profit.
As for the Blu-ray release of "The Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption", as mentioned with video quality, you're not going to get pristine video but for those who follow silent films, they know they are getting three films that look very good considering their age but also three films that no one would expect for release on Blu-ray. Sure, "The Devil's Needle" suffers from damage towards the final minute of the film but all three films are good considering their age (and I have seen worse for silent films made in 1910-1930). And you also get two special features (which I also wasn't expecting) included with this Blu-ray release
Overall, "The Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption" is a wonderful collection of films tackling the social problems of the 1910′s. You just don't see releases like this on Blu-ray or DVD and as a silent film fan, not only was I surprised but excited because we get to see a part of American history that many people may not be familiar with. From drug use, prostitution and shady corporate practices of that era in time, to see these three films released together is fantastic!
"The Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption" is a must-see, must-own Blu-ray release for silent film fans and is highly recommended!