The Birth of a Genre: The Italian (Thomas H. Ince, 1915)
Updated: Aug 10, 2020
In one of the first major books written about the history of cinema, History of the Film by Maurice Bardeche and Robert Brasillach (first published in French in 1935) there are just two pages dedicated to Thomas H Ince. Ince is a name now mainly remembered within a small circle of Silent Film Cinephiles and Film Academics, yet he is a seminal figure. Ince invented many mechanisms of professional film production, introducing early Hollywood to the “assembly line” system of filmmaking. He was therefore one of the pioneering figures integral to the formation of dominant Hollywood filmmaking practice. The two Frenchmen Bardeche and Brasillach thought Ince was so important they mention him within the same sentence as Cecil B DeMille and D. W. Griffith!
Thomas H. Ince (1880 – 1924)
Placing Ince next to DeMille and Griffith (two toweringly influential figures of early Hollywood) most certainly shows his significance. In his short life and career (he died mysteriously at the age of 42 in 1924) Ince not only shaped the Western into one of the most intelligent and long-lasting film genres in Hollywood, but also brought about a selection of social films that, I believe, were ahead of their time and prototypical for the equally as iconic New York immigrant gangster film genre.
Ince has a synonymous relationship with the Western. We all understand the genre’s iconography: the idea of the frontier, large hats, cowboy boots, horses, men, shacks, deserts, lassoes, etc. Bardeche and Brasillach dedicate more time in their book to discussing Ince’s Westerns (most of which starred the great William S. Hart) than any of his other productions. Ince, and Hart, laid the groundwork which allowed future icons like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood especially to flourish.
I do, however, think the two French critics missed an opportunity to explore Ince’s other work. Bardeche and Brasillach talk of some of his most notable films, including The Battle of Gettysburg (1913) and The Wrath of the Gods (1915), but sandwiched between these well-known films is another title sadly often overlooked, The Italian (1915). Originally with a working title of The Dago, the film changed its name (thankfully) a month after shooting had started, becoming The Italian. The film tells the story of an immigrant Venetian named Pietro “Beppo” Donnetti (George Beban) and follows as his life changes as he moves to New York from Italy in the 1910s. Upon arrival, Beppo experiences the precarious state of being an immigrant, encountering thieves, criminal gangs and being robbed by street vendors. This kind of immigrant experience is integral to America’s cultural imagination, and I believe constitutes the archetype for contemporary New York diasporic gangster movies.
Significantly, Beppo comes into contact with local Irish gang boss Bill Corrigan (Leo Willis), who mentions that if Beppo will help him win the Italian vote for Corrigan’s upcoming local elections he will help Beppo by giving him the money needed to get his love interest, Annette Ancello, into the country as well. Beppo agrees. From this point on Beppo’s world is controlled by the boss of the New York slums.
The Italian could well have been, and possibly was, a major influence on Mario Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s film series The Godfather. The plot summary of The Italian can easily be compared to the narrative of The Godfather Part II (1974). Images of a young Vito Corleone (Robert De Niro) walking in the streets of New York within the same era could well have been directly influenced by images seen in The Italian.
The character of Bill Corrigan is similar to the character of Don Massimo Fanucci (Gastone Moschin), the infamous gang boss found in the 1920s sections of The Godfather Part II. It is incredible to watch a film made half a century before Puzo put pen to paper and notice how close the two narratives are.
The Italian is certainly an important documentation of American Social history, charting a narrative that has since been retold again and again: that of the immigrant and the urban underbelly. But isn’t all of film history subject to the cementing and re-cementing of popular narratives? In the case of The Italian, the film explores a dark subject that was incredibly forward thinking for 1915. D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (released the same year) comes to mind, a film with strikingly conservative and disturbingly racist narrative and characterisation to modern eyes.
When it comes to the history of cinema, Thomas H. Ince’s The Italian can most certainly be crowned as one of those early pioneering icons which would form the foundations for future great urban immigrant films like: Mean Streets (1973), The Godfather Trilogy (1972 – 1990), Once Upon a Time in America (1984), A Bronx Tale (1993) Goodfellas (1990) and Gangs of New York (2002).
We highly recommend Brian Taves’ biography Thomas Ince: Hollywood’s Independent Pioneer (Screen Classics). You also now watch The Italian (1915) below; live music by Ben Model. With thanks to the Library of Congress, Washington DC.