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)
'The Devil's Needle' is essentially one of the earliest examples of film propaganda, aimed at influencing the attitudes of viewers with an exaggerated portrait of drug abuse. It functions much like the public service announcements of today, bringing attention and raising awareness to a perceived social issue. The title is in reference to a hypodermic needle, cleverly bringing to mind an image of wicked behavior and immorality. It also evokes the idea of death and depravity. The 66-minute movie doesn't fail to deliver in this respect, showing the downfall and heartache brought on by the addiction of two otherwise respectable characters. It's at times unintentionally amusing due to its embellishments, but surprisingly fascinating nonetheless, worthy of serious appreciation.
The film stars Norma Talmadge, a highly-prolific actress of the silent era today remembered as one of the most successful screen idols of the period, as a young artist's model with a drug addiction. Her employer, Minturn (character actor Tully Marshall), soon falls prey to the undisclosed narcotic which makes the user feel euphoric and energetic, even giving way to sudden bursts of artistic inspiration. One of the more interesting aspects of the story is showing the reasons why a person would be attracted to drug use. Not so much in Talmadge's Renee, but definitely in Marshall's emotionally distraught artist. Suffering a mental block and unable to be with his love, Patricia (Marguerite Marsh), he quickly develops a dependency and his career turns to shambles with a year's time.
Chester Withey, popular actor and screenwriter of the silent film era, made his directorial debut here but probably best known for 'Her Honor, the Governor' and 'Richard the Lion-Hearted.' In 'Devil's Needle,' he displays a great eye for capturing action and generating suspense, as in the scene when Minturn must rescue Patricia from the basement of a drug dealer's hideout. He also shows a talent for telling a believable narrative with an even and patient pace, giving Minturn's rehabilitation ample time. The most memorable and well-made scene is the artist in a drug-induced fury chasing after his terrified wife. The film, unfortunately, ends rather soon, but it's a satisfying and entertaining hour nevertheless, deserving much-needed attention by silent cinema lovers. (Movie Rating: 3.5/5)
Children of Eve
The next film comes from John H. Collins, a highly productive director who died very young at the age of 28, and is in the same vein as the first, even though 'Children of Eve' came out a year earlier. It's a cautionary tale about the dangers, corruption and degeneracy run rampant throughout the big cities with a heavy-handed morality message. It's the type often referred as a Vice Film. It follows a young woman, Mamie (Viola Dana, another legendary screen name of the silent era), as she slowly discovers her life of nightclubs, alcohol and idleness is unfulfilling. One very admirable side to Collins's script is showing that giving up one's former life is no easy task and Mamie's struggle to improve herself is not without some serious challenges.
Another very intriguing aspect is similar to the way 'Devil's Needle' sheds light on an important issue, this time with a hope for progress and political change. While Mamie works on saving her soul with the help of love interest Bert (Robert Walker), the story also covers themes of social justice, child welfare and labor regulation. Bert's uncle, Mr. Madison (Robert Conness), own a cannery business which hires underage children and makes them work is under terrible conditions. While undercover for the Child Welfare League, Mamie is trapped inside the building while being engulfed in fire, a climatic highlight of the film inspired by the real-life Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Just before the disaster, we see Mamie listing all the things wrong with the working conditions, a clever opportunity for Collins to make his point and a spectacular finish. (Movie Rating: 3.5/5)
The Inside of the White Slave Traffic
Similar to 'Children,' Frank Beal's 'The Inside of the White Slave Traffic' also comes with a ham-fisted cautionary message of city dangers and includes a big dose of melodrama. Produced about three years prior to the first two, the movie appears to be in a bad state of repair. The narrative is choppy and somewhat difficult to follow with strange cuts in the middle of conversations. However, this is not a fault of the filmmakers. Instead, much of the original negative is badly decomposed and forever lost. The makers of this release have the best they could with what they had, and even make new title cards with generic white font in place of missing exposition. With that in mind, this is likely the best chance fans of silent cinema will ever have to see this amusing Vice Film.
Not to discourage anyone, we still get a gist of what's going even though it sometimes seem clumsily rushed and awkwardly paced. The movie tries to give audience a glimpse into the operations of sex-slave trafficking with an almost documentary-type feel. The plot commences with the day and day activities of who the script calls The Procurer (Edwin Carewe), a smarmy pimp-like character seducing young women into the prostitution lifestyle. His latest victim is an innocent, hard-working girl (Virginia Mann). And through her fight to escape and return to her loving family, audiences see how the ring works and entraps women. The film is the shortest of the three, coming in at only 28 minutes, but it has its moments and still succeeds to entertain while raising awareness. (Movie Rating: 3/5)
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Kino Lorber brings 'The Devil's Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption' to Blu-ray under the distributor's "Kino Classics" label. Housed inside a normal blue keepcase with a sturdy slide cover, the Region Free, BD50 disc starts by going straight to the main menu with a still photo of the cover art and music playing in the background. Owners can find the other tales of vice in the "Other Films" section of the main menu, and the package includes a booklet with an informative essay by Richard Koszarski, professor of English and Cinema Studies at Rutgers University.
Thanks to the restoration efforts by the Library of Congress, 'The Devil's Needle' arrives to Blu-ray in the best possible presentation. Made from the original 35mm nitrate film stock, which appears to be in the worst state of repairs and severely deteriorated, the AVC-encoded transfer shows lots of discoloration and bubbling. The outer edges of the 1.33:1 frame are badly faded, and the picture often pulsates due to the natural nitrate decomposition of the negative, creating large rust-like spots or simply destroying the entire image into a watery, milky mess.
Still, the preservation efforts pay off in several areas, most notably in the contrast and brightness. The video is comfortably bright and as stable as is imaginable, given the film's extensive damage. Black levels, especially, are remarkable with impressive gradational details within the grayscale. Definition and clarity are quite noteworthy, revealing a good deal of background info and sharp lines around the hair and clothing of the cast.
The other two films, also in the AVC MPEG-4 encode and in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, appear to be in much better condition, yet show a great deal of damage due to age. Other than being coarse and abrasive with lots of dirt and white specks, they have a bit of deterioration around the edges with severe scratches popping up on occasion. Between the two, 'Children of Eve' is superior with good visibility and definition. 'White Slave Traffic' jumps around in the same scene and cuts to others in a distracting manner, and rarely has a quality moment.
All three films come in uncompressed PCM soundtracks and feature newly recorded music. 'The Devil's Needle' is done by Rodney Sauer, partly taken from surviving notes and mixed with new interpretations of on-screen action. The same was done with 'Children of Eve.' Ben Model did the score on 'Inside of the White Slave Traffic.' The music of all three spreads evenly across the front channels, creating a broad and welcoming soundstage. Dynamic range is appreciably extensive with excellent clarity in the orchestration, distinguishing each note within the melodies with outstanding precision. Low bass provides a great deal of depth and presence to the music. Overall, these are outstanding lossless mixes for a unique collection of poorly cared for and mostly forgotten films.
There's not much in the way bonuses, but given the obscurity of these films, it's nice at least something available.
Kino Lorber brings three obscure, largely forgotten silent films made during a short period when these types of socially-conscious melodramas, often referred to as Vice Films, were wildly popular. 'The Devil's Needle' is arguably the best-made film of the three, but there's quite a bit to admire and enjoy in 'Children of Eve' and 'Inside the White Slave Traffic.' The Blu-ray comes with the best possible video presentations of all three, considering the extensive damage the original negatives have sustained over the decades, and accompanied by newly recorded music. Supplements are terribly small and somewhat disappointing, but the overall package makes a terrific addition for fans and collectors of sadly overlooked silent cinema.