When watching silent movies, Judge Daryl Loomis often falls for long-dead women.
They eat their fill and devise new ways of slowly murdering their child employees.
That line is an intertitle that appears about halfway through Children of Eve, the best film in this collection of early social silents. As funny and macabre as the line is, though, it really gets to the sensationalist heart of the set. Despite their progressive-era pretensions, these are little more than exploitation films wrapped up in a socially conscious message. That's quite alright by me, and I really prefer it this way, since early 20th Century earnestness doesn't play so well these days. The films are of mixed quality, but Kino International's presentation of The Devil's Needle and other Tales of Vice and Redemption on Blu-ray is as good as one could hope for in a set of films this old.
Facts of the Case
The Devil's Needle (1916): David White (Tully Marshall, The Hatchet Man) is a successful artist with a loving wife, but when he hires the beautiful Renee (Norma Talmadge, Camille) as his new model, his whole world changes. See, Renee's got this special inspiration that comes from a needle and, after convincing him to try it, watches him degenerate into a desperate addict.
Children of Eve (1915): "Fifty-fifty" Mamie (Viola Dana, Merton of the Movies), the orphaned daughter of an ex-Follies actress, grows up in the tenements with nothing but the thuggish Bennie (Tom Blake, The Girl from Porcupine), who she dates no matter how bad he treats her. She doesn't think she's worth much more, so when a far nicer social reformer named Bert (Robert Walker, Texas Jack) takes a shine to her, she rejects him. When he gets sick, she realizes she was wrong and joins his reform movement, finally posing as a child to expose a sweatshop, with tragic results.
The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913): A "procurer" who deals in young immigrant women finds a sucker to turn tricks for him. She does her best, but finds the world miserable. When she decides to go straight and get a job in a clothing store, she discovers just how little she can make, so swallows her pride and returns to her pimp and a lifetime of degradation.
In spite of the title of the set, there's very little redemption at play in these three films. Unlike what we've come to expect from Hollywood, even the most positive picture, The Devil's Needle, doesn't have what you'd call a happy ending. At best, redemption comes in the form of death which, from a moral standpoint, might make sense to some people, but the idea of living happily ever after is simply not in play.
The Devil's Needle is the collection's headliner, both for its punchy title and its star in Dorothy Talmadge. It's because of her that we can see the film at all, and also because of her that we can't see it in its original form. While it was made in 1916, and was a hit, the actress was young and not the center stage of the production. It was only after she became a start that, in 1924, Metro dusted it off, changed some names and title cards, recut it with Talmadge in a stronger role, and gave her top billing. The original is gone, though, so there is only speculation as to what director Chester Withey (An Alabaster Box) actually wanted, but what's here is pretty good and very weird.
Surprisingly, the movie doesn't pull many punches in dealing with the drug scenes, showing audiences the whole process of shooting up and only cutting away at the actual injection. While it's a little naive when it comes to the ins and outs of addiction (including a classic moment in the propagation of the Protestant work ethic: how do you get over the junk? Work a plow, of course), it's fairly compelling and Tully Marshall, who got his name playing an addict onstage, does a really good job in the lead role. Few things are more disconcerting than watching him sit in a chair and rub his syringe all over his face and into his mouth, and I like that enough that I'll almost certainly steal it at some point.
The Inside of the White Slavery Traffic is as salacious as it sounds. Produced by Samuel London, a federal investigator, and directed by Frank Beal (The Devil's Riddle), this "documentary" was shot on location in, at least by their words, actual places where pimps and prostitutes ply their trade. In their attempt to describe this "social evil," they made something that promotes prostitution as the only viable way for a woman to make a living, while all the while decrying it as terrible. Really, the only terrible thing is the movie, which is really only good for a few laughs and a chart of pimp slang of the time, which is priceless.
Children of Eve is the one movie that really holds up on any level. The storytelling is a little clunky, but the spirit of the thing is in place. The climactic scene, recalling the recent Triangle Shirt Waist Fire tragedy, is really well done. The message that director John Collins (The Flower of No Man's Land) may not come through as clearly as, say, Upton Sinclair's The Jungle did in its exposé of meat packing plants, but it does a good job of showing the potential of awful conditions child workers faced at the time. As far as social messaging films goes, though, it's something that I can get behind. Purely as a movie, it may not represent the best of silent cinema, but it's pretty enjoyable.
Kino's Blu-ray for The Devil's Needle and other Tales of Vice and Redemption is good, but problems with the source material, understandably, mars the overall experience. To their credit, these 1.33:1/1080p full frame high definition transfers are great, but it doesn't change the fact that there's a lot of age damage. The Devil's Needle is the worst, with some terrible nitrate degradation at the end of the film, but the other two are relatively decent, which comes out more strongly in the extras. The PCM 2.0 Stereo audio is basic musical score, none of which I liked, but I never do. The extras demonstrate how much better the prints are than they could be, with eight minutes of outtakes for Children of Eve and a raw footage of The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, both of which look terrible before the restoration.
Silent film fans, rare as they may be anymore, will do themselves no favors by skipping this collection. None of the three are great films, but there's no question that they're valuable historical artifacts. Plus, for those who like to see very old-school exploitation, The Devil's Needle and other Tales of Vice and Redemption holds a ton of value.
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Scales of Justice, The Inside Of The White Slave Traffic
Perp Profile, The Inside Of The White Slave Traffic
Studio: Kino Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, The Inside Of The White Slave Traffic
• Bonus Footage
Scales of Justice, Children Of Eve
Perp Profile, Children Of Eve
Studio: Kino Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, Children Of Eve
Scales of Justice, The Devil's Needle
Perp Profile, The Devil's Needle
Studio: Kino Lorber
Distinguishing Marks, The Devil's Needle
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