The Italian is a star vehicle for its lead actor, George Beban. "GEORGE BEBAN in THE ITALIAN" headlines every title card, and Barker introduces the actor before the story actually begins with some self-conscious theatricality. After the credits run, a curtain parts to let us into Beban's study, where the actor is looking for something to read. He finds a novelization of the film we've already begun to watch and settles down to peruse it. At first, this seems like a quaint gimmick, but when we return to the framing device at the end of the picture, we realize that Barker and Beban have a point to make. We're invited to see the actual story as Beban's imagination of the story he's reading, inserting himself into the narrative in the title role. Without a word, he's inviting us to walk a few miles with him in an Italian immigrant's shoes. He's inviting his audience to empathize with the Italian.
In the narrative, Beban plays Beppo Donnetti, a Venetian gondolier in love. He may be poor, but he enjoys life and enjoys the land he lives in. The first surprise for the original audience may have been the extent to which Barker idealizes Italy. He emphasizes the beauty of the landscape, admittedly enhanced by the presence of a pretty girl, with a quality of cloudscape cinematography I hadn't thought possible in 1914. Throughout the picture, Barker's direction has a fluency in framing, staging and editing that makes even D. W. Griffith look crude. His Italy may be romanticized, but the point seems to be to refute nativist notions that immigrants living in American poverty and squalor must have brought a squalid lifestyle with them from the old country. Not so: Beppo could well have stayed in Italy and lived a happy life, except for romantic complications. His girlfriend's father wants to marry her off to a crabby old merchant. Dad wants a son-in-law who can provide for his daughter. Beppo can't compete with a merchant on a gondolier's wages, but the father is willing to give him a chance -- a year, actually, -- to prove that he can make good enough for the girl. For Beppo, America is the land of quick opportunity, or so he hopes.
Things go downhill from here. Mr. and Mrs. Beppo have a baby, but the baby sickens on unpasteurized milk. Unsanitary conditions in their flat obviously didn't help. A doctor tells Beppo that his baby's life depends on buying pasteurized milk, but he gets mugged on the way to the market. Desperate now, he begs the ward boss for money, but the pol isn't interested. In a melodramatic touch (and an impressive stunt) Beppo clings to the door of the moving car, imploring the boss until he's kicked into the street and into the path of traffic. After a lucky escape, he confronts the muggers and fights to reclaim his money, but when a cop arrives Beppo is arrested for disorderly conduct. A contemptuous cop crumples up the note he scribbles to his wife, so that she has no idea where Beppo is as the crisis comes for her son. By the time he's released a few days (or weeks?) later, we've already seen a grim funeral procession, a little casket being taken from the flat to a hearse.
One artistic flub in The Italian is the fact that, while the New York part of the story covers at least two years, the advertising art at Beppo's bootblack station never changes.
William K. Everson first tipped me off to the existence of The Italian in his great history American Silent Film. It's been released on DVD on a twin bill with the 1913 Traffic in Souls as Perils of the New Land. That disc is a recent acquisition of the Albany Public Library. Everson touted Barker's film as a recently-rediscovered masterpiece. Judging The Italian by the standards of its time, he did not exaggerate. It's the earliest American feature film that I've seen that I can call a classic.