The Italian as criminal, Mafioso and sexual predator is a well-established character in American film genres. The Italian (Reginald Barker, 1915) and Poor Little Peppina (Sidney Olcott, 1916) demonstrate that long before post-war Italian imports or Depression-era gangster films American cinema promoted some troubling imagery and ideas about Italian-American immigrants.
IN HIS ESSAY 'The Mafia and The Movies: Why is Italian American Synonymous with Organized Crime?' Ben Lawton says that in the nineteen-teens 'the identity of Italian Americans and crime in America had not yet been established' and that the idea would not take hold until the 1930s. (1) In the early decades of the twentieth century, however, there were many examples of films that already depicted Italians as the prime example of what eugenicist Madison Grant referred to in his 1916 book The Passing of the Great Race as one of the 'lower races'. (2) The negative depiction of Italians in film may have even established an important pre-condition for the passage of anti-immigration legislation in the subsequent decades.
In the Mary Pickford vehicle Poor Little Peppina, for example, Italians are associated with crime and threatening sexuality. In the Italian, a film that on first viewing may seem a sympathetic depiction, Italian immigrant Beppo Donnetti (George Beban) is represented in a way described by Jacob Riis as 'gay, lighthearted and, if his fur is not stroked the wrong way, inoffensive as a child'. (3) Furthermore, both films employ a plot conceit that robs the immigrant a voice by allowing a sly cultural usurpation to take place. Beban, an actor who specialized in portraying melodramatic and tragic Italian immigrants, frames the story by appearing as his 'real' self and reading a book called The Italian. Beban then falls asleep and dreams that he has become the key character Beppo Donnetti. At the tale's conclusion, Beban wakes up and realizes he only dreamed of being an Italian. Similarly, at Poor Little Peppina's conclusion we discover that Pickford's Peppina is not an Italian after all, but the lost child of wealthy Anglo New Yorkers. The message in both films is clear: the foreign other must be wholly absorbed or else destroyed. There can be no coexistence, no pluralism.
The invaders are coming
Richard H. Brodhead has identified 'two images of Italy in late nineteenth-century America': tourism to Italy and 'mass migration from Italy to the United States'. (4) He refers to the latter image as the 'alien-intruder Italy' and he notes that 'the Italian immigrants of the late nineteenth century were largely read through this generalized image of the foreigner as agent of contemporary instability'. (5) The mind of one person, according to Brodhead, could indeed hold the strangely divergent views of Italy as apotheosis of the Grand Tour and as the homeland of barbarian invaders overtaking American soil.
The Italian and Poor Little Peppina exemplify these contradictory views. In the former, Beppo is a jovial gondolier in Venice who becomes a murderous barbarian in New York, and at the start of Poor Little Peppina we see a rich American family residing in a palatial Italian villa--until the Mafia strikes.
Richard Gambino claims the following: 'Influenced by post-war Italian movies, Americans see Italian sexuality either as frank and earthy or as wanton in the fashion of La Dolce Vita.' (6) But the image of the Italian as barbarian was established during the Gilded Age, the years of film's birth, as well as by nineteenth-century literature such as Henry James's Daisy Miller (1878). If the Italian as sexual barbarian has a long history in American culture, so, too, does the Mafia image. These images are not only evident after the gangster films of the 1930s. For example, Christian McLeod's 1908 The Heart of the Stranger: A Story of Little Italy and Louis Forgione's Men of Silence of 1928 are novels that capitalized on the scandal of Italian and Italian-American crime--the cultural groundwork, in other words, for the stereotypical image of Italian-Americans in popular culture had been well established before the 'talkies' gave us the harsh sounds of gunfire. …