Scenes, episodes, and individuals related to transatlantic movements
have been present in the history of US cinema, in a differentiated
manner, since the beginning of cinematography, in the form of small
and simple records of urban life.
Later, with the progressive consolidation of the US cinema industry in
the first two decades of the 20th century, the theme of the
coming of European emigrants to America and questions related to this,
would serve as a base for the preparation of fictional stories, due to
their potential commercial value with the new middle class audience
then in formation.
Statue of Liberty, a small film of approximately fifty seconds
produced by the Thomas Edison Company, can be considered one of the
first cinematographic representations of the arrival of a transatlantic ship
in New York port.
In this film, composed of a single shot and dated 3 September 1898,
the point of view of the camera is someone situated on the bow of a
ship. When the film starts, the camera already frames the ensemble of
Liberty Island, which holds the prominent statue of the same name.
The colossal monument is located at the beginning of the film in the
center of the frame. As the ships advances the framing alters. At the
end of the travelling shot, and the film, the statue is positioned
in the left corner of the picture.
However, we do not know from what vessel the shot was made or if the
cameraman was on a ship coming from Europe when he was filming, ready
to finalize its journey at that decisive instant. There is no other
human figure in the frame with whom the viewer can identify.
The proposal of the engraving New York - Welcome to the Land of
Freedom, published years earlier on 2 July 1887, in the weekly
publication Frank Leslie Illustrated Newspaper, is clearly to offer
readers of this widely circulating illustrated publication an angle of
the view of the Statue of Liberty similar to that of passengers on a
ship transporting them from the Old to the New World.
The point of view offered is of immigrants, portrayed at the moment of
entering the port of New York, when standing on the left of the deck
they are greeted by a view of the statue, which symbolically welcomes
them. The portentous monument, a donation from the French state to the
American people, had been opened a few months before, on 28 October
In their route into the main port of entrance to the New World, after
passing Liberty Island, the ships landed at Ellis Island, where
between 1892 and 1954, the immigration control center for the port of
New York was located, and through which it is estimated that between
12 and 16 million immigrants passed, above all in the first two
decades of the 20th century.
Among the first cinematographic records of the entrance of immigrants
to US soils, two small films stand out, both centered on the landing
of people at Ellis Island. Both are recorded from the point of view of
someone on the dock, watching the arrival of a ship or observing the
circulation of the flow of immigrants who arrived within some spaces
on the island.
The two films belong to the category of film then called local
actuality film. They showed daily scenes from the city, very popular
at the beginning of that century, since the public of the city where
they had been shot could expect to recognize themselves on the screen
or identify the presence of someone close within the frame.
The oldest recording, from 24 July 1903, Emigrants [i.e.
Immigrants] Landing at Ellis Island, produced by the Thomas Edison
Company, shows three scenes in two and a half minutes.
The film begins with a view of the ship William Myers, full of
passengers, approaching the wharf at the immigration station in Ellis
Island. Next, after it has docked, we can see a walkway being placed
to allow passengers descend. The first travelers come down. Shortly
afterwards many people disembark, frequently holding young children,
full of baggage. No figure can be seen controlling the direction of
the flow of immigrants within the frame.
The second film, from 9 May 1906, Arrival of Emigrants [i.e,
Immigrants], Ellis Island, produced by the American Mutoscope and
Biograph Company, and slightly longer than the former (3 min. 45
sec.), contains a slightly higher number of shots and shows the
circulation of the large mass of people, also carrying suitcases and
packages, in an open air space on the island.
In all the shots in this film, the presence of uniformized men showing
the direction to be followed by the new arrivals is flagrant,
frequently in a very impatient manner. We understand that at a second
moment the crowd is being moved, along a walkway, towards a ship,
which we do not see leave, but which we know, as did New York
spectators, will bring them to the large American city.
Notable in this actuality film is the absence of any shot located
within the building where the immigration control center was actually
located. This building only appears as an imposing façade behind the
great flow of people who, circulating in the open air, move away from
the building heading towards another space, that is initially not
In observing the trajectory of the flow of people circulating in the
first two shots, it is clear, for those who knew the topography of the
place, that they are leaving the building. The aforementioned absence
in this short film of any shot inside the building is particularly
significant, as it is due to the difficulties through which immigrants
passed in that internal space (and the fear they felt of being sent
back to the port from where they had left) that Ellis Island was
called, in all languages, Isle of Tears.
Nowadays we do not have precise information about the diffusion of
Arrival of Immigrants (1906), but it is probable that it was larger
than that of Immigrants Landing (1903), due to the multiplication
from 1905 onwards of Nickelodeons, new exhibition spaces that were
often frequented by poor immigrants recently arrived in America, due
to the low cost of tickets and the flexibility of their opening times.
The establishment on Ellis Island of infrastructure and a diversified
body of specialized staff to exercise control over the entrance of
immigrants, ended the previous phase of decentralization and an
inferior organization of immigration services. It is related to the
rapid growth of immigration in the US in the last two decades of the
19th century, and principally in the first two decades of the
It is estimated that the greatest immigration boom occurred between
1900 and 1914, with the entrance of approximately 13 million
immigrants, a number higher than in any other similar period in the
history of the country. Until the penultimate decade of the 19th
century, the majority of immigrants were from the Nordic regions of
the Old World. Now individuals predominated from the Balkans, Eastern
Europe, and Southern Italy, especially Italy.
At the dawn of the new century, the magnitude of the new influx and
its mode of composition served to exacerbate the xenophobic feelings
enrooted in various sectors of society and the US political world
since the beginning of the previous century.
Striking in the history of US cinema in this period is the
proliferation, when the fiction film industry was emerging, of stories
in which protagonists of Italian nationality or origin stand out,
represented as impulsive, instinctive, or hot blooded, whose
stereotyped profiles are often associated with criminals and
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which produced Arrival
of Immigrants in 1906, released the same year a short melodrama (The
Black Hands, 1906, 11 min), which offered in the final instance a
negative vision of immigrants and their universe in New York. This
vision was also present in short films directed in the following years
by D. W. Griffith, in which Italian characters or Oriundi are
important, as in the films In Little Italy (1909), At the Altar
(1909), The Italian Barber (1910), or Italian Blood (1911).
One of the rare works, according to recent studies, offering an
apparently more comprehensive representation of the immigrant
experience is The Italian (1914, 74 min), directed by Reginald
This work is emblematic of the period of transition in which it was
produced under the command of the celebrated Thomas Ince. The Italian
of the title is Beppo, interpreted by Georges Beban, an actor known at
the time for his ethnic characteristics, often playing Italian
The first part of the film takes part in an idealized "old" Italy.
The gondolier Beppo is seen in action in Venice and in the rural
interior where his beloved Annette lives. She works with her father
growing grapes, in a daily routine marked by Catholic religious rites.
Beppo is challenged by his future father-in-law to guarantee his
daughter proper sustenance and a home, a romantic plot which aims to
awaken the sympathy of the public with the combative and until then
smiling figure of the groom.
To achieve his objective, Beppo emigrates to America. Working as a
shoeshine boy on a New York street, he manages to bring over Annette,
with whom he has a son, Tony. In a scene from a second part, Beppo is
inadvertently approached by Corrigan, the neighborhood boss, who gives
him money for his support for Casey, a candidate for councilor said to
be "a friend of the workers." A succession of misfortunes follows,
against the movement of what until then seemed to be a celebration of
the opportunities opened by immigration into the American golden land.
Beppo's face undergoes a progressive and disturbing physiognomic
transformation, accentuated by numerous close shots of his face. Tony
becomes seriously ill and his father desperately seeks to make more
money to save him. However, he is robbed and erroneously arrested in
the place of the those who robbed him. On the way to prison, he
manages to escape from the policeman escorting him and asks for help
from Corrigan, who happens to be passing by. However, the latter
violently refuses him. Leaving prison Beppo is told of the death of
his son. Dominated by a spirit of vengeance, he plans to kill
Corrigan's son with his own hands. At the last moment he gives up and
in the penultimate scene, he is seen prostrated over Tony's tomb.
In the search for a large audience, the film brings together a complex
juxtaposition of codes. The idealized vision of old Italy offered in
the first part of the film, as well as the pathetic scene of the
existence of Beppo and Annette in New York, suffering from the
hardships of the harsh reality of the beginnings of the existence of
poor immigrants in urban America, are representations constructed to
evoke the emotional identification of an immigrant public. They are
also in dialogue with the social realism also present in other types
of fiction films from the same period, such as the ghetto films,
which in the same scenario of urban vulnerability of the Lower East
Side of New York, involve a great variety of melodramas and Jewish
immigrant characters. On the other hand, it is notable that Beppo's
story is framed in the film by a prologue and an epilogue which
dialogues with 19th century artistic traditions considered to be
noble, such as literature and theater.
The search for the establishment of this dialogue has to be understood
within the American cinema industry's efforts at gentrification. In
the first two decades of the 20th century, it wanted to acquire
cultural respectability. In addition to the proletarian immigrant
audiences who flocked to the Nickelodeons, the new industry sought to
conquer the rising urban middle class public, composed amongst others
of office employees and some categories of more prosperous workers.
In the first shot of the prologue, we can see two curtains opening,
revealing an elegantly dressed man (Georges Beban) inside a bourgeois
room, taking a book off a library shelf, whose title is the same as
the film. After briefly flicking through the book, the man goes back
to the beginning of the first chapter, whose first phrases, which
appear on the screen, describe an action we will see represented
immediately after, when the diegesis effectively begins.
The epilogue comes just after the scene in which we see Beppo,
disconsolate, beside the tomb of his son. The elegant figure of the
reader of the prologue reappears, reading the last page of the book.
Before the curtains close, marking the end of the film, on the screen
appear the phrases of the last page, which describe the scene we have
just seen, leaving the individual on the screen pensive. This
theatrical framing offers the middle class spectator the opportunity
of distance from the harsh reality evoked in the diegesis.
Although Barker's film constitutes a more comprehensive representation
of the life of Italian immigrants in America than the majority of
films of the period, its story results in a discouragement of
transatlantic immigration and also contains, as Norma Bouchard has
emphasized, echoes of the strong ascension in the period of the
classic repertoire of currents of nativist opinions.
This current, opposed to what were called the new immigrants,
propagated, amongst other ideas, the belief that the Mediterranean
peoples were morally inferior to the Europeans in the North. It was
also thought that the coming of immigrants from the South of Europe to
America could cause the decline of American intelligence.
This vision of the world was defended in the same year it was released
in the book significantly entitled The Old World in the New by the
then renowned professor Edward Ross, from the University of Wisconsin.
Effectively while the story unfolds, Beppo acquires traits of a
racialized other. Facing adversity and injustice, the Oriundi
promptly adopts criminal, vengeful, and illegal behavior. We can
perceive echoes of eugenics when the image of his face takes all the
space on the screen.
Considered as a whole, the film resonates the anxieties of American
society at that period, which was increasingly embarking on aggressive
legislative policies that aimed to regulate "the flow of undesirable
immigrants in the name of an imagined cultural, spiritual, and race
identity whose echoes can still be heard today."