DVD Review: The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice and Redemption

Amidst the debate about the quality of movies today, there’s the loud, wailing lament that because of frenetic action epics (not epics in the traditional sense, but sometimes as big as them) like Battleship and the Transformers franchise, we might as well give up on movies because they’re not going to be the way they once were, and you can forget about any semblance of character development.

Ok, but there are bad movies in every decade. Some are just awful, some are barely redeemable, and some are so bad that they’re fun! Have you ever seen Stewardess School, from 1986? It’s mostly garbage, except for a few very funny lines, including a curt exchange between one of the stewardess trainees and a boy with a toy gun. Some of the movies labeled as bad today aren’t even all that funny.

The Devil's NeedleAnd even if we’re actually facing a dearth of great movies, as some claim, look at the decade we’re living in. When the Gateway Cinema 4 in Fort Lauderdale, Florida celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2001, there were showings that night of An American in Paris and All About Eve. An American in Paris, in all its classic glory, including Gene Kelly dancing with his head cut off (it was projected incorrectly), was only shown that one night, whereas All About Eve lasted another week. Now there are digital projectors in movie theaters which allow old movies to be seen by wider audiences. Recently, the theater events company NCM Fathom, in partnership with Turner Classic Movies, broadcast via satellite a 60th anniversary screening of Singin’ in the Rain.

Plus, film historians are actively searching for older movies, much older, and institutions like the Library of Congress are hard at work making sure these movies from 1915, 1916 and sometimes even earlier can be seen. If the resources are there, they’ll do it. And they have, with the Kino Classics DVD release, The Devil’s Needle & Other Tales of Vice and Redemption, demonstrating how we have so many more choices for movies in this decade, besides more platforms on which to watch them.

Through these three featured films, one of which is a short film at 28 minutes, it seems that the societal ills of white slavery (i.e., underground prostitution, which is what it looks like), horrid working conditions and child labor, and drug use are all caused by class separation, the rich believing they’re above the poor, and apparent gender superiority, with men believing they’re better than women and treating them accordingly.

Each has a chewy moral center, though The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, from 1913, doesn’t linger long on it being morally reprehensible. We see how trafficking works, who’s involved, what’s involved, the code words used in order to deflect law enforcement or anyone else who might be watchful, and that’s it. There aren’t any notable performances here, as the actors are merely conduits to show what this is all about. But obviously the filmmakers and those who spurred on the creation of this short film were passionate enough to want it to be shown accurately, including filming at the actual locations where this takes place, though fictionalizing the names.

Children of Eve, from 1915, was made by Thomas A. Edison Studios, and is ostensibly about the injustice of child labor and the abhorrent working conditions in factors. But there’ll be plenty of time to see how your moral compass is tuned, because Children of Eve will get around to the actual issue when it feels like it. Its story begins with Flossie, a Follies showgirl, throwing something at a picture of her in her youth, disappointed that what she was then is not what she is now, not that carefree, not that happy. Her next-door neighbor Harry, like right-through-the-wall next door, hears this, comes in, and offers to repair the picture. A romance blossoms, but Flossie leaves quickly, the memory of her being a note that she leaves behind for Harry. She dies, either from exhaustion or from an unspecified illness, in the doorway of her settlement home, holding a baby, who, 17 years later, becomes “Fifty-Fifty” Mamie, Pride of the Alley, as the title card explains.

Meanwhile, Harry is now the guardian of Bert, son of his dead friend, to whom he promised that he would take care of Bert. Whereas Harry is a dignified, unscrupulous, uncaring businessman, Bert is immersed in social issues, wanting reform, wanting better conditions for everyone. He meets Mamie after a storekeeper catches her in Bert’s office and takes back what she stole, and Bert tries to convince her to do better in her life, to attend classes in his office, to embrace a better life. But she likes the life she has, going to dances and proving herself to be the best dancer in town. And yet, what Bert tells her sinks in, and she decides that she does want to lead a better life.

There’s more within that plot summary, including the aforementioned child labor and factory work, a factory run by Harry, but you have to wait, and wait, and wait for anything significant to happen. These characters just go around and around and around and around, and soon, someone realizes, “Oh, we should get to the reason we made this movie,” which is surprising considering that it’s only 73 minutes. The climax, an elaborately-staged fire at the factory, is most impressive, the only reason to see Children of Eve, but not enough to wholeheartedly recommend it.

The Devil’s Needle, the final offering on this DVD, is notable only because of the presence of famous silent film actress Norma Talmadge, who plays a model to an artist, and uses “the devil’s needle” in order to get through the day, whatever drug it is in that needle. It’s never specified, but it’s enough to keep her going. Soon, the artist finds what he wants in another model, but that woman, promised to someone else, faces the wrath of her uppity fiancée, who doesn’t like that she’s modeling because she, and he, are above the artist. Yeah, it’s one of those movies. The artist loves that particular model, and feels like he can’t paint, so Talmadge offers him the same drug she’s been using, and he’s suddenly full of more energy than he’s ever had in his life, and he paints, and paints, and paints, and become more and more addicted to the drug. Just like The Inside of the White Slave Traffic and The Devil’s Needle, nearly all the actors are only performing to get the story across, which is what actors are supposed to do of course, but none of them are interesting enough to really pay attention to, save for Norma Talmadge, who made her career on being a bright, noticeable face.

The extras on this DVD are unedited, outtake footage from Children of Eve, which shows scenes not used in the movie, as well as on-location shooting. What we know today as deleted scenes, that’s what outtakes were back then. (As an aside, wouldn’t deleted scenes be scenes that we’ll never see because they were gotten rid of completely? “Unused scenes” would be a better label, but I guess it doesn’t have the same ring on a DVD.) There’s also the surviving footage of The Inside of the White Slave Traffic, which is what didn’t have to be pieced together to make up part of this DVD.

Because of silent film DVD releases like The Devil’s Needle and Other Tales of Vice and Redemption, this is an exciting decade in movies. What movie buffs have only read about in books about silent movies can now actually be seen. In high school, one of my most prized books was A History of Narrative Film by David A. Cook. There was a section about Thomas Edison’s contribution to movies, and I could only read what Edison did, what they were about, and look at the photos included. Now here they are, Children of Eve at least, thanks to the Library of Congress and Kino. This is a great time for movies, no matter the opposite viewpoint, because yes, those overdone action movies and brainless comedies are ever-present, but options for movie entertainment are now greater.

That movie theater I mentioned in Fort Lauderdale is now called The Gateway Theatre, and at the end of the month, it’s presenting its First Annual Classic Film Festival. Movies include Midnight Cowboy, Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, To Kill a Mockingbird, and many others, shown multiple times, not just the one time they showed An American in Paris. The showings include newsreels from the time period, and it’s not specified whether these movies are on reels or shown digitally, but you see? We’re in a great time for movies. There’s what’s showing today, if that’s what you like, or the classic movies, if that’s what you love, or the silent movies, if you want to see what came long before any of this. Kino, the Library of Congress, and others, are treating movie history with deep, abiding respect, and that’s what’s most important. You can always be sure of having an interesting experience, no matter which decade you explore.

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