Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Immigration

An American in the Making (1913)

This short industrial safety film was produced for US Steel by Thanhauser, and contains some unusual narrative elements, some of which are hinted at in the title. Obviously intended to speak to new immigrants and unskilled laborers, part of the purpose was to reassure them that their employer cared about them and their aspirations.

The movie begins in the “old country,” where a young peasant (Harry Benham) receives a letter from a brother in America, who has saved enough money to get him passage to come to the USA. We see him at work in the field, and then he is called into the house by his aging parents who show him a letter written in a non-English (apparently Slavic) language. The next we know, he is arriving on Ellis Island, an awkward insert shot showing him with a tag pinned to his jacket identifying him for the customs officials. He walks out into the streets of New York and to Pennsylvania Station, still with the tag attached, and rides to Gary, Indiana, the “model workers’ city” established by US Steel. His brother meets him at the train and removes the tag from his jacket. They go into the city and the brother steers him away from a saloon and to the impressive edifice of the YMCA for off-hours entertainment.

Soon, he is at work, and we see safety signs in four languages, at least two of which are Eastern European. At this point the fictional narrative essentially grinds to a halt as the film strives to demonstrate various safety precautions and devices used on the job. We see a “universal symbol of danger” (in black and white it is a dark circle on white paper; I assume it’s meant to be red), a device for safely derailing oncoming trains when someone is working on the line, safety goggles, a guard for a table saw, and a large hand-protecting device that resembles a catcher’s mitt. We now see a variety of safety badges that workers can earn on the job. Then we see some depictions of the steelmaking process: large cauldrons with molten metal, a blast furnace, and crucibles pouring the lava-like substance into molds. It’s very visually dramatic, but loses both the thread of the story and any awareness of safety.

How do you work with this thing on?

Finally, we return to our immigrant hero, who is taking company-sponsored English classes. He is excelling, and his diligence has caught the attention of the pretty young teacher (Ethyle Cooke). She lets him walk her home and in the next scene we discover that they are happily married with a child, living in a pleasant suburban home on his fine wages (we don’t know whether she still works, one tends to assume not). Their son goes to a “model school” and plays in a playground built by the company. The movie ends with their smiling faces showing how a foreigner has found happiness in his new land.

Is this thing safe?

It’s pretty hard to make a safety film with an interesting story, but Thanhauser gave it a shot, and wound up making two movies that don’t hang together very well. The narrative part of the story demonstrates how a sober, hard-working young man from another country can assimilate in the United States, when encouraged by a benevolent employer like US Steel. The second movie is basically a series of safety demonstrations, in which the protagonist of the first film plays at best a supporting role, and is forgotten completely for some of the time. It’s interesting how much of the movie was shot on location, and that many of the unpaid “extras” stare openly at the camera or the performers. Part of the intention probably was to show off Gary and its pleasant working and living conditions.

The oddest part of the narrative for me was the ending, which seems to imply that there are enough single female schoolteachers in America to supply wives for all of the workers, and that an educated native-born woman would be readily available to an unskilled immigrant laborer. I had found myself wondering only moments before this sequence started what the prospects for meeting women in the apparently all-male society of Gary were like at the time, and the rather outlandish resolution only emphasized this further. I tend to think that the writers at Thanhauser found themselves written into a corner and did their best to fight their way out of it, but it only works with considerable suspension of disbelief. Still, it’s nice to see a movie from this period that seems to celebrate the “melting pot” concept rather than expressing xenophobia about immigration.

Director: Carl Gregory

Camera: Carl Gregory

Starring: Harry Benham, Ethyle Cooke, Leland Benham

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

This actuality short from Edison depicts part of the wave of immigration that hit US shores in the early Twentieth Century, forever changing the face of the country. It’s a bit longer – and involves more shots – than earlier Lumiére documents of people disembarking boats and trains, but doesn’t really surpass them in narrative.

The first shot shows a ferry carrying people to Ellis Island from the docks where their ships put in at New York harbor. The ferry is clearly full of many people, but it looks comfortable and clean, possibly better than the conditions many had sailed over with. As it draws past, we read the name of the company, “Wm Myers.” The second shot is taken directly in front of the gangplank, so that we see the first departures off the boat coming right at the camera. They are carrying their bags, and seem intent on getting where they are going. This shot is rapidly replaced by a shot at a 30-45 degree angle, allowing the passengers to pass in front of the camera over more time. This lets us get a look at their clothes and condition. The first to pass appear to be wearing middle-class Western clothes, but they are soon followed by a number of girls with scarves over their hair, looking more like Eastern European Jews (possibly Hasidic). We see a lot of women, in varying clothing, some carrying babies or accompanied by children. Although most are carrying bags or luggage of some kind, none appears to have a lot of possessions, and we rarely see a family with both an identifiable mother and father together, although both men and women pass by individually.

Ellis Island was a port of entry for a tremendous number of immigrants from various parts of Europe from 1892 until the late 1920s, when restrictions on immigration reduced the influx, and it remained in operation until 1954. It appears to me that the cameraman chose groups of “exotic”-looking immigrants for his subject, although each ferry would have brought over people from a variety of ships and locations, so this probably wasn’t difficult. There doesn’t seem to have been a political motivation for this movie – the passengers are not depicted as particularly threatening or as especially noble, they’re just people. The Edison cameraman was probably aware that Ellis Island was a “famous” location in New York and was taking advantage of its familiarity to produce a film with some potential for sales. In that sense, it becomes a valuable document of the country as “a nation of immigrants,” and a simple connection with history. Many of the people reading this blog probably had ancestors who passed through Ellis Island, and this allows us to see a part of what they experienced. It’s interesting that, compared to other movies taken in public places at the time, there seems to be less interest in the camera, although a few of the passengers do stare very hard at this contraption of their New World as they walk past.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown aspiring immigrants

Run Time: 2 Min, 5 secs

You can watch it for free: here.