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155 ★★★★★★★★★★ ✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩✩ 7 George Beban Character of the Picturesque GIORGIO BERTELLINI George Beban was arguably the only Anglo American film star of his time never to have played the role of an Anglo American character . Beginning in 1915, his feature-length cinematic impersonations of charming but ill-fated Italian immigrants catapulted him to stardom. Yet both the form and significance of his characterizations may be perplexing unless placed within the wider context of how American culture as a whole aestheticized racial diversity. Furthermore, without Beban’s popular and sympathetic characterizations, one of the next decade’s superstars, Rudolph Valentino, might never have emerged. George Beban, undated photo. From the author’s collection. Born in San Francisco in 1873 of an Italophilic father, Rocco Beban, who had migrated from southern Dalmatia, and an Irish mother, Johanna Dugan, George Beban started his stage career at the age of eight with the Reed and Emerson Minstrel shows. In the 1890s, after years of close contact with the New York scene of American and foreign stage companies, he made a name for himself in the vaudeville circuits as a comedian. By 1908, he was regularly cast as a French count in George M. Cohan vaudeville productions (Odell 419; Brownlow 319). Initially uninterested in moving pictures, his aspiration was to embark on serious, dramatic stage performances. He was unable to find suitable material and persuade stage impresarios, however, and in 1909 he co-wrote the short play The Sign of the Rose: A Play in One Act with a successful Broadway playwright, Charles Turner Dazey. It was the heartbreaking story of an honest Italian immigrant who endures first the loss of his daughter in an automobile accident and subsequently an unjust criminal indictment. In the early 1910s, Beban staged the play and impersonated the role of the main character throughout American stage circuits and even in England. In 1914, the play became the basis for a nine-reel film, variously titled The Sign of the Rose or The Alien, produced and directed under the supervision of Thomas H. Ince for the New York Motion Picture Corporation and released in 1915. Together with The Italian, also released in 1915, the adaptation launched Beban’s film career and made him a household name. Until his accidental death in 1928 as a result of injuries sustained after being thrown from a horse, Beban acted in eighteen films, wrote either the story or the script for eleven of them, and directed three—all were mostly about Italians and, to a smaller extent, French characters. Unlike many of the stars discussed in this anthology, such as Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, George Beban has not enjoyed a sustained global and perpetual fame. Over the decades, his name, face, and characters have not been instantly and widely recognized. The archival record, in and of itself a symptom rather than a cause of enduring oblivion, is not in his favor either: only one film, The Italian (1915), is widely available for study or public viewing. In order to rediscover and appreciate the fabric of Beban’s once extensive and intense popularity, this chapter draws a broad aesthetic trajectory. Since most of his films are either set in New York or resonate with iconic New York settings and characters, the rich palimpsest of sociological studies and multimedia representations of the city’s modern development and diverse populations acquires central critical relevance. This once familiar cultural universe played a central role in how Beban constructed and developed his characters—narratively, visually, and ideologically —and how contemporary American audiences made sense of them. 156 GIORGIO BERTELLINI Directly and indirectly, Beban adopted the familiar lessons of social progressives concerned about immigrants’ living conditions and the agenda of tourism promoters boasting of the city’s attractive monuments and exotic immigrant quarters. His characters also embodied the lowbrow appeal of vaudeville traditions and the middlebrow one of Italian opera and stage performers. Still, while differing from the sensationalist film productions about Italian American criminals, Beban’s films were not just entertaining renderings of Italians’ folkloric life, performed through highly melodramatic and, at times, even populist tones. Instead, they also resonated with the recent, modernist, and all-American incarnations of the Picturesque— an established European painterly tradition that American visual culture had used for decades to represent its once pristine natural sceneries and, more recently, its fast-growing urban settlements. The same fascination for the aesthetically pleasing coexistence of modern urban sights with unspoiled natural sceneries that informed the...


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