DAWN of the DIVA

 As a rule, the diva of Italian silent film is rarely a femme fatale or a “vamp” like her American counterpart, but every rule has its exceptions:  Countess Natka (Pina Menichelli) takes advantage of the privileges of aristocracy, flouts any code of morality, flips off Italian high society, and devours the still-beating hearts of wide-eyed, slack-jawed men who are powerless to resist her.  Tigre Reale (“Royal Tigress;” Itala Film, 1916), directed by Giovanni Pastrone.
Women of diva film were often punished by a society that had little place for them if they were not married or raising children.  Daria (Francesca Bertini) after a child custody dispute with her estranged husband, has lost the child to illness.  Unable to sleep, she wanders into her child’s bedroom, gazes at the empty bed and is overwhelmed by the magnitude of her loss — her only child — and what it portends for her future.  La Piovra (“The Octopus,”, Bertini Film, 1919), directed by Edoardo Bencievenga.

Backstory.

In 1905, the first film production company in Italy was founded in Rome, and with an infusion of capital from a family of wealthy and powerful industrialists in 1906 it became Societa Anonima per Azioni Cines (Cines, S.A.).  With further financial underpinning by the Bank of Rome, Cines proceeded with the intent of becoming the premier film producer in Italy as well as a major player in the international film marketplace.

Artistically, the infant Italian film industry was beginning to realize the tremendous, almost incalculable potential of cinema as an art form with the power and scope to combine and synthesize all other existing art forms.  Not only theater and photography, but literature, painting, sculpture, music, architecture and more — and not just the classic works of the past, the Western “canon.”

Italian intellectuals and artists were eagerly producing new works as well as adapting their existing works for the new cinematic art.  Having been swept up by the explosive growth of cinema and the patriotic fervor of a newly united Italian nation, Italian filmmakers saw the opportunity to export their vibrant culture to the rest of the world much the same (minus the conquest by violence) as had ancient Rome in creating the foundation of Western Civilization itself.

By 1909, Italian producers were already abandoning the short one reel film in favor of longer productions that could more adequately contain the artistic depth of its subject matter — Italian culture, ancient and modern.  Internal competition among the studios of Italy, and external competition with the French giant Pathe, the largest filmmaker of the era, stoked the desire of Italian filmmakers to create more expansive, impressive films with greater production values.  In an attempt to compete with Pathe’s American arm, Cines opened a sales office in New York.  But it would soon partner with an American based company to make dominance over Pathe in America a real possibility rather than a mere pipe dream.

In the U.S., at the same time that Italy was looking to transform art with cinema, the American film industry was grappling with issues of commerce.  Thomas Edison was suing other American film producers and manufacturers over patent rights to motion picture cameras and projection equipment, a fight that centered around the mechanism that advances the film in the camera and projector — essentially a war over “sprocket holes.”

Click2Read 1914 MPW on origins of MPPC trust

American film producers, distributors and exhibitors were embroiled in arguments over manufacturing standards rather than artistic ones.  Long films were supposedly harming the business of small exhibitors and hampering their ability to control their individual programming.  At the other end of the exhibition spectrum, large theater operators were concerned that short films were less able to attract the bigger revenue possible with upscale audiences for whom they had built larger and more luxurious theaters dedicated to motion pictures — venues where exhibitors hoped to match the prestige of the works offered in the great playhouses of live theater.

Click2Read MPW editorial on film ad censorship.

In the seats of government, American legislators were debating censorship of motion pictures.  Fears of moral corruption and cultural decay caused by “movies” had politicians in most states introducing almost daily new censorship legislation.  And not just for the censorship and control of film content but of the advertising of films, down to the permissible size of outdoor advertising posters.

While the Italian industry was creating multi-reel productions of historical and literary works,  an American film supplies manufacturer and film distributor, the George Kleine Optical Company based in Chicago, was intent on becoming the major importer of that product for the American market.

George Kleine, whose company was an original party to the Motion Picture Patents Company (the “MPPC”), an industry association frequently referred to as a “trust” by its detractors, had previously imported Gaumont productions from France, but now saw the burgeoning Italian film industry as the epicenter of filmmaking both artistically and commercially.  Most importantly, Kleine also became an investor in Cines S.A. of Rome — a most effective way of ensuring quality and firm control of the product prior to importing.  But in reality, it was much more far-reaching than simply backing Italian film productions with American dollars.

Kleine and Cines created what amounted to an international corporate partnership in which Kleine received the rights to do virtually whatever his company deemed necessary to promote and distribute the Cines product.  Kleine held exclusive license for the import of Cines films to North and South America that included the right to sell, screen, rent, print, reprint, publish and otherwise utilize all of Cines’ product.  Among the rights and obligations negotiated between the two, Kleine would pay 75 cents per meter of finished film product and larger advance payments for the bigger productions, but also took the then unusual step of requiring that the prospective films for import by him would first be screened and evaluated  prior to his purchasing the distribution rights.  If Cines wanted to sell its product in America, every foot and meter of film had to pass muster with the George Kleine Company.

By the end of 1913, Kleine had achieved tremendous success financially and critically with his imports of several of the first wave of Italian epic films, the eight reel Quo Vadis? and six reels each of The Last Days of Pompeii, and Spartacus.   These were followed in the spring of 1914 by two more six reel historical subjects, For Napoleon and France and Antony and Cleopatra The Kleine marketing strategy targeted exhibitors with large theaters in medium to large cities as well as “state rights” markets — the sale to an exhibitor of the right to show a film in a state for a fixed period.

In an era where daily changeover of one and two reel film programs was still the norm in America, and where longer multi-reel productions were still programmed and shown reel-by-reel in periodic (most often weekly) installments or “parts,” George Kleine’s imported European motion pictures — primarily Italian and French productions from 2 to 12 reels in length — would be booked solid at theaters for days or weeks at a time.  Kleine’s strategy booked the exhibition of motion pictures in theaters in the same manner stage producers booked the tours of their most prestigious live shows.  It was a strategy that reverberated throughout the American film industry:

“Manufacturers decided that they need not always hold to the single reel subject and some of the foreign multiples [reels] had attracted attention.  George Kleine gave the business the final boost when he put “Quo Vadis” in the dramatic theaters.  There had been many notable productions prior to this, but it was this that broke into the old line houses and made patent to the world that a motion picture was not something cheap that people went to see when they had no time to go downtown to a regular theater.”  The Moving Picture World, “Advertising for Exhibitors,”  May 9, 1914, p. 812.

By the summer of 1914, no other American film distributor was having this kind of success with the European import in America.  Imported productions were never more important to American distributors and exhibitors than in the period preceding the outbreak of war in Europe in August of that year.  It had been an era in which filmmaking was truly an international artistic and commercial endeavor, where the phrase “foreign film” was essentially a non sequitur.  Not until the post-Second World War revitalization of film production in Italy and France in the 1940s and 1950s would imported films regain anything close to the importance they enjoyed in America during the 1910s.

Although the film industries of Europe and America feared the approach of hostilities in Europe, no one — as yet — on either side of the Atlantic had shown an inclination to proceed at anything less than full speed.  The Kleine company, not willing to rely solely on historical and religious-themed epics, was now touting modern dramas — films featuring new stage and motion picture stars of continental Europe, in particular the popular Italian actresses Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini.

The Transition/Italian “French” Films and the Beginnings of the Diva Film.

Lyda Borelli had completed her first film with Cines in early 1914, her third appearance in motion pictures after considerable success on stage in Europe.  Though this film, the provocatively titled La Donna Nuda, would not be given a general release in America until October, Kleine was already promoting Borelli breathlessly (and lowering her age by at least five years), along with the other “featured players” of the Cines company.  In May of 1914, a note in The Moving Picture World reported:

And Kleine followed this shortly with a trade press release featuring notable Cines actors:

. . . and a featured article by The Moving Picture World in July, 1914.

Coinciding with Kleine’s October release of La Donna Nuda, was another distributor’s offering of an earlier Borelli film– her first actually — from 1913, the evocatively titled, Ma l’amor mio non muore, which I translate as, “But my love never dies.”  But for some unknown reason the Celebrated Players Film Company renames and distributes it as a plebian “Love Everlasting.”

Celebrated Players had acquired the rights to the product of Film Gloria, S.A. of Turin, including this Borelli film.   But in their ads promoting the film they took pains to reference George Kleine as Borelli’s current American distributor, probably because it was good publicity to mention Kleine, and because Kleine’s home base, Chicago, is part of “Our Territory” as Celebrated Players Film Co. calls it.  In the rough and tumble business world of the time, smart management understood it was sometimes best to play nice with the bigger boys, and live to play another day.

An advertising slogan used by Celebrated Players, “A Big Story Tersely Told,” reflects the controversy over single reel  films versus “multiples” — the longer films that many exhibitors felt were padded with unnecessary footage just to allow the producers and distributors to hype their epic productions.  The Celebrated Players slogan walks that particular tightrope nicely, or more to the point, succinctly.

Ma l’amor mio non muore (we’ll compromise by using the original Italian title here) was a production of Turin-based Italian producer Film Artistica Gloria and directed by one of the seminal figures of the dawn of Italian cinema, Mario Caserini, who by the end of 1913 had directed more than a hundred films, the majority of them with Cines, including a bunch of pioneering single reel adaptations of Shakespeare, and later (and most notably) The Last Days of Pompeii.  Ma l’amor mio non muore, its five reels only one fewer than “Pompeii,” is beautifully constructed, staged and photographed, with a convincing performance by Borelli.  Still frames from excerpted sequences follow.

In a darkened room, only her face illuminated, Elsa (Lyda Borelli) remembers her loves and her triumphs on stage as the present dissolves into the past . . .

It seems that Elsa was a dancer and an actress, as was Lyda Borelli.

On October 3, 1914 The Moving Picture World reported, “Kleine Launches ‘The Naked Truth.'”  In truth, the film had been completed and premiered in Europe six months earlier: in Spain as “La Mujer des Nuda,” in France as “La Femme Nue” and in Italy as “La Donna Nuda,” all of which translate into English as “The Naked Woman” or more politely, “The Naked Lady.”  

The film had its American premiere as “The Naked Truth” and was the inaugural event in the brand new Candler Theater on 42nd Street at Broadway and Seventh Avenue in the heart of Times Square, on May 14, 1914.  And although the new Candler was not a movies-only venue, it was the latest (if only symbolic) blow against the hegemony of legitimate theater by George Kleine.

The Candler Theater at Times Square, built by Coca Cola magnate Asa Candler in 1914, was leased to and later purchased by Broadway impresarios George M. Cohan and Sam Harris, who renamed it first the Cohan and Harris Theater then, after their breakup, Harris acquired it renaming it, naturally, the Sam Harris Theater.  Motion pictures had the longest run at the Candler/Cohan/Harris theater when Harris lost it in bankruptcy proceedings in 1933, and it became a movies-only venue for the next 45 years, then finally a Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum before demolition in 1996 to make way for the New 42nd Street Theater in 2000.)

* * *

Historians and commentators on early Italian film have noted that Italian film production companies based in Turin, tended to make “French” films for an international audience.  If “French” means an emphasis on dramas of the estates and bedrooms of the wealthy and the aristocracy or those who attempted to live in their orbit, then that generalization contains a kernel of truth.  The historical sword and sandal, blood and glory and patriotic films that dominated the earliest period — 1906 to 1913 — of Italian filmmaking, including the epics discussed in prior articles, Cabiria and The Last Days of Pompeii, began to take a back seat by the end of 1914, especially after the mid-1914 release of Cabiria.  Although Cabiria may have inspired or otherwise influenced D. W. Griffith (Intolerance, 1916, for certain; Judith of Bethulia, 1914, is often mentioned, but it was completed in 1913, before Cabiria’s release so this is clearly not the case), Cecil B. DeMille (Joan the Woman, 1916, the closest thing to an ancient epic by DeMille prior to The Ten Commandments in 1923) and Thomas Ince (Civilization, 1916), among the most notable in America, there appears to have been no desire by Italian filmmakers to “top” Cabiria.  In any event none did.  Instead, dramas of the consequences of love, infidelity and sexual obsession, and in particular their impact upon women, are where the main thread of Italian film leads us during the next five years up to the commencement of the Not-so-roaring-in-Italy-Twenties.

Lyda Borelli.

La Donna Nuda was one of the first and most popular of what would become known as the “Diva Film.”  Kleine’s promotion made it one the most successful imported dramas in America in 1914, and possibly the most successful non-historical multi-reel import .  Kleine was now finding a solid market for American distribution of the modern, sophisticated dramas from Cines and Celio made by a mix of Italian and French casts and crews .  Though certainly in a different vein than the historical and religious epics, they were just as easy to promote in the hyperventilating style of 1914 film advertisement (see the prior article “AD SHARK” for a few examples).

La Donna Nuda is, not surprisingly, based on a story by French author Henry Bataille, “La Femme Nue,” (1908), and was adapted and directed by Carmine Gallone, a prolific writer/director/producer of over 130 films in a career that spanned fifty years and into the 1960s.  Borelli plays Lolette, a painter’s model in the bohemian arts community of Turin who becomes involved in romantic entanglements with multiple partners and couples.  She leaves her original mentor, an elderly painter, for a younger ambitious artist who in turn cheats on her with an older, wealthy patron.

Lolette suspects that her younger lover has been given a secret love note by another woman.  He denies it, but she catches him through glass doors romancing his new admirer.  A psychotic reaction ensues in what is an absolutely phenomenal performance of unbridled intensity that lasts more than five minutes in what appears to be a single take by Borelli.  And it takes even longer for her lover and a doctor to finally subdue her, sedate her, and plant her firmly in bed to recover.

 

Lyda Borelli was born in La Spezia, Liguria, in Italy in 1884 (some bios give 1887, no doubt due to distortions like those of the Kleine ads which subtracted years from her true age).  Her mother and sister were both actors, and Lyda began her acting career in Rome in 1902, quickly rising within the ranks of her colleagues in Italian theater.  By age twenty Borelli was working with the legendary Eleonora Duse, and in the estimation of her colleagues, critics and audiences, held a position just below the great Duse in the hierarchy of leading women or prima donnas of the Italian stage.

In 1913, in addition to Ma l’amour mio non muore, her first film, she appeared in La memoria dell altro (“Memories of another“), both with Film Gloria, S.A., before signing a contract with Cines, S.A., later that year for a reported $20,000 to appear in La Donna Nuda.  The “22-Year Old Girl” in George Kleine’s trade paper promotional ads for La Donna Nuda/The Naked Truth was actually a woman of thirty, a prima donna of Italian stage — and now a motion picture actress on the cusp of international stardom.   In fact, it is not an exaggeration to state that she was in the vanguard of those who created film acting and a template for “movie stardom.”

In his book, The History of Italian Cinema, Italian film historian Gian Piero Brunetta describes Lyda Borelli’s contribution to film acting, the rise of the concept of stardom and the Italian film cult of “diva:”

“[T]he true birth, explosion and triumphant rise . .  of the Italian star phenomenon . . took its first steps in Italy with Ma l’amour mio non muore.  This film created a widespread secular cult by establishing visual archetypes, the morphology of acting, and the vocabulary and syntax of emotions destined to become a point of reference for many future [stars] of Italian and international film.”

Brunetta goes on to compare the contribution of Lyda Borelli to film acting as comparable to that of 19th century handbooks of stage performance, and that:

“the added value was her stirring up the fires of romantic, melodramatic, decadent and symbolist imagination all at once.  Borelli entered the frame and invoked the viewer’s gaze; with a single gesture she sparked the collective desire: an immediate diva.”

Though her career in motion pictures would be brief — five years and fourteen films — two of her earliest of her screen appearances, Ma l’amour mio non muore and La Donna Nuda were the beginnings of Diva Film in Italy, and Lyda Borelli its first Diva.

Francesca Bertini.

Three years before Lyda Borelli first stepped in front of a motion picture camera, an eighteen year old veteran of the stage began appearing in one-reel dramas for Film d’Art.  Her name was Francesca Bertini.  Born Elena Vitiello in Florence in 1892, she was adopted by a Neapolitan writer and a Florentine actress, and grew up in Naples where she first appeared onstage and assumed the stage name, Francesca Bertini.  In 1910, she appeared in a small part in the stage drama Assunta Spina by Salvatore DiGiacomo which brought her to the attention of Film d’Art, the Italian branch of the French Pathe Film, which cast her in a series of short films based on works of classic and modern literature, including Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Bertini’s most important early career move was her decision to leave Film d’Art and their single reel productions to sign with another production company, Celio, in Rome and appear in their multi-reel dramas.  Her first important success with Celio in the long film format was in the four reels of L’ Histoire d’ un Pierrot playing the male lead.  George Kleine premiered the film as “Pierrot the Prodigal” in four reels on June 8, 1914 in the “beautiful new Candler Theater,” gushed The Moving Picture World, “this [film] reflects great credit on the producer . . . but [also] to Messrs. Kleine and Bloom, the proprietors.”  Bertini’s performance was called, “admirable.”  Unbelievably, the premiere of “Pierrot” was part of a double feature, the second half of which was the three reels of La Donna Nuda/The Naked Truth starring “Mlle. Lyda Dorelli [sic], a famous actress,” the very same film that christened the new Candler Theater just one month earlier, but this time accompanied by a score played by the Russian Symphony Orchestra of New York.

Another Bertini film for Celio, directed by Baldassarre Negroni (who helmed “Pierrot“), premiered shortly after “Pierrot” but with considerably less praise.  La bufera, which translates to “The Storm” in English, was released by Kleine with the overwrought title, “In Temptation’s Toils.”  The MPW described it as being a story of “the eternal triangle,” told clearly and acted competently, but that Bertini, “one of the leading photoplayers contributing to Celio’s productions . . . is an actress of unusual attainments [however] there is no great opportunity for her to display her ability . .”

In late summer, 1914, although the commencement in Europe of what would soon become a world conflict caused many film producers and distributors in both Europe and America to scramble to obtain or even to fake film footage “from the front,” the reality was that concern for their assets, both capital and human, soon began to supersede their competitive desires despite their public denials.  The Moving Picture World reported:

“George Kleine announces that there will be no interruption to business or any inconvenience to exhibitors in obtaining the Kleine output as a result of the war.  Mr. Kleine is well fortified to withstand protracted hostilities in Europe.”  MPW, Aug. 15, 1914.

But a trade press release from Kleine in October, and carried in The Motion Picture World, paints a different picture of the Kleine-Cines-Celio, assets on the Italian peninsula:

“KLEINE-CINES STOCK LEAVES WAR ZONE.  Owing to the many annoyances contingent upon the mobilization of military forces in Rome, the Cines Co. has moved several of its more important stock companies to foreign countries.  Miss Lyda Borelli has taken a band of players to South America, where she will produce four multiples having their locale in Brazil, while Miss Francesca Bertini has embarked for the Riviera in Southern France with a party of Celio players.”

Ah — damn those “many annoyances” of military mobilization!  Somehow I think Francesca is getting the better deal here, as long as France holds firm at the Maginot Line; but it seems as if “Miss” Borelli is getting an upgrade of sorts to Producer, doesn’t it?  And that’s for the “several . . more important stock companies.”  What about those poor less important bastards?  Stuck in Italy for the war?  Oh well.  C’est la guerre!

It leaves me to wonder  . . . If “Misses” Borelli and Bertini are sailing off to foreign ports — that’s right, I said sailing (remember, this is twenty years before international passenger aviation) — then where does that leave the most intriguing of the future Divas?  Is it possible that “Miss” Pina Menichelli is stuck in Rome for the War?  [If so, I’d be perfectly happy to sweat out the war in Rome with Pina and some good wine . . . OK, skip the wine, Pina Menichelli would be intoxication enough for any normal man — with wine you’d be heading for an overdose . . .]

Pina Menichelli.

It is highly unlikely that Kleine-Cines would really risk leaving one of their more important assets behind unprotected in Italy should the war threaten to reach Italian soil in the fall of 1914.  From the beginning of 1913, Pina Menichelli had appeared in about forty films for Cines, two and three reel dramas and occasional comedies, in mostly significant roles — leads, villains, important supporting roles.  Like Borelli and Bertini she had worked in theater, but unlike them her stage work seems to have been unremarkable.  George Kleine distributed more films with Pina Menichelli in prominent roles than Borelli and Bertini combined without once touting her as a “great actress” in his ads in the film trade press.  She apparently lacked that theatrical pedigree prized by American distributors of European films — films with actors who were otherwise virtually unknown to American audiences outside of New York.  But Menichelli would soon prove her worth to the Kleine-Cines consortium, and the war in Europe would be no obstacle to her achieving major stardom on the Continent by 1915.

At the turn of the Twentieth Century, as it had been for hundreds of years in Europe, acting was one’s life-calling, often a family tradition.  Nearly all actors of the period had at least one parent, or frequently both, whose trade was acting or another of the performing arts.  Pina Menichelli came from just such a clan of artists.  But her contemporaries Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini came from the Italian peninsula: Borelli from Liguria (near Genoa), Bertini from Florence (and raised in Naples).  Menichelli came from a village near Messina, in Sicily.  This may seem nothing more than a geographical footnote of little significance at first.   However, the moment I make a similar comparison — but use America instead of Italy — and I compare the origins of three hypothetical actors, two coming from say, New York and Boston respectively, with a third from a town in the Deep South, for example Natchez, Mississippi or Mobile, Alabama, then Americans will get the point.  Someone whose origin is not the capitals of commerce or culture will generally have baggage to overcome, even if such baggage exists only in the eyes of others.  I don’t desire to overstate the point, but I suspect Pina Menichelli may have had to work a bit harder in the beginning of her acting career to overcome disadvantages, perceived or real and, as a result, once she found her niche in film she held on fast and rode it to stardom.

It didn’t take Menichelli long to receive attention in the American film press.  Like Borelli, her third appearance in motion pictures attracted sufficient attention to propel her film career forward in Italy, and outward to receive international attention.  Zuma (Cines, 1913), directed by Baldassarre Negroni, released in America by George Kleine as “Zuma the Gypsy,” garnered Menichelli’s first significant notice in the American press.  The Moving Picture World described her performance:

“Miss Menichelli is especially deserving of mention for her fine portrayal of Luciana, the patrician beauty who tries to wean away Count Fossi from his adorable little wife.”

In film reviews of 1913, it was not routine to mention an actor’s name when pointing out a particularly good (or bad) performance.  It was more common for the reviewer to simply give a synopsis of plot and note the quality of photography, settings and costumes, and if an actor was singled out it was often not by name but by a description of the performance as convincing, believable, or not.  The MPW‘s review of “Zuma” which critiques Menichelli by name is noteworthy in this respect — and in one other:  it describes her character as a beautiful vixen who stole other women’s men, a woman with little or no moral compass.  Pina Menichelli would make her reputation playing characters of this type for much of the next five years as she rose to stardom of the first magnitude, a prima donna, a diva at her best portraying the dark side of love and sexual obsession, a dolorous diva.

TO BE CONTINUED . . . Pina Menichelli changes producers and hits stardom in Il Fuoco and Tigre Reale, The rise of “Diva Film,” Diva obsession in popular culture, Borelli and Bertini test the boundaries of the “liberated” woman in film and filmmaking, and The Not-so-Roaring Twenties for Italian film.

For Further Reading:

Brunetta, Gian Piero, The History of Italian Cinema, Princeton University Press (2009, paperback).  A rare English translation of an essential Italian film history text which according to the author he prepared as a pared-down version of his longer works, the four volume Storia del Cinema Italiano (1993), and Cent’anni del Cinema Italiano (1991) which places Italian film in the broader context of Italian history.  The author has essentially reduced these two larger works into this single volume which is a study of Italian film within the context of international cinema.  The first chapter on Italian cinema muto gives a solid foundation and sufficient detail and depth to give the reader a useful understanding of the beginnings and early development of the Italian film industry.  It especially interesting to compare the early years of Italian film with its corresponding period in America and France, and though there are many similarities, there are fascinating differences as well.  Much of my essay here with respect to the early Italian film companies and their relationship with the George Kleine company was drawn from this excellent volume.

Dalle Vacche, Angela, Diva: Defiance and Passion in Early Italian Cinema, University of Texas Press (2008, Paperback, with DVD, “Diva Dolorosa,” (Filmmuseum Netherlands)/VPRO, 1999, Dir: Peter Delpeut).  It is the rare modern book — in paperback, no less — that can be called “sumptuous,” but this book is all that, physically; the contents are even better.  As much a sociological study of the “diva” as it is a history of diva film examined within the context of  social, cultural and political history —  feminism, psychology: obsession and occultism, art: film, acting, photography, fashion, painting, and much more.  Included in the 2008 first paperback edition is the wonderful 1999 film, “Diva Dolorosa,” a compilation of surviving diva film woven into a dolorous tapestry with marvelous music score. (See “essential viewing,” below!)

Essential Viewing:

Any of the films screened by Angela Della Vacche for her book, “Diva,” are “essential.”  Unfortunately for the average cinephile or the divamaniac, most of these are available only at archives in Rome, Turin, Bologna, Milan, Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris, New York (MoMA) or Washington DC (LiCo).  The good news is that so many (although maybe a fraction of all those made) still exist in essentially intact form.  Some are fragments, but more than a few are restored with original color toning and tints — particularly important in the case of diva film which were always carefully toned and tinted according to color schemes particular to each film.

Diva Dolorosa (“The Dolorous Diva”), Filmmuseum Netherlands/VPRO, 1999, Dir: Peter Delpeut, score by Loek Dikker; Color, 70 minutes, 1.33:1 aspect ratio, Silent with English, Dutch and Italian intertitles and optional English subtitles.  An experimental film consisting of clips from surviving “diva films” set to an orchestral music score written and performed specially for this film.  There is no narration.  The minimal captions set the clips in the realm of the fin de siecle (end of the century) “Black Romanticism,” a sort of intellectual, psychological torpor in which pleasure cannot exist without pain, love without death, and passion without punishment.  According to the narrative titles, quoting Baudelaire, the Diva is exhorted to “Be Beautiful! — and Be Sad!”  Words cannot do this film justice.  It is widely available from the usual sources, but expect to pay about $34.95 for it — it is “free” with the book, “Diva,” by Angela Della Vacche, but that book, also widely available will cost you  . . . $34.95.  Make sure to get the 2008 University of Texas paperback edition — The earlier hardbound edition will cost $75 to $120, and you won’t get the DVD.

These individual films were cited in this essay (arranged in the order in which they appeared).  Here are sources, where applicable, for each:

Tigre Reale (“Royal Tigress;” Itala Film, 1916), directed by Giovanni Pastrone.  You Tube, a good quality 480p image, strongly color-toned, probably complete version, ostensibly from a TV broadcast.  Also, this film appears in several separate clips in “Diva Dolorosa,” above.

La Piovra (“The Octopus,”, Bertini Film, 1919), directed by Edoardo Bencievenga.  Clip from “Diva Dolorosa,” above.

Il Piccolo Garibaldino (“The Boy Garibaldi”), (Cines, 1909), Dir: Filoteo Alberini; You Tube, a good quality, 480p image, probably complete version.

Anita Garibaldi (Cines, 1910), Dir: Mario Caserini; You Tube, a fair quality, tinted, soft 240p image, probably complete version.

Quo Vadis?  (1913), KINO DVD, 1999(?)

The Last Days of Pompeii, (1913),KINO DVD, 1999

Spartacus (1914), Grapevine Video, DVD, 2006

For Napoleon and France (1914), N/A

Antony and Cleopatra (1914), Grapevine Video, DVD, 2006

La Donna Nuda (“The Naked Truth”), Cines, 1914, Clip from “Diva Dolorosa,” 1999 compilation film, above.

Ma l’amor mio non muore (“Love Everlasting”), (Gloria Film, 1913)You Tube, a good quality, 480p image, compilation of clips from the film, about 1 reel total of the original 5 reel film.

La memoria dell altro (“Memories of another“), (Gloria Film, 1913), N/A

Re Lear (“King Lear”), Film d’Art 1910, Dir: Gerolamo LoSavio, “Silent Shakespeare” VHS & DVD, TCM TV broadcasts.

Il mercante di Venezia (“The Merchant of Venice”), Film d’Art 1910, Dir: Gerolamo LoSavio.  “Silent Shakespeare” VHS & DVD, TCM TV broadcasts.

L’ Histoire d’ un Pierrot (Celio, 1913), N/A

La bufera, (Celio, 1913), which translates to “The Storm” in English, was released by Kleine with the overwrought title, “In Temptation’s Toils.”  You Tube, a good quality, 480p image, probably complete version.

Zuma (Cines, 1913), directed by Baldassarre Negroni, released in America by George Kleine as “Zuma the Gypsy,” , N/A.

Online Resources:

The Internet Archive at http://www.archive.org/.   Here you can search and find historical publications including searchable scans of complete volumes of The Moving Picture World from 1912 to 1917, I believe (right on the money for a Diva Film research project) , Film Daily (from 1919 onward), and many issues of the excellent Photoplay Magazine from the mid 1910s up into the 1930s, and new scans of these periodicals and more are being added almost daily.  For someone crazy enough to spend an average of over $50 apiece for original issues of the MPW, nearly that for Photoplays, and over $100 for a Film Daily Yearbook from the silent era, this is a very welcome resource!

IMDB and Wikipedia:  These can be a useful starting point for research, but if you rely on them or quote them without verifying from another independent source, you do so at your own peril, especially anything from the early (pre-1920) period of cinema, European film in particular.  The Italian Wikipedia should be checked first for articles on Italian film history, but you’ll need to use Google translation if your Italian is shaky or non-existent.

You Tube:  Oddly, this is the best resource for the average person with a general interest in early film who doesn’t have access to the major archives or revival houses in a major city.  A simple You Tube search of an actor, director, or film title will likely yield multiple results, even complete short and long films, and many examples of surprisingly good prints, some with beautiful toning and tints.

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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