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Italy In Hollywood Section No.4

Johnny WANG 2019-04-01 09:41

In the previous issue, we introduced Italy in Hollywood taking place in Florence, Italy. In this issue we will have a closer look at the fifth and sixth halls of the exhibition.

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The Impact of Renaissance

The relationship between Italian culture and American film industry was not a single-way process, as the previous halls in the exhibition might suggest. They closely interacted with each other. From 1919 to 1925, American movies went through a revolutionary period and won recognition from Europe and other parts of the world. During this time many American producers and actors chose to leave their country, some of them reaching Italy and stopping by Rome, Florence, Venice, and Naples. For instance, the “Father of American Movies” D.W. Griffith (1875—1948), along with Oscar-winning Canadian actress Mary Pickford (1893—1979) and her husband Douglas Fairbanks (1883—1939) picked Sicily as their travel destination in 1926. And in the mid-1920s, the screenwriter and producer of movie Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Anita Loos (1889—1981), chose to travel around Rome with her husband John Emerson.

During this period, when Italian film industry was in a decline, American producers made  dozens of films here. They appreciated the harmonious cultural environment, as well as the theatrical talent of Italian actors. The scenery views they saw in Italy inspired them, while the balance between traditional craftsmanship and consumerism offered them a new perspective to create art. The highlight of the fifth hall is the film Ben Hur, directed by Fred Niblo (1874-1948). The production of which was supported by Tito Neri and his shipyard in Livorno. After the original prop ship was damaged, they made a new one in record-breaking time. Besides, in the film Romola (adapted from the novel by George Elliot [1819—1880]) directed by Henry King (1886—1982) in 1924, the Neri Shipyard again proved their excellent craftsmanship in reproducing the historic form of ships.

These examples show the America’s unique interest of the Renaissance that leads to the concentration of resources in Florence. Apart from the scenes in Museo Nazionale del Bargello and Florence Cathedral, the costume designers, sculptors, carpenters and other craftsmen also contributed to the wonderful production of films. As American art historian Bernard Berenson (1865—1959) points out, the Renaissance air in the films is created by sophisticated details, as well as the numerous paintings and sculptures, which communicate with the language of filming and the historical background. Don’t forget the screenwriter of Romola conducted thorough research in libraries before he left for Italy. The film was shot in V.I.S Studio in suburb Florence, where the production team established a whole set of Florence relics in the studio to create the perfect scenes for the movie.

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Spreading Music

The sixth hall puts focus on a huge media device playing Italian music once popular in the US, especially in California. At that time, though lyric and classical music were quite popular among the upper class, the favourite genres for Italian immigrants remained to be Neapolitan and Sicilian. Some of the exhibits are documentaries recording the life of Italian immigrants, including their engagement with the New World and the family conflicts between generations. As a result, the Italian music to a large extent influenced the North American dancing music at that time. For example, Sicilian singer Rosario Catalano and his quartet, and many other Italian American singers in the 1920s.

The contribution of Italian immigrants to jazz music is also prominent. Quite a few Italian musicians performed in some renowned bands with their English stage names, including trumpet artist and founder of Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Nick La Rocca (1889-1961), baritone Russ Columbo (1908—1934, originally known as Ruggiero Eugenio di Rodolfo Colombo), and violin artist Joe Venuti (1903—1978, originally Giuseppe Venuti). Venuti introduced violin to jazz music and co-starred with “Father of Jazz Guitar” Eddie Lang (1902—1933) in the movie The King of Jazz. Eddie Lang was born Salvatore Massaro, whose father was a musician from Italy. He co-worked with a number of musical moguls in American history, including Louis Armstrong (1901—1971), King Oliver (1885—1938), clarinet artist and composer Benny Goodman (1909—). He also cooperated with Bing Crosby (1903—1977) in Hollywood movies. Adrian Rollini of the California Ramblers is also on his partner list, who debuted playing Chopin in New York’s Waldorf at the age of four.

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Besides, Italian musicians also added Italian wind instruments to the jazz music, which paved ways for Italian American singers like Louis Prima (1910—1978), Frank Sinatra (1915—1998) and Dean Martin (1917—1995). Martin’s most famous song I Will Always Love You became a classic after Whitney Houston (1963—2012) covered it in the 1992 film The Bodyguard. Technological revolution is an aspect worth mentioning. In 1902, Enrico Caruso recorded the world’s first aria album in Milan, and later La Rocca recorded the first jazz album in New York in 1917.

Just like other 19th century music genres, many musicians pointed out the relationship between classical and jazz music. “Bel canto and Italian opera have been transliterated into African American jazz music represented by Armstrong,” for example, the hit songs New Orleans Stomp, Dinah (1925), Tiger Rag (1917) borrow some elements from Italian operas Rigoletto, I Pagliacci and La Cavalleria Rusticana

【Pictures Courtesy Of: Museum of Salvatore Ferragamo; Firenze, Gallerie degli Uffizi, Galleria d’Arte Moderna; Torino, Centro Altreitalie; Collezione privata / Private collection Foto Arrigo Coppitz; The Collection of Motion Picture Costume Design: Larry McQueen, Los Angeles

【Layouts Hu Fangfang】


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