Early Film Making in Naples
-- with special reference to Gustavo Lombardo & Elvira Notari
This page incorporates an entry from 2012 on the two film personalities mentioned above into a current (July 18, 2018) entry on early film making, in general. "Early", as I use it, covers the period from the early 1890s up through WWI and beyond into the rise of Fascism in the early 1920s and the "film crisis" of 1928 and the national decision to relocate virtually all Italian film production to a central location in Rome. There will be a mention of Cinecittà, the Italian "Cinema City, and then a further link to the films of neo-Realism. This page is NOT about the aesthetics and philosophy of film, film theory, criticism, or the semiotics and/or deconstruction of early Italian film. (Whew! I hope you are as happy about that as I am!) There are a number of books that deal with such things. Particularly interesting are Italian Film by Marcia Landy, Cambridge University Press, 2000; and The History of Italian Cinema by Gian Pietro Brunetta, original Italian 2003, Einaudi; English translation by Jeremy Parzen, 2009, Princeton University Press.When cinema pioneers, the Lumière brothers, Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis (1864 - 1948), patented an improved cinematograph (image) in 1895, maybe they didn't know what they were about to start. In contrast to Thomas Edison's one-person "peepshow", the Lumière device permitted simultaneous viewing by many persons. The Lumières held their first private screening of projected motion pictures on 22 March 1895 in Paris, at the "Society for the Development of the National Industry," in front of an audience of 200 people.
There are a few things about the early uses of the Lumière camera and projector in Naples that make the city, if not unique, at least very important since they bear directly on what the motion picture industry was to become in later years. Essentially, the path of early cinema in Naples runs from (1) use for advertising to (2) early travel and documentary one-reelers to (3) the first "stories", generally of the kind we associate with Neapolitan melodrama called the "sceneggiata" (dialect "soap operas", really) to (4) patriotic films in WWI to (5) the influence of Fascism on films in the 1920s.
In Naples, the first projections of the Lumière projector were in "coffee bars". They had offered live music and now started to include Lumière projections. The Salone Margherita (in the new Galleria Umberto) of the Marino Brothers was the first of these. Neapolitan newspapers supported the new activity and were attentive to what was running where. At least in late 1890s, the entertainment value of most of the projections was really "novelty value" more than anything else. Typical would be the bar opened by Mario Recanati, who rented space in the Galleria and used Lumière films to advertise his products, mostly cylinder recordings and phonographs. They were using short films as advertising. Recanati also created the first Italian company for the distribution and trade of films. In 1901 the Sala Iride was built by Menotti Cattaneo. He even added sound by hiring professional stage actors actors to stand on the sides of the stage and recite the captions!
Movie theaters sprang up quickly in the first 5 years of the 1900s. They tended to be located in the newer sections of Naples, meaning in the areas that had just been redone (or built anew) by the great urban renewal of that period, the Risanamento. In the Sala Elgé in 1907 the first "story" film produced in Naples was screened: Il Delitto delle Fontanelle [The Crime of the Fontanelle] by the Troncone brothers. They had done well earlier with a short travelogue in 1900, Il Ritorno delle Carrozze from Montevergine [Return of the Carriage from Montevergine] and later in 1906, they went to Vesuvius to make a documentary on the eruption in that year. The Eruption of Vesuvius was very successful. They founded the Partenope Film company in 1908, which would be one of the most important film makers of the time.
The production of the Neapolitan cinema of this period centered on the natural scenery of the gulf and on aspects of folklore (ex-voto altars, duels, passionate loves, processions of the saints) and distinguished itself from the rest of Italian production due to its proximity to the context. They didn't need sets. The filmmakers drifted through the courtyards of Naples and shot what they found. That, you may recognize, was one of the hallmarks of "Neo-Realism" [link at the end of this page].
Gustavo Lombardo & Elvira Notari - Two Contributors to the Early Italian Film Industry
Gustavo Lombardo. There were early film companies in various places in Italy in the first decade of the 20th century. One of the largest of these was Itala Film in Torino, founded in 1908. Gustavo Lombardo got in on the ground floor. He was born in Naples in 1885, started out to study law, quit that and by 1908 had gone into film distribution. He became the representative in southern Italy for Carlo Rossi & Co., the founders of Itala Film as well as for some foreign film companies, such as the French company, Gaumont and Eclair. Lombardo also founded a cinema journal, Lux, in 1909. He expanded his distribution activities into other parts of Italy and in 1915 founded Monopolio Lombardo, the largest film distributor in Italy. He acquired the earlier Polifilms company that had premises in the Vomero section of Naples and in 1916 turned his attention to producing films there by founding Teatro-Lombardo Film, which then became Lombardo Film in 1919.
In the 1920s, the Fascist government mandated the establishment of centralized film production, to be located in Rome, and, like other film producers in Italy, Lombardo moved to the capital in the late 1920s. He changed the name of his company to Titanus (logo, above right); Titanus remained important in the Italian film industry until well after WWII, making hundreds of popular films. Among his many credits, Lombardo launched the film career of Antonio De Curtis, known as Totò, the best-loved comic in Italy. (That film was from 1937 and entitled Fermo con le Mani — roughly, Keep Your Hands to Yourself — directed by Gero Zambuti.) Lombardo died in 1951 in Rome. Titanus, itself, ceased production in 1964 due to financial difficulties. It came back after a reorganization and is active in Italian television productions.
Elvira Notari was born Elvira Coda in 1875 in Salerno; she died in 1946 in Cava de' Tirreni, near Salerno. She was Italy's earliest woman filmmaker, making over 60 feature films and about 100 documentaries.
Elvira moved to Naples in 1900, married Nicola Notari, and together they founded the Dora Film company. She directed; he ran the camera. (He was also known as a highly skilled "colorizer" of motion picture film, laboriously using tiny brushes to add color to films, frame by frame!) Her films are now regarded by critics as somewhat the forerunner of the later movement, Neo-Realism, in that she used mostly non-professional actors, filmed on the streets of Naples, and dealt with the uncomfortable and often crude lives of those who live on the margins of society. Her favorite Neapolitan "realist" authors of the day included Francesco Mastriani (she made a film version of his novel Medea di Porta Medina in 1918) and Matilde Serao (who, unfortunately for Notari, preferred to assign filming rights to companies in Rome). Notari was the first to produce films comparable to the Neapolitan staged melodrama, the Sceneggiata. As such, it was Notari's films, through a Dora Film subsidiary in New York City, that captured the allegiance of the Italian immigrant population much more than the spectacular "Sword and Sandal" films of early Italian film making such as Quo Vadis? (1913, Cines Film, Rome, directed by F. Alberini) or The Last Days of Pompei (1913, Ambrosio Film, Torino, dir. by M. Caserini and E. Rodolfi). Notari also made documentaries about the "old country" for the Italian-American immigrant population. Her film output went from 1906 to 1929. Most of her films appear to have been lost over the years, though some remain.
Her films dealt not only with the seamy side of life but often portrayed passion and sexual desire both male and female. This led to the general public perception that her films were actually the work of her husband since women certainly couldn't (or at least wouldn't) make films about such things! In reality, Notari not only directed the films but was very much involved in writing the screenplays and editing the finished product. In any event, such subject matter did not fare well under the censorship of Fascist Italy. The Notaris closed Dora Film in 1930 and moved to Salerno to retire. Elvira and her husband opened a photography equipment store. Her decision to retire almost certainly had nothing to do with any lack of desire or ability to deal with the change to sound motion pictures. Most likely she just couldn't take the censorship. (Government censors, in an attempt to encourage one national language, even objected to any sub-titles in Neapolitan dialect. That held over into sound films and dubbing; see this link.) Two, she probably did not want to relocate to Rome, a must for film makers in Italy in the 1920s as the government sought to move all Italian film production facilities to the capital.
Elvira Notari's name and reputation languished for a long time even among the ranks of film historians. She has enjoyed a bit of a comeback recently with the appearance of critical commentary such as Streetwalking on a Ruined Map: Cultural Theory and the City Films of Elvira Notari by Giuliana Bruno (a Neapolitan and a professor at Harvard's Dept. of Visual and Environmental Studies), Princeton University Press, 1993. As well, the Venice Film Festival has named one of its various prizes after Elvira Notari. It's about time.
During the First World War their Dora Film successfully produced documentaries and patriotic films: Warfare preparations in Naples - Heroism of an aviator in Tripoli, etc. Then it began a series of films inspired by real events and the literary and musical tradition: Il Barcaiolo d'Amalfi, based on the novel by Francesco Mastriani; Chiarina the Modista, from the novel by Carolina Invernizio; Medea di Portamedina, from the novel by Francesco Mastriani; 'A Legge, from the song by E.A.Mario and others.
Precisely because of their natural setting, Dora films were a huge success in America where emigrants queued up to see their homeland. Those were the years when permanent emigration grew throughout southern Italy: from Naples, at least 80,000 departed every year until 1921. Half of them were illiterate. This led the American subsidiary of Dora to film in and near Naples for the migrant communities abroad. They turned out one-reelers, small documentaries on various local "home towns" and sold them to movie theaters in Italian-American communities in the USA.
The advent of Fascism with its censorship laws was the main cause of the failure of Dora Film. The social and cultural scenario of the poor emigrants forced to leave home and the use of dialect were elements that were not part of the national revival agenda of the regime, which in 1928 definitively prohibited the production of dialect films (even as it had discouraged dialect captions in the silent film era. The national film industry settled permanently in Rome, and many of those film makers who had lived and worked in Naples now simply moved to Rome and Cinecittà (Cinema City). It was founded by Mussolini in 1937 and at 400,000 square meters (c. 150 sq. miles) is still the largest film studio in Europe.
In 1928, the centralization of film production in Rome essentially caused the collapse of most Italian local cinema. Lombardo (noted above) moved his activity to Rome. Here he bought the former Scalera Film studios and founded the Titanus company on 12 June 1928, destined to become one of the most important production houses in Europe.
[To the later period of Neo-Realism and information on the works of Roberto Bracco, who films as early as 1910-20 are seen by some historians as antecedents to Neo-Realism.]