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Napoli/New York/Hollywood: Film between Italy and the United States

Napoli/New York/Hollywood: Film between Italy and the United States

by Giuliana Muscio


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Napoli/New York/Hollywood is an absorbing investigation of the significant impact that Italian immigrant actors, musicians, and directors—and the southern Italian stage traditions they embodied—have had on the history of Hollywood cinema and American media, from 1895 to the present day. In a unique exploration of the transnational communication between American and Italian film industries, media or performing arts as practiced in Naples, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, this groundbreaking book looks at the historical context and institutional film history from the illuminating perspective of the performers themselves—the workers who lend their bodies and their performance culture to screen representations. In doing so, the author brings to light the cultural work of families and generations of artists that have contributed not only to American film culture, but also to the cultural construction and evolution of “Italian-ness” over the past century.

Napoli/New York/Hollywood offers a major contribution to our understanding of the role of southern Italian culture in American cinema, from the silent era to contemporary film. Using a provocative interdisciplinary approach, the author associates southern Italian culture with modernity and the immigrants’ preservation of cultural traditions with innovations in the mode of production and in the use of media technologies (theatrical venues, music records, radio, ethnic films). Each chapter synthesizes a wealth of previously under-studied material and displays the author’s exceptional ability to cover transnational cinematic issues within an historical context. For example, her analysis of the period from the end of World War I until the beginning of sound in film production in the end of the 1920s, delivers a meaningful revision of the relationship between Fascism and American cinema, and Italian emigration.

Napoli/New York/Hollywood examines the careers of those Italian performers who were Italian not only because of their origins but because their theatrical culture was Italian, a culture that embraced high and low, tragedy and comedy, music, dance and even acrobatics, naturalism, and improvisation. Their previously unexplored story—that of the Italian diaspora’s influence on American cinema—is here meticulously reconstructed through rich primary sources, deep archival research, extensive film analysis, and an enlightening series of interviews with heirs to these traditions, including Francis Coppola and his sister Talia Shire, John Turturro, Nancy Savoca, James Gandolfini, David Chase, Joe Dante, and Annabella Sciorra.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823279388
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 10/30/2018
Series: Critical Studies in Italian America
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 10.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Giuliana Muscio is Professor in the History of Cinema at the University of Padova, Italy.

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Italian Performers in American Silent Cinema

This chapter explores the cultural significance of Italian performers — including opera stars, performers from the Italian immigrant stage, and actors from Italy — and of popular Italian movies to the success and international expansion of American silent cinema.

Antonio Maiori, the "Salvini of the Bowery"

In his 1891 review for Harper's Weekly, the theater critic John Corbin described the experience of attending an Italian performance of Othello starring the Sicilian-born immigrant performer Antonio Maiori (Messina 1870–Brooklyn 1938).

The dearth of tragedy that has of late fallen on the Broadway theatres has been indifferently laid to the lack of good actors and to the abundance of ballets and vaudeville shows. It would be perhaps more just to lay it to the lack of a school of tragic acting. ... The announcement therefore that "Othello" and "Hamlet" were to be brought out in the Italian theatre in the Bowery raised the question which only experience could answer, whether the tragic muse had been brought down from the clouds of ballet girls uptown to live among the men of the East Side. ... The Italian Theatre, which is just South of Grand Street, is as rude and bare as ever an Elizabethan playhouse on the Bankside — and not noticeably more clean.

He went on to describe stumbling actors, a loud prompter, actresses "quietly awaiting their cues ... through an aperture in the castle wall"; he also ridiculed the play's mise-en-scène, noting: "The 'Othello' version used was in prose and, as far as I could make out, it was stripped of most of the characteristic Shaksperian [sic] passages. ... The actors spoke mainly in vulgar Italian." Indeed, at that time, it was not unusual to present the classics in the immigrants' own language — German, Russian, Yiddish, Italian — not only in the southern section of Manhattan, but wherever diasporic communities were present. By the nineteenth century, Shakespeare had become part of "a shared public culture" and played a major role in the cultural integration of immigrants in the United States, until the dominant class "sacralized" the bard. The experience of attending a performance of Shakespeare in Italian helped with the "Americanization" of Italian immigrants; it introduced them to American cultural values, while also familiarizing them with standard Italian, because at home, most of them spoke in dialect. "Italianized Shakespeare" entertained and educated immigrants while also attracting American audiences and critics, such as Corbin. As with opera, Americans would go to see a drama despite not knowing the language, simply in order to appreciate the performance. Their presence in a Bowery theater implicitly legitimated Italian culture at a time when Italians were less than welcome in the United States because they were not considered white.

Corbin observed the Italian audience in these terms:

Our little party from uptown was surprised to find them as much amused by most of the incongruities as we. Yet their laughter was quiet and charitable, and in no wise interfered with their enjoyment of what wteas enjoyable. They were for most part bootblacks, peanut-vendors, and organ grinders, or at most members of Colonel Waring's brigade; yet it seemed that in the simplicity of their souls they felt the force of the play with more heartiness than one could have expected of an audience on Broadway.

Corbin's picturesque description suggests that the audience was largely made up of Italian immigrants, mostly peddlers — probably an automatic stereotype which may not have sprung from actual evidence in the theater. What surprised the "little party from uptown" was that "in the simplicity of their souls" these Italians had greater sensitivity for tragedy than so-called sophisticated Americans. Corbin continues:

In the tragic climaxes a part of the gallery would shout with delight, only to be hissed silent by the rest until the rest of the scene, on which all yelled at the top of their lungs. At the death of Desdemona — Desdémona she was properly called — a heavy silence fell upon the house; and when the stage closed on the last act, and all was over, it was plain that there were sad hearts in the audience, and minds turned upon the soberest realities of life.

Apparently, Corbin paid more attention to the noisy spectators than to the show, documenting the entire evening program for posterity.

But the managers had provided that there should not be too much sorrow. The drop was scarcely down when the sometime Duke of Venice bounded out in a song-and-dance costume and bellowed out a Neapolitan ditty. Then to restore the balance again Cassio came out in black street clothes, somewhat threadbare and shiny, if the truth be told, and sang us a sentimental song while we were putting on our coats. Alas for our uptown manners! The simple and kindly Italians did not turn from the delights of the stage until the last mournful cadence was ended.

The typical Italian immigrant theater program would include songs and comic sketches, following the commedia dell'arte tradition, where singing, dancing, and acrobatics accompanied the acting and comedy followed tragedy. This mixed format was not specific to Italian theater. According to Levine, before moving to Broadway, Shakespeare was commonly performed with musical intervals and comic sketches, and with this integration of formats, "Shakespeare was popular entertainment in nineteenth-century America." Corbin's surprised reaction stemmed from the fact that he and his "little party from uptown" were no longer used to these popular forms of representation, as his comments on the shabby scenery confirm. His reaction to this performance documents a transformation at the level of cultural hierarchy as well as class distinction in performance venues.

After all the picturesque details, it was indeed the Italian actors' abilities that struck the reviewer, who lavished praise on Maiori for his remarkable performance.

When I saw the setting of the stage, I admit, I had my doubts. Yet the total effect was good — incredibly good. And those who saw the "Othello" of Antonio Maiori could not fail to be impressed with the fact that a dramatic illusion has no necessary relation to the scene painter and the stage carpenter, and that a touch of vital art transcends all limitations.

Of the quality of Maiori's acting it is not easy to speak without suspicion of exaggeration. ... It is also possible that his manner owes much to the elder Salvini [Tommaso]. Yet the fact remains that he played throughout with genuine intelligence, with simple dignity, and with conviction. In the scene in the Venetian council-chamber his presence was fine, and his manner full of repose; his delivery was quiet and impressive. His voice is rich and flexible and strong, and he does not overwork it. ... In the scene where he strangles Desdemona his passion rose to a height that was magnificent; and afterward the despair that clutches at the heart was genuinely terrible. When all was over one felt that he had been face to face with Shakespeare's tragedy in a way that could not have been, except for Madame Modjeska, in any other theatre this season in America.

Corbin greatly appreciated Maiori's performance, likening it to the tradition of the grande attore italiano represented by Tommaso Salvini, de facto inaugurating the definition of Maiori as "the Salvini of the Bowery," reprised by American critic Owen Kildare and other critics. Tommaso Salvini had been a very influential actor in the history of world theater. He toured the United States extensively between 1873 and 1889, in addition to performing in Europe, Latin America, Egypt, and Russia, where he impressed Konstantin Stanislavsky, who took inspiration from his performance of Othello to elaborate his aesthetics of naturalistic acting that laid the foundation for the Method — adopted fifty years later by the Actors Studio. Stanislavsky also studied and appreciated Adelaide Ristori, Ernesto Rossi, and Eleonora Duse who had toured the Western world. Even in the days of ocean liners (before airplanes) Italian actors (as well as singers and musicians) traveled extensively, putting on shows not only in Europe but also in the Americas (including Cuba, Mexico, Argentina, and Brazil).

In quoting Salvini (while misspelling Shakespeare), Harper's Weekly showed just how much the Italian cultura dello spettacolo (culture of performing arts) was appreciated across the Atlantic, recognizing its merits and its potential to rejuvenate Broadway. After the show, Corbin interviewed Maiori: "He is now twenty-eight. At the age of nineteen he was already playing leading parts in Naples and Rome. When the time came for him to serve in the Italian army he had either to leave Italy or abandon all he had achieved in his art." This biographical reference to Italian compulsory military service highlights an important factor in the lives of male Italian performers: failure to serve in the army or to return to Italy in the event of war would have led to them being considered deserters.

According to Aleandri, Maiori was born into a middle-class family near Messina, in Sicily. He worked in amateur companies and worked in southern France as a mime and dancer, before being hired by Ermete Zacconi for his prestigious theater company (fig. 1.1). He moved to the United States in 1890 and performed in the Hanlon Bros.' production of Superba, with Kiralfy as ballet master. These shows were spectacular pantomimes with grandiose stage machinery, music, ballet, and various types of performances, more in line with Maiori's experiences in France than with Zacconi and the legitimate stage, which remained his objective. According to Kildare, "His first opportunity came during the squabble over the Irving Place Theatre. ... While the German managers were fighting he took possession of the house and played there several months." At that time, the struggle among different communities for theatrical spaces in the Lower East Side was intense, placing the theater as a key platform for the socialization, acculturation, and entertainment for immigrants. Ethnic conflicts as well as interactions played a crucial role in the formation of diasporic cultures, particularly on stage. Kildare added: "To form his stock company he had to send to Italy for actors, as then no dramatic talent was available here. Among those who came, Pasquale Rapona, his present partner, Giuseppe Zacconi, the father of Italy's greatest actor at present, Ermete Zacconi." Given that Maiori does not appear in any Italian history of theater, it is impossible to cross-reference these actors' arrivals from Italy, but the company he formed was indeed the first on the American stage to be made up of professional Italian actors engaged in a classic repertoire.


In 1902, the immigrant stage in New York was made up of amateur companies performing drama, music, and vaudeville in the Italian language or the local dialect. Teatro Italiano (Italian theater) did not necessarily imply that all the performances were delivered in standard Italian; instead the actors, especially in comedy, often spoke dialect and the transition to English was slow. Maiori joined forces with another popular performer on the immigrant stage, Guglielmo Ricciardi (Sorrento 1871–Naples 1961), and formed the Compagnia Comico-Drammatica Italiana. Ricciardi had risen to fame in 1897, when he played in Tragedia di Bartolomeo Capasso by Edoardo Pecoraro, one of the first dramas written by an Italian immigrant about a homicide on Mulberry Street. Based on the real event, it dramatized the facts so effectively that the audience "forced author Pecoraro and actor Ricciardi to improvise another act on the trial of Capasso's murderer on the spot." As historian Anna Maria Martellone notes: "The ability to improvise was one of the qualities needed by Italian-American actors performing to working-class audiences who participated intensely in the action (as they did in the home country, attending farces, sceneggiate or macchiette), delivering comments and jokes to the performers, making noise, applauding, disapproving, and even asking to change the ending [finale] of a drama if deemed undesirable."

Lively interaction between players and the audience was typical of the Italian theater in the United States. The audience appreciated performers not only because of their ability to interpret a role but also because of the way they represented the community. Theater companies put on shows that mixed traditional theater with literature, music, circus, cinema, and journalism. The Maiori-Ricciardi Company produced works by immigrant writers such as Alessandro Sisca (nom de plume of Riccardo Cordiferro), who wrote several dramas set in the Italian immigrant community, including the popular L'onore perduto (Lost honor). The play showed the impact of a financial crisis on a family, when the weight of debt forced a woman to betray her husband for a possidente (a rich and powerful man). The play raised a debate over the concept of honor, not questioning the value in itself but the issues it triggered within a different culture.

The Compagnia Comico-Drammatica Italiana included past celebrities such as Giuseppe Zacconi and was the training ground of future Italian American stage personalities such as Clemente Giglio (later an important entrepreneur of Italian stage, radio, and cinema productions in New York), Silvio Minciotti and Ester (Esther) Cunico Minciotti, and Eduardo Migliaccio, whose stage name was Farfariello. But Maiori and Ricciardi soon parted ways when Concetta, Ricciardi's wife, left him for Maiori. Embittered, Guglielmo Ricciardi abandoned the company and returned to Sorrento for a couple of years. When he returned to the United States, he formed his own Brooklyn-based company, performing macchiette and vernacular farces as well as the classics.

Another factor contributing to the rift between Maiori and Ricciardi was the question of language. Inspired by the success of Alessandro Salvini (Tommaso's son), performing in English on the American stage, Ricciardi grasped the financial opportunities that Broadway could offer and decided to learn English. In 1903, he Americanized his name from Guglielmo to William. The problem of language, and thus of national identity, was complex for first-generation immigrants, especially for performers who had to use dialect to communicate with most of their compatriots (Maiori also performed in Sicilian) and Italian if they wanted to be appreciated by the prominenti, the Italian leading class in New York, and to show respect for the language of the classics. Yet, if they were to communicate outside the community, they needed English too. Most performers developed three linguistic competences, but the various dialects and "Napolglish" dominated comic arte varia shows, while standard Italian was reserved for Shakespeare and the classics.

In addition to the classics from the national, vernacular, and European traditions, Maiori's company also staged modern Italian dramas, premiering Gabriele D'Annunzio's La figlia di Jorio in 1904. That same year, the company offered a mega production in six acts of Quo Vadis, with eleven changes of scenery and a masked ball in full Kiralfy style, undaunted by the length of the performance and the variety of content.

As highlighted by Kildare, Maiori's repertoire was vast: "There is no actor today who has a longer repertoire. He has the complete works by Shakespeare by heart. Near all of Sardou's dramas he can rehearse without looking at a prompt book, and he knows not only one role, but all roles." Interchangeable casting, the ability of Italian actors to play different roles in the same performance, a circumstance favored by the structure of the family company, explained their special gift for versatility.

By the turn of the twentieth century, Antonio Maiori had become a favorite among the New York elite, the Four Hundred as they were called, who ventured to the Bowery to see him perform the classics in Italian. In 1902, another more numerous "party from uptown" attended one of his performances in Little Italy, because "Mrs Havemeyer and her friends considered him the greatest tragedian in the world." Perhaps to avoid the discomfort of the Bowery theatre, this special audience encouraged Maiori to hold future performances on Broadway. Yet, reported Kildare, there was a problem: "Maiori ... speaks little English, and he says that he shall never attempt to learn it well enough to act in it. 'Acting,' says he, 'is not merely saying words. It is uttering them so that they can express all the meaning of the situation and circumstances, and this I could not do were I to try and do it as a mere parrot. Besides, one should act with his whole being — the arms, the head, the body. Everything, not the voice merely.'" Maiori — along with his Italian colleagues — was aware of the importance of the body when acting, and not simply in terms of a repertoire of conventional gestures. Expressive use of the body is a quality that has consistently been a strength of Italian performers. In any case, learning English would not be enough as the cultural barrier was far more complex than the linguistic one.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1. Italian Performers in American Silent Cinema 21

2. Aristocrats, Acrobats, Latin Lovers, and Waiters: Italians in American Silent Cinema 70

3. A Filmic Grand Tour: American Silent Films “Made in Italy” 100

4. American Cinema in Italian: The Formation of Italian American Culture 157

5. Italian Actors in Classical Hollywood Cinema 209

6. Transnational Neorealism: Toward an Italian American Film Hegemony 253

Acknowledgments 297

Notes 301

Index 349

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