Recently, I was reading Italo Calvino’s wonderful book If on a winter’s night a traveller (1979), and the following line stuck in my mind:
The dimension of time has been shattered, we cannot love or think except in fragments of time each of which goes off along its own trajectory and immediately disappears.
Calvino was talking particularly about the contradiction of “long novels written today”, and indeed, If on a winter’s night is a book that grapples with the medium of literature. So it’s rather bastardly of me to apply his thought to film, yet, that is where my mind went. How many films—particularly of the silent era—exist incomplete, or in fragments, or not at all? It’s a truism of historiography that the past continually escapes us, and the survival of films is one concrete example of that.
But I’ll wax lyrical about the poetics of archival fragments another time—the point of this post is to look more concretely at two Pina Menichelli films that did not weather the storms of time unscathed. Menichelli had six releases in 1918, and of these, one is relatively intact and available (La moglie di Claudio), one survives in the Cineteca Italiana in Milano (Il giardino incantato a.k.a. Il giardino della voluttà; The Stronger Sex), and two others are not known to be extant. The final two, Gemma di Sant’Eremo and La passeggiera | The Passenger, exist today only as small fragments: giving us just a small window into these films, and Menichelli’s work therein.
Gemma di Sant-Eremo
Less than two minutes of Gemma di Sant’Eremo survives, a filmstrip only 35m in length. The footage is heavily affected by decomposition: as the Museo Nazionale del Cinema write in the Vimeo caption, “the emulsion melts and ‘eats’ Pina Menichelli”!
Happily, this is one case where it’s possible to find out quite a lot of information about the history of the film. Gemma began life in under the title La Colpa | Blame. The earliest information comes from a production notebook dated 27 October 1915, which contains a shot/scene listing, text of the intertitles, etc.
From the censorship visa information available at Italia Taglia, we can see that La Colpa was submitted for registration on the 23rd of August 1916, and then revised on September the 11th. The notes state ‘Approvata con riserva Vietata in appello’ (Approved with reservations; prohibited on appeal), indicating that the film was left in limbo. The next item on the trail is another entry in a production notebook of 14 November 1916, which again gives a detailed breakdown of the film, including the colouring to be applied to each section.
Here’s another shot from a different page that shows the colouring scheme more clearly. Look to the annotations on the left side of the page: giallo = yellow, verde = green. The ‘A’s are for arancio, orange.
The Museo Nazionale del Cinema also hold another production notebook, this one undated, with more details of the colouring of the film. Apart from orange, green and yellow, La colpa also had shots in bleu, rosa (pink), rosso (red), and rossastro (reddish); there’s also the intriguing verde speciale.
In its March/April 1917 edition, L’arte muda published a short article on La colpa, which talks about a successful public screening. Everything else indicates that the film wasn’t officially released until 1918, so I’m not sure what the circumstances of the screening were. It’s a rather advertorial-esque piece: the author describes La colpa as a triumph for Menichelli, who beautifully embodies the protagonist: a “sublime type of woman, full of life and reality” (sublime tipo di donna, pieno di vita e di realtà). A film starring Menichelli is always an “artistic event”, we are told; the author recalls Il fuoco and Tigre reale, “two jewels of cinematography”. One is reassured to know that in La colpa, Itala “does not skimp on the necessary luxury”.
La colpa reappeared at the censor’s office in November 1917; the visa was finally passed on the first day of 1918, with the decree that the scene of the wife killing the husband was to be deleted, and the title was changed from La colpa, ovvero: Gemma di Sant’Eremo to simply Gemma di Sant’Eremo. Per the MNC, the première of the film was on 04 February 1918. The film was advertised in periodicals—here are a couple of examples:
That covers some of the film’s production/censorship history, but what about the film’s story itself? We know that Gemma di Sant’Eremo (Menichelli) is married to the Conte di Sant’Eremo (Edoardo Davesnes); I assume that the plot concerns her having an affair with the Marchese Ugo De Renzis, played by Alberto Nepoti. That the film was censored for matiricide and that it entered production not long after the success of Il fuoco points towards a femme fatale-type role for Menichelli.
Not much can be gleaned from the remaining fragment of the film. It shows the Conte (Davesnes) initially rebuffing Gemma’s affections, before they embrace in that ‘maximize facial visibility’ movie way:
“Watch the hair! I mean, I love you, darling.”
In the next shot, Menichelli lounges around in her boudoir, then leaves to go into a sitting-room, where she turns on the lamp. The Conte enters an adjacent room, and Gemma walks in and throws back her head. (These are the red-tinted shots shown at the beginning of this entry). He approaches her, and she shakes his hands off her shoulders, stalking across the room; he polishes his monocle while she emotes in the background.
Not much to go on, but luckily there are also quite a few surviving production stills, showing Menichelli with Davesnes, Alberto Nepoti, her child, a whole bunch of children. Gemma has a child who she loves, who becomes sick; she suffers herself, made up to look gaunt. At one point, Nepoti stares at a case full of guns. All of the settings are elegant and upper class, with everyone impeccably dressed.
In order: MNC ref. nos. F40003-003, F40062-005, F40062-010, F40003-002, F40652-003, F40062-003.
See also these brilliant pieces of Menichellismo, location: a bed strewn with flowers. Pina, you’re the best.
She also wears this absolutely gorgeous dress.
The piece in L’arte muda makes much of Menichelli’s expression and body language in the film’s tragic conclusion, giving this eye-popping description:
The scenes that precede [Menichelli’s] death are simply unbeatable. Step by step, as if seeing it in actuality, we witness the fatal moment: the lips contract, the pupils dilate, the nose turns blue, the cheeks sag, the chest falls, the whole body is against itself, until the cold stillness of death arrives in an attitude that immobilizes the noble figures of women.
Such an intense description of Menichelli’s embodiment of her character’s death! Another review appears in Film in February 1918. Although the overall review is relatively positive, the opening is tart: “We had, as the French say, a ‘rentrée’ of Pina Menichelli. And the only interesting circumstance of this elephantine ‘film’ is that it could unfold in half an hour and it takes two.” That said, the writer seems a big fan of Menichelli herself. Again, there’s a focus on her body, which he describes in very specific terms:
Pina Menichelli has been deliciously fattened [ingrassata]: her arms Junoesque, chest protuding, audacious hips, and above all the most Raphaelesque round face.
In fact, the review seems mostly an excuse to talk about the figures of Italian movie actresses. Following on from the previous quote, the writer says:
This happy event is intimately linked to others, a series of similar triumphs of line and shape in cinematography. Until yesterday the screen was rife with skeletal actresses, today we observe visions of softness and colour flourishing.
So, Mr. Reviewer, are you a fan of the luscious figures of these actresses or not? I just can’t tell …
Gemma di Sant’Eremo travelled—the MNC list sets of intertitles in French, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. There are several mentions of the film in Cine-Mundial, the Spanish language version of Moving Picture World, under the title La culpa; it also reached Uruguay under the title La condesa Gemma (‘Countess Gemma’).
Only six and a half minutes of La passeggiera remain, preserved by the FilmoTeca de Catalunya. However, we can recuperate the plot of the film from Spanish film periodicals, in which the film was much publicized under its Spanish title La pasajera.
Arte y cinematografia nos. 186-187, 01 August 1918; El Mundo Cinematografico—Edición Popular Illustrada no. 72, 24 October 1918.
Not only did Menichelli and La pasajera make the cover of both El Cine and El Mundo Cinematografico—Edición Popular Illustrada (the latter twice! In July and then October), a detailed synopsis was published in both El Cine and Il Cinematografo. This outline—the same text is printed in each journal—tells us the story of the beautiful, sheltered, and somewhat naïve Lucía Boijoli (Menichelli), who had been adopted by the millionaire Davrancai, a man who spared no expense on her behalf and treated her like a princesa.
Lucía’s life passes amongst rare flowers and the burning words of a multitude of worshippers eager for her beauty and her millions; she is the supposed heir to her old protector.
A spanner in the works! Sr. Davrancai is attacked and dies. It was his stated desire to make Lucía his heir, and he was preparing to legalize this, but the paperwork was not yet in place. His fortune therefore passes to a distant cousin, Laura Arguin—described in intertitle as “bitter but devout”—who is unwilling to take Lucía in. Primary amongst Lucía’s court of admirers was the “cynical fortune-hunter” Fabricio de Mauve, who drops her like a hot potato in order to marry the daughter of a millionaire industrialist. Thus Lucía is in dire straits. No tengo dinero, no-no-no-no-no!!
Desperate, Lucía eventually turns to Guillermo Kerjean, a friend who is a mechanical engineer in charge of the Petain aviation company. As he is only thirty years old, she cannot live with him without arousing suspicion and gossip, but she hits upon a solution: they will enter a marriage of convenience. Kerjean has spoken of how he does not wish to marry because it will interrupt his life of engineering productivity, Lucía will never love another man after the disappointment of Fabricio de Mauve: they can kill two birds with one stone and live together as affectionate companions. At first unconvinced, Kerjean comes around to the idea, and soon the “strange marriage” is formalised. Humour ensues as they have to prove their fake marriage, but eventually real love grows between the pair.
Kerjean’s engineering work has gone very well, and proud of his accomplishments, he decides that he will fly the machine himself, accompanied by a passenger, “to demonstrate the stability and capacity of the device for long voyages”. When the launch is imminent, the mechanic who was to be the passenger does not come to the airfield because of a sudden illness, and so Lucía, even knowing the risk, decides to accompany her husband and become … la passeggiera. She will “participate in his Victory or die with him” (participar en su Victoria o morir con él). Their love acknowledged, Lucía and Kerjean will soar together on the wings of the powerful biplane.
A review is published in Il Cinematografo no. 5 of 1919, written by an Aurelio Spada, telling about La passeggiera‘s showing at the Cinema-Teatro Corso (see programme above). Spada is complimentary: “I do not know if The Passenger pleased the audience: I liked it very much”, going on to say that smart audiences who appreciate the “most subtle nuances of thought and passion” will surely like it. Although he points out the lack of originality and unlikelihood of the plot, which derives from the source material—“If I had to undertake some literary criticism here (and in spite of myself I sometimes do)”—he finds that the performances of Menichelli and ‘Peppino Turco’ breathe life into the story. (Peppino Turco was a popular Italian songwriter who lived 1846-1903, but Spada calls the male lead of the film by this name).
If the story of The Passenger is discussed, if the curious matrimonio bianco [white marriage, i.e., one that is unconsummated] leaves us baffled or incredulous, the two actors have instead made their pathos with such mastery that there remains no doubt about their living humanity.
As well as praising ‘Turco’ for his restraint and elegant composure, Menichelli’s performance is described in exulted terms:
Pina Menichelli has created with her art an unforgettable kind of girl—a type that, from her facial expressions and physiognomy to her affective and volitional demonstrations, follows a logical route and a spiritual rhythm leading to the perfect illusion of truth.
Spada discusses the acting of Menichelli and ‘Turco’ in order to advance his thesis that cinema acting could be more effective if “flavoured with great parsimony”.
I will say more: in a certain kind of film in which the words and script are suitable for displaying incidents and normal passions, the best interpretation is the one that manages in the eyes of the public to make the character like a normal human type, living and true, logical and persuasive.
But for this we want real actors and actresses—as on the stage— not the usual celibri, and not famous mannequins which continue to hold the field and that are still shown to the good paying public, as the ne plus ultra champions of the arte muda and the theatre of shadows.
I can’t really tell if Spada is holding up Menichelli and ‘Turco’ as exemplars of this approach, or subtly rebuking them—as much as I love Menichelli, I woudn’t describe her as understated, even by the standards of the time (think of the much-vaunted verism of Francesca Bertini). Still, Spada’s review is an interesting commentary on ideals of film acting.
The surviving fragment of La passeggiera seems to come from early in the film: we see Pina interacting with male characters in the street, in elegant interiors, on a seaside balcony.
The highlight of the surviving footage is a short fantasy sequence. Davrancai tells Lucía: “Do you recall, when you were a child … I’d thrill you with my fairy tales? Can you still remember them?” And we see a dream/fantasy sequence in which an elfin child peeps out of a giant cabbage, before taking refuge back inside.
La fée aux choux II: the childhood years?
Apart from Menichelli, the cast supposedly includes Lido Manetti (a.k.a. Arnold Kent), Luciano Molinari, and Alberto Nepoti. I’m quite familiar with Nepoti, who costarred with Menichelli several times, but couldn’t positively ID him among the male characters in the fragment.
La passeggiera was based on the 1911 novel La passagère by Guy Chantepleure (née Jeanne-Caroline Violet). This was emphasized in the Italian adverts, which refer to the novel by ‘Madama de Chantepleur’.
Film no. 01 del 1918; Film no. 02 of1918; Film no. 38 of 1917.
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It’s bittersweet that we have these artefacts; they’re lucky pieces of celluloid, snatched from the entropy of history, but their incomplete nature highlights what has been lost to time. Textual sources are crucial here (and for many reasons besides)—it’s amazing what one can find out, even just online. And one never knows, perhaps more footage of Gemma and La passeggiera will turn up one day.
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Read my past writings on diva films here. Next week: a new diva makes her début on this blog!
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Gemma di Sant’Eremo. Orig. title: La colpa [Blame]. Dir. Alfredo Robert. Torino, Italy: Itala-Film, 1918. Premièred on 04 February 1918. Fragment preserved by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema (Torino) and available to view here on Vimeo. The production notebooks and stills of this film are drawn from the MNC’s online collections (search “Gemma di Sant’Eremo”).
La passeggiera [The Passenger]. Dir. Gero Zambuto. Torino, Italy: Itala-Film, 1918. Visa data revisione of 18 February 1918. Preserved by the FilmoTeca de Catalunya. Note on personnel: the opening credits of the preservation wrongly lists Giovanni Pastrone as the director. Segundo de Chomón is listed for photography and tricks (trucatges), which seems plausible given the cabbage sequence. Note on nomenclature: the film is also called La passeggera, a more common spelling of the Italian feminine singular noun for ‘passenger’, but I have followed the contemporary Italian adverts, the majority of which use La passeggiera.