- Mussolini's Dream Factory: Film Stardom in Fascist Italy by Stephen Gundle
In Mussolini's Dream Factory: Film Stardom in Fascist Italy Stephen Gundle examines how the Italian movie industry created its own star system as a counterpart to Hollywood's. American movies came to dominate Italian screens after the virtual collapse of the domestic film industry in the 1920s. In response, Benito Mussolini's fascist government began to subsidize film production as part of the regime's industrial and cultural strategy. This new partnership between the Italian government and the film industry would lead to the construction of what would become Cinecittà. The new state of the art production center in Rome was deemed important enough for Mussolini himself to attend the laying of its cornerstone in January of 1936. Mussolini's Dream Factory provides an overview of these efforts coupled with a critical assessment of the immediate and historical impact of the fascist period on the Italian cinema.
Mussolinin and his director general for cinema, Luigi Freddi, deemed the popularity of American movies and especially the embrace of Hollywood stars threatening to national values. However, according to Gundle, the Fascist government was conflicted on exactly how to combat Hollywood dominance over Italian film culture. While Cinecittà may have started as a public-private partnership, it ended up by the late 1930s as an instrument of the state. Nevertheless, Gundle argues that there was much less definitively fascist content in Italian movies of the era than might be supposed. Luigi Freddi, much like his German counterpart Joseph Goebbels, "was strongly opposed to the making of films that had an explicit propaganda purpose" (32). Perhaps surprisingly, only about 20% of films were the kind of historical epics extolling the Italian past that fascist ideologues favored. Historical films were also an important part of [End Page 86] the Italian cinema of the 1910s so their relatively low output is surprising. Early feature-length historical epics like Cabiria (1914) were not just popular in Italy, but also popular and critically acclaimed abroad, including in the United States. But the Italian films of the fascist era were more often dramas and light "white-telephone" comedies with little by way of overt political messages or historical content.
Gundle divides Mussolini's Dream Factory into three parts. In "Part I: Fascism, Cinema and Stardom," he presents his core arguments regarding the relationship between fascism and the Italian cinema. Gundle contends that the Fascists were torn between the extremes of repudiating and emulating the American star system that came to dominate Italian screens in the decade after World War I. Already by the 1920s, Hollywood had developed an entire star apparatus supported by studio publicity and advertising departments that communicated directly to fans or indirectly through newspapers, magazines and star-themed publications. American companies looking for international markets filled the void left by the collapse of the Italian film industry. Italians responded by embracing Hollywood and its stars during the 1920s.
However, any attempt to create a fascist star system to rival Hollywood posed both practical and ideological challenges. As Gundle argues, Italy was competing with a Hollywood studio system that already possessed a highly developed infrastructure for international sales and publicity. Even as the Italian cinema had some success developing its studio system, Italian stars suffered from being viewed as lesser versions of their Hollywood counterparts. For example, the dashing Amedeo Nazzari, while popular with audiences, was often labeled the "Italian Errol Flynn or Clark Gable" (4). One would think that the Italian fascists, like their German counterparts, would have had an advantage over Hollywood in that they either controlled or cast a long shadow over the nation's media apparatus. Hollywood, however, had generated a vital and independent press that provided a legitimacy to film fandom. The highly competitive international film press fashioned clever appeals to fans as magazines looked for greater readership. The popular press of the 1920s in Italy was mostly supportive of Hollywood since they were always concerned about losing their access to the studios' publicity departments and stars. Even during the fascist era...