Sunday, March 14, 2010

Notes from Italy

Compared to his accounts of London and Berlin, Bush devotes little space to exhibition in Rome, and doesn't mention the musical practice at all. Overall, he seems not to know what to make of the country. He discusses the Italian film industry at length, but seems a bit perplexed by its uneven quality. He also notes that unlike England and Germany, American subjects do not play well in Italy.
Notes from Italy

A Lesson in Italian Kinematographic History—Italy a Poor Market, but Features Bring High Prices—Exhibitors and Their Leagues—Theaters and Projection—Visit to the Cines.

By W. Stephen Bush

Rome, May 29, 1913

In the history of the kinematograph in Italy there is much to cheer and comfort the friend of the motion picture. No other country furnishes ampler proof of the fact that the palm of success and the crown of merit go to the producer who is not afraid to aim high and whose appeal addresses itself to the intelligence, the good taste and the more sense of the public. In the beginning of things kinematographic in Italy the producer had on the one hand the advantage of extraordinary opportunities, while on the other hand he was beset by great temptations. His opportunities lay in the natural beauty of his county, in the weather and the climate. Nowhere has Nature set up a more glorious and complete studio than in this most favored of lands. He had the precious opportunity of becoming the interpreter of a deathless and most interesting of civilization. By means of the new invention which by reproducing motion gives the most perfect imitation of life, he had it in his power to show to the whole modern civilized world pictures of the life and culture of ancient Rome. He had but to set up his camera with the right intention and his very surroundings would furnish him with the inspiration needed to produce great films. His was and is the home of art.

In Rome and all through Italy are the plentiful remains of the arts which have created imperishable beauty, which to the end of time will delight the eye and stir the heart. All the vast treasure of art and of knowledge and of history and of literature which is heaped up here in richest profusion was at the constant and immediate service of the moving picture camera. Here was the birthplace of two civilizations of the greatest importance—the civilization of ancient and of Christian Rome. Here were born two of the richest and most expressive languages; here these languages reached their highest perfection, and here they served as the means of expression to some of the greatest minds among mortal men. The source of much which we still teach in every school of the world is here. The priceless heritage of Greece was often transmitted to us through Rome. It is hardly necessary to allude to the part which Rome and Italy played in the history of Christian civilization. If ever there was in the best sense of the word a paradise for the ambitious and intelligent producer it surely was in Italy. It was in the power of the Italian producer to place before the world in clear and living pictures what all the schools and text books of the centuries could do but imperfectly. If the producer chose to strike the educational chord and do some homage to the Muses of History and of Poetry and of the Drama, his success seemed to be assured. He had the world for an audience, for Rome and Italy had been the themes of countless poets and writers and teachers in various tongues for more than two thousand years.

Great, however, as his opportunities undoubtedly were, his temptations were no less great. First, there was the cry of that old, owlish, parrot-like chorus: “The moving picture is not here to instruct and educate, but only to amuse and entertain.” With all their fossilized arguments these parrots can never succeed in talking the educational value out of the motion picture. There was, however, a greater and plainer temptation in the path of the Italian producer. This consisted in the very potent fact that in modern Italy the taste of the public is decidedly low. Indeed it verges on the morbid and the on the vulgar.

Education here is still very far from being universal; even the most superficial of observers must recognize all around them the effects of centuries of political oppression and superstition. This is not the place to go into the causes of low taste and vicious instincts—I only state the fact and place it among the temptations which confronted the producer. If he took a narrow view of his opportunities it might well seem to him that the road to fortune must lie in playing down to the tastes of the vulgar. “To get the crowd” in Italy it was neither necessary nor advisable to put art and high ideals in his films.

Now when they came to the parting of the ways there was a sharp division among the producers. Three or four chose the road which for the moment seemed harder and less profitable, while the others chose the path with a downward trend, but with seeming assurance of immediate financial gain. To the former we owe many of the great masterpieces of filmdom—“The Fall of Troy,” “The Last Days of Pompeii,” “Dante’s Inferno,” “The Odyssey,” “Jerusalem Delivered” and “Quo Vadis?” In publishing such films the producers achieved a reputation the fruits of which brought them not only honor, but rich material rewards. They set a splendid standard not only for others, but chiefly for themselves. They gave assurance to every exhibitor of a high average quality in even their minor productions.

What of the other and far more numerous producers, who carefully kept away from the educational and the classic to cater to the lovers of the cheap melodrama? There are a score of them and perhaps more, but who out of Italy hears of them to any great advantage? They cast their lot with the “crowds” in Italy and now they are lucky to sell on an average three copies in Italy, with an occasional print for the French, Spanish or South American market. In our country and in Canada mightily little of their stuff is sold, and the buyers are generally sorry. It is quite true that the Italian market for the sale of films is the poorest in the world, and that even the best firms sell at the most five or six copies of their regular releases, whatever they may be able to do with the big features. It stands to reason then that the Italian producer depends very largely on his export. He could not live without the markets of the English-speaking countries and of Germany and Russia.

Italy is a poor market for the sale of American films—with one notable exception. The films of the Vitagraph Company are very popular here. The agent of the Vitagraph is selling as many films as the best native producers, and I believe at a little better prices. Maurice Costello is a name to conjure with in Italy. His recent tour through Italy, including a visit to the Cines studio in Rome, has been much like a tour of triumph. He was cheered in true Latin fashion when he showed himself to the people in the “Lux Et Umbra,” one of the principal moving picture theaters in Rome. The other American brands, with the possible exception of the Bison, are sold but little. Perhaps more might be done with other American films, but Italy at its best does not compare with such markets as England, Germany and Russia. Even little Holland and Belgium, orphans in the House of Motion Pictures, lag but little behind Italy. Of the great Selig film, “Christopher Columbus,” only seven copies were sold in the land of Christopher Columbus. Edison is represented in Genoa and the well-known exchange man Barattolo, who owns theaters in Rome, Naples and Turin, and who is a member of the Neapolitan City Council, is the agent for Selig and Kalem. Rex and Solax are in the hands of the Vitagraph agent; while all other American producers are sold via London. To revert for a moment to the financial advantage of turning out high quality, I might say that, according to statements published by themselves, both the Cines Company and the Ambrosio Company paid dividends of 11 per cent. in the past year.

The renting situation is curiously mixed in Italy. The supply of first runs greatly exceeds the demand, helping to accentuate competition. Daily changes of program are unknown except in one or two theaters in Napes. Pathe, Gaumont, Éclair, Cines, Ambrosio and Vitagraph are trying to place their first runs in Italy at the same time and the result may be imagined. Pathe, Éclair and Gaumont refuse to sell to middlemen and will deal only with the exhibitor directly. This, of course, causes quite a little friction. The renters are fighting Pathe and the end is not yet.

The multiple feature film has added to the confusion of the market. Very high prices are paid for “State rights.” Italy is for this purpose divided into five parts: Piedmont with Turin for its center, Lombardy with Milan, Veneto with Venice, Central Italy with Rome, and Southern Italy, including Sicily with Naples and Palermo. For the new Ambrosio film, “The Last Days of Pompeii,” for instance, the buyer for Southern Italy and Sicily paid 40,000 francs. This is more than some of our biggest States have brought for some of the biggest features. As a natural result the single reel suffers, being relegated almost entirely to the smaller towns.

The theaters in the largest city of Italy, Naples, are small. Outside of Rome there are few moving picture theaters with [1230] a large seating capacity, and in Rome there is but one with 1,500 seats. Licenses are quite low and the opening of theaters is free to anyone. The regulations for the safety of patrons are easy to the point of laxity. With the excitable nature of the Italians, a panic in one of even the medium-sized theaters might cause a terrible disaster. Prices of admission are almost as low as with us, ranging from six cents to a rare maximum of 30 cents. The average Italian moving picture house compares most unfavorably with the average theater in England, America or Germany. It recalls Mulberry Bend and Little Italy in Harlem in the days of the early Italian immigration. The odor in these places is penetrating, but far from agreeable. Chairs are poor, the attendants are normally sleepy and insistent for tips when roused into a state of passing wakefulness. The projection even in the very best theaters is not much, and in the average theater it is intolerably wretched. Clear, sharp and distinct pictures, and an even, steady supply of good, strong light are positively unknown. An Italian translation of Richardson’s handbook is one of the crying needs of Italian operators, and I have taken the matter up with an editor of prominence.

The personnel of the average exhibitor is better than one might expect. He is generally inclined to be progressive, but he seems incapable of understanding the advantages of one great and strong national organization. Concerted action by the exhibitor would count for much more here in Italy than, for instance, in Austria or Germany. Italy is a more democratic country and public officials are much quicker to respond to public demands. It is to be much deplored then that the Italian exhibitors cannot be united in one organization. There are at present two leagues of exhibitors and, what is worse, they are fighting each other instead of turning their faces against the common enemy. If the one league commends some measure to the government as beneficial to the industry, the other league comes along and adopts resolutions strongly condemning the proposed measure.

Italy has little just cause to complain of censorship. The power of censoring pictures was until recently exercised by the local authorities of each province, but not it is vested in a branch of the Ministry of Justice at Rome and its decisions are valid for the whole kingdom. To an American all censorship is of course odious, but the Italian censorship is very mild, with a semi-occasional fit of rigor.

I will carry away from Rome one very pleasant recollection: that of a long, instructive and very enjoyable visit to the splendid Cines establishment just outside the Porta San Giovanni. The grounds of the Cines studios cover 56,000 cubic metres. Of their six different studios there is but one for which artificial light is used and this studio is used but rarely, mostly indeed for the production of light effects and a species of a higher sort of trick photography. Four companies were at work when I visited the studio in the company of the courteous Signor A. Meille, the private secretary of the general director, Baron A. Fassini. The baron received the visit from a representative of the Moving Picture World with every evidence of pleasure and extended innumerable courtesies. He and indeed all of the staff and the artists of the Cines are ardent readers of the paper and the supply of copies is never large enough to go around. This saying of the baron and his secretary was a most handsome tribute to the international value and importance of the paper, and on behalf of the readers of the Moving Picture World I conveyed to him our sincerest appreciation.

The excellence of Cines photography is easily explained by the magnificent natural light which is at the disposal of the Roman producer at least ten months out of twelve. This light is dry and extremely clear. I noticed many things that seemed interesting and useful in the industry. They have most of their cameras fixed to a pivot-like arrangement on the ground. This makes it possible to turn the camera easily without disturbing it. I saw a ball scene with lots of dancing taken in this way and it impressed me as a new and useful innovation. Of course, the mechanical and shipping departments were up to a high standard, but the story of the Cines plant would not be complete without describing the large number of special departments which are to be found on the grounds. These work of these departments is unique and greatly helps explain the artistic success of the Cines films. Outside of about twenty compartments, each about 20 x 150, where the movable scenery is kept, there are two large buildings which are occupied by special departments, such as the manufacture of hats and the making of costumes. There is a perfect arsenal in which weapons of every age in all conceivable shapes are found, there is a floor devoted to woodwork and carving, larger quarters for the scene painters, a smithy and a most interesting department of pottery. All these things are kept with the greatest care and are in charge of capable men and women.

The department for the making of costumes contains well nigh ten thousand suits and dresses. It covers every period in man’s and especially woman’s history, form the famous fig-leaf to the hobby-skirt. Every period in history has its separate and carefully marked lockers. I was struck with the fine gowns of the French revolutionary and the Napoleonic periods and was told that the Cines have a great Napoleonic play under way. The same careful and scientific division characterizes this arsenal. Everywhere indeed are evident the traces of experts, the hand of the scholar and the historian has been at work. The pottery was a most instructive department. The men employed are adepts and as they have the best models of the world for almost every style of pottery they turn out a splendid grade of work. Art, system, study, hard work and capable direction characterize the conduct of every one of the departments.

I had the pleasure of meeting the director of “Quo Vadis?” Signor E. Guazzoni, a very modest and affable gentleman, who is thoroughly absorbed in his work. He had troubles of his own the morning I visited Cines, for he was trying to make a huge python do the right thing before the camera in connection with a version of “Cleopatra,” which the Cines will shortly put on the market. I also had pleasant chats with all the artists in “Quo Vadis?” except Nero and Petronius, who are not regularly with the Cines.

The very important cities of Turin and Milano I expect to see to-morrow, and as they are the film centers of Italy and the studios of Ambrosio and the Milano Film Company, will no doubt offer much of interest to our readers. There will be a second letter on Italy.
Source: W. Stephen Bush, “Notes from Italy,” Moving Picture World 21 June 1913, 1229-30.