ITALIANS IN EARLY HOLLYWOOD
As masons, designers, artists, musicians, and tailors, many Italian immigrants and Italian Americans found work on Hollywood movie sets, where their skills were in great demand. Victor Venticinque, known by his stage name Vic Vent, worked for several studios as a musician. In this image, he instructs German American actress Marlene Dietrich, one of the highest-paid stars of her time, how to play the musical saw.
As a studio musician, Vent worked alongside Rita Hayworth in Gilda and Down to Earth. Vent used this musical saw, which produces an ethereal tone when played with a bow, during performances and to produce sound effects for films such as Wuthering Heights.
Made possible by a loan from the Venti-Lara family
Another such immigrant was Antonio Campanaro, who arrived in the United States in 1913, and settled in Los Angeles. Campanaro, pictured left with comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, appeared in several early Hollywood films but is best remembered as Hal Roach’s animal trainer in the Our Gang (Little Rascals) and Laurel and Hardy series.
Famous for her antics, Campanaro’s beloved monkey, Josephine, appeared alongside Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Thelma Todd. Because the practice of listing a film’s complete production team did not arrive until much later, many individuals who worked in the early motion picture industry, including Campanaro, were seldom recognized for their work.
Sicilian-born Peter (Pietro) Mole arrived in the United States in 1897 at the age of six. Mole studied engineering in college and joined the staff of General Electric Company, where he helped develop a searchlight, among other devices. In 1923, Mole moved to California and accepted a position at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM).
At that time, the carbon arc lamp was the industry standard. After Eastman Kodak introduced Panchromatic black-and-white film, which was sensitive to the various hues of the color spectrum, Mole developed the first color temperature compatible incandescent tungsten lamp. In addition to being quieter, which was increasingly important following the advent of sound in motion pictures, the lamp provided softer, more natural light.
In 1927, Mole cofounded the Mole-Richardson Company and began manufacturing a variety of specialized studio lights, which forever changed the face of Hollywood. Later that year, Mole and his company won three Academy Awards for technical achievement. During World War II, Mole devised and manufactured military searchlights, aircraft landing lights, and a classified tank with a strobe light, for which he was honored by the State Department. Today, Mole-Richardson remains one of the most trusted names in the industry.
Born in Italy in 1896, Tina Modotti immigrated to the United States in 1913, and settled in San Francisco, where she frequently appeared in Italian-language theatrical productions. Modotti moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the motion picture industry and appeared in a number of silent films, including The Tiger’s Coat.
Modotti detested Hollywood's rampant typecasting and stereotyping, and later relocated to Mexico City and opened a studio with acclaimed photographer Edward Weston. Gravitating to Mexico City’s bohemian art scene, Modotti became acquainted with artists Frida Kahlo, pictured here on Modotti's right, Diego Rivera, and José Clemente Orozco.
Viewing photography as an implement for social change, she positioned herself as the official photographer of the muralist movement, and became increasingly involved in the Communist Party. The Mexican government exiled Modotti in 1930; she spent time in Russia and Spain before returning to Mexico under a pseudonym. She died in Mexico City from a heart attack at age 45.
Nearly a century after his premature death from a perforated ulcer at the age of 31, Rudolph Valentino remains one of Hollywood’s most famous personalities. Born Rodolfo Alfonso Raffaello Pierre Filibert Guglielmi di Valentina d'Antonguolla, in Puglia, Italy, Valentino immigrated to the United States in 1913 and worked as a waiter and taxi dancer in New York.
Valentino achieved stardom in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), an epic tale about an Argentinean family that fights on opposite sides during World War I. His role as Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan in The Sheik, also released in 1921, cemented his image and legacy as the “Latin lover.”
Whereas Valentino hand-wrote his personal correspondence, this Remington typewriter was used at his Beverly Hills estate, Falcon Lair, for business matters. Luther Mahoney, Valentino’s personal aide, preserved the typewriter for many years following Valentino’s death.
Made possible by a loan from Steve Soboroff
Among the silver screen’s first male sex symbols, Valentino ascended to fame during the 1920s and embodied the revolution in social mores that took place in urban America at that time. Sex had been a taboo subject in the Victorian era; Valentino’s passionate, dark sensuality fascinated audiences and forever changed how generations of people, especially women, thought about sexuality and seduction.
Whereas women idolized him and some men emulated him, others regarded Valentino as a threat to “American manhood.” Citing his manicured looks, dancing skills, long eyelashes, and the androgynous outfits and earrings he wore on screen, Valentino’s masculinity was frequently questioned, and he was often blamed for the country’s perceived “degeneration into effeminacy.”
ROBERT G. VIGNOLA
Robert G. Vignola immigrated to the United States from Basilicata, Italy, at age three. As an actor, Vignola starred in what is considered the first “mafia”-themed movie ever made, The Black Hand (1906). He also appeared in one of the most successful films of the silent era, 1912’s From the Manger to the Cross.
Vignola directed nearly 90 films, such as The Vampire (1913), which is frequently cited as Hollywood’s first femme fatale film, along with Great Expectations (1917) and The Scarlet Letter (1934). His films feature early on-screen performances from legendary actors, including Rudolph Valentino and Clark Gable.
Sicilian-born Frank Capra immigrated to the United States at age five and settled in the Little Italy district of Los Angeles. Early in his career, Capra served as a writer on Hal Roach’s Our Gang series and for slapstick comedy director Max Sennett. In 1928, he was offered a position at Columbia Pictures, where he directed many successful films, including It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Following the United States’ entry into World War II, the United States War Department selected Capra to create a series of documentary films titled Why We Fight. Capra had never produced a documentary, and although the United States was at war with the nation of Capra’s birth, his allegiance was never questioned. Designed to educate the American armed forces about the reasons for the nation’s involvement in the war and the necessity of combating the Axis powers, the films were also shown to the public to generate support for the war effort.
After watching Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, which presented Hitler as the leader who would return Germany to greatness, Capra decided to “use the enemy's own films to expose their enslaving ends. Let our boys hear the Nazis and the [Japanese] shout their own claims of master-race crud, and our fighting men will know why they are in uniform.”
Born Gaetano Antonio Gaudio in Calabria, Italy, Tony Gaudio immigrated to the United States in 1906 and, soon thereafter, began directing feature films. In Douglas Fairbanks’ The Mark of Zorro (1920), Gaudio pioneered the use of montage sequences in film. He won the Academy Award in 1936 for best cinematography and was nominated for five other Academy Awards over the course of his career.
Gaudio, in collaboration with fellow Italian immigrant cinematographer Sol Polito, created the “Warner look,” the studio’s signature unglamorous style that used chiaroscuro, or contrasts between light and dark, to evoke mood and atmosphere. The aesthetic became the precursor to the film noir genre that emerged in the late 1940s.
ITALIANS IN ANIMATION
Italians figure prominently in the world of animation. Walt Disney hired vocalist Adriana Caselotti, born to immigrant parents, as the voice of Snow White. While her contract prevented her from appearing in other media, Caselotti, named a Disney Legend in 1994, received minor roles in The Wizard of Oz and other productions. Disney later selected another Italian American, Mary Costa, as the voice of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.
During his career at Walt Disney Studios, illustrator Aurelius Battaglia worked on the films Dumbo and Fantasia, and co-wrote Pinocchio. The credits of Academy Award-winning animator and director Clito Enrico “Gerry” Geronimi include Cinderella, Peter Pan, Sleeping Beauty, and One Hundred and One Dalmatians. The sequences he created, such as "Ichabod Crane chased by the Headless Horseman" in The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad; the "spaghetti scene" from Lady and the Tramp, pictured here, and the "mad tea party" in Alice in Wonderland, are among the most memorable of Disney’s features. Geronimi later worked on other animated series, including Spider Man.
Born in New York’s Little Italy, Joseph Barbera met his creative partner, William Hanna, while working at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s cartoon unit in 1937. Two years later, they had formed a partnership that would endure sixty years. The team’s most popular creation, Tom and Jerry, would ultimately win seven Academy Awards. The Hanna-Barbera cartoon, The Flintstones, became the nation’s first successful primetime animated series. Hanna-Barbera also created Scooby Doo, The Jetsons, Yogi Bear, and over 95 other cartoon series.
Walter Lantz, whose original surname was Lanza, received a position at Universal Studios as a cartoon series director, and later became an independent producer. While on his honeymoon, Lantz and his wife, actress Grace Stafford, heard a woodpecker tapping incessantly on their roof. Stafford encouraged her husband to develop a character based on the bird, and Woody Woodpecker was born. Mel Blanc, the voice actor behind Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and Porky Pig, originally supplied Woody’s voice; he was later replaced by Stafford. Lantz created several other characters, including Space Mouse.
CINEMATIC REPRESENTATIONS OF ITALIANS
Although Italian immigrants and their Italian American counterparts have created some of the most memorable motion pictures in American history, the negative portrayal of Italian Americans as an ethnic group can be traced to the earliest days of Hollywood and continues to dominate the entertainment industry.
The majority of early Hollywood films were written, directed, and produced by Anglo-Americans and often reflected the anti-immigrant sentiments of the era. Anglo actors were typically cast to play Italian and Italian American characters who appeared on screen as overly emotional, intellectually inferior, and incapable of becoming mainstream “Americans.”
Italian American actors, like African Americans and other ethnic actors, were relegated to small, caricatural parts, such as organ grinders, butchers, and barbers. Gino Corrado and Henry Armetta were two such character actors who were cast in hundreds of films to depict Italians in a comical, yet stereotypical, light.
Set in 1920s Chicago, Scarface (1932) is loosely based on the life of gangster Al Capone. Although the film was released prior to the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934, which forbade nudity, drug use, and explicit depictions of crime, the film’s creators were pressured into eliminating or altering numerous scenes. Scarface remained the most violent film of its time. It definitively linked Italian Americans to organized crime and created a “standard” for future mob movies to follow.
Spawning two sequels, The Godfather, the epic saga of a fictional Italian American crime family, differed tremendously from previous films of the genre. Written and directed by Italian Americans with a largely Italian American cast, Coppola’s monumental work expressed the notion that the mafia, driven by profit and the protection of its interests and power, was a metaphor for American capitalism.
Although earlier films had made audiences spectators to the world of organized crime, The Godfather drew audiences into the counterculture. Viewers sympathized with the film’s characters, despite their morally reprehensible behavior, and identified with The Godfather’s expression of the immigrant experience.
Few films have influenced popular culture as extensively. Dozens of lines from the Godfather Trilogy, among them “leave the gun, take the cannoli,” and “I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse,” have become assimilated into the American vernacular. The Godfather has inspired dozens of films, television shows, and video and social media games, along with “mafia” tourism and merchandise. Many have attempted to explain The Godfather’s popularity as a reflection of American values, including wealth and power or the universal ideals of family and dignity. Others contend that the Mafioso archetype embodies the modern-day version of the Wild West outlaw hero, such as Jesse James.
ITALIAN STEREOTYPES AND THEIR CONSEQUENCES
Over the past century, 75 percent of films featuring Italian or Italian American characters portray them negatively, as gangsters, racists, bimbos, and ignoramuses. How does Hollywood’s portrayal of Italian Americans affect the public’s perception of this ethnic group?
Take the quiz! According to the FBI, what percentage of Italian Americans are involved in organized crime?
Less than ¼ of 1 percent of Italian Americans are connected to organized crime.
A recent poll of American teenagers revealed that 78 percent associate Italian Americans with organized crime and 74 percent of adults link Italian Americans to criminal organizations. Although the percentage of Italian American college graduates exceeds the national average and the majority of Italian Americans are employed in professional fields, most Americans associate Italian Americans with blue-collar work and ignorance.
Pictured here: In 1984, Dr. Robert C. Gallo co-discovered the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) to be the cause of AIDS and pioneered the development of the test that screened blood for the AIDS virus.
Why, in the age of cultural sensitivity, does the media continue to perpetuate such stereotypes about Italian Americans? Why is the promotion of such falsehoods deemed acceptable?
Generating billions of dollars in revenue, the perpetuation of the mafia myth and other stereotypes proves a lucrative business. Many Italian Americans have come to embrace the cultural representations of their ethnic group set forth by the media. For many, it is the only reflection of their heritage.
To avoid being typecast and to appeal to the broadest audience possible, many Italian American artists and actors have changed their surnames. These include Anne Bancroft (Anna Maria Louisa Italiano, pictured left), Guy Williams (Armand Joseph Catalano), Tony Bennett (Anthony Benedetto), Steven Tyler (Stephen Victor Tallarico, pictured right), and Connie Francis (Concetta Franconero). Some Italian American actors lament the scarcity of positive roles for their ethnic group. “It’s either pasta or the mafia,” one actor stated, referring to the characters for which Italian Americans are cast. “We can’t play roles that don’t exist.”
As a child, Annette Funicello was one of the first Mouseketeers on the original Mickey Mouse Club, a popular children’s television program of the 1950s. She achieved legendary status while co-starring with singer Frankie Avalon in the Beach Party film series. Funicello received her high school education in the Little Red Trailer at Walt Disney Studios. The IAMLA purchased this homework assignment, written in Funicello’s distinct cursive, from the Annette Funicello Research Fund for Neurological Diseases, which was established upon Funicello’s death of complications from multiple sclerosis.
Other Italian Americans in Hollywood have transcended the confines of ethnic stereotyping or make concerted efforts to seek roles that accurately portray the complexity of the Italian American experience.
FRANK G. MANCUSO
Frank G. Mancuso was born in Buffalo, New York, to a Sicilian American family. “Boredom is the worst career move you can make. You have to have a dream,” Frank’s high school teacher often said. One evening, Frank's teacher invited him to see a play, and what Frank saw on stage ignited a spark within him.
Frank returned to the United States in 1975 and became head of Paramount’s Western Division. One year later, he was named Senior Vice President of Domestic Distribution, and the following year, Senior Vice President of Distribution. By 1980, he had become President of Distribution and Marketing, and in 1983, President of Paramount's Motion Picture Group.
After the filming of Godfather III concluded, Francis Ford Coppola gave Frank Mancuso this jaw harp, which was used in the film’s scene “Don Altobello,” as a keepsake. The musical instrument, known as the marranzanu in Sicilian, and scacciapensieri in Italian, is one of the oldest in the world. Its metal reed is placed in the mouth and plucked to create a unique vibrato.
Frank’s Italian American upbringing influenced his leadership style and work ethic. With Frank at the helm, Paramount enjoyed box office successes such as Top Gun, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Indiana Jones, Fatal Attraction, Star Trek, Crocodile Dundee, Ghost, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Hunt for Red October, The Untouchables, and Godfather III, to name a few. Frank read and approved every script that the studio made into a movie.
In 1993, Frank, seen here with actor Nicolas Cafe, left Paramount to head Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM), during which time the studio produced the immensely successful Leaving Las Vegas, Species, Ronin, The Birdcage, Stargate, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Get Shorty, and shepherded the return of the James Bond franchise with Golden Eye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and others.
Lady Gaga’s parents were the first in their families to attend college, and the tightly knit family placed a tremendous value on education. Lady Gaga learned to play the piano at age four. Later, she was accepted by the prestigious Juilliard School but chose instead to attend a Catholic school. By age 13, Lady Gaga had written her first song, and the following year she had her first performance at a night-club.
Although Lady Gaga was bullied by her peers for her appearance and eccentricities, she continued studying music, performing, and expressing her feelings through song. At age 17, she was one of twenty students worldwide to be granted early admission to New York University's Tisch School for the Arts. Two years later, she withdrew from school to pursue a musical career. She formed a band that achieved local popularity and assumed the name Lady Gaga after “Radio Ga-Ga,” a song by the British rock band Queen.
In 2005, Def Jam Records signed Lady Gaga, only to drop her just months later. The rejection devastated Lady Gaga, who promptly channeled her disappointment into a greater devotion to her art. In 2007, at the age of 20, Lady Gaga accepted a position at Interscope Records as a songwriter for artists such as Britney Spears and New Kids on the Block. She was later signed to Interscope Records’ Kon Live, where she wrote and recorded her debut album, The Fame.
Lady Gaga's debut single, "Just Dance," was released in early 2008 and received considerable acclaim. The song was nominated for a Grammy Award, and Lady Gaga reached number one on the pop charts the following year. The release of the single "Poker Face" earned Lady Gaga even more success; the song topped charts worldwide. Lady Gaga’s popularity grew with her subsequent albums, The Fame Monster and Born This Way. In 2014, she released Cheek to Cheek, an album of jazz duets with Tony Bennett, which later won a Grammy Award.
In addition to her outrageously creative outfits, Lady Gaga established herself as an outspoken advocate for a number of causes, including LGBT rights, AIDS education, poverty, cancer research, and mental health issues. In 2012, Lady Gaga and her mother, Cynthia Germanotta, founded the Born This Way Foundation, an organization dedicated to empowering youth to create a kinder and braver world.
In February 2015, Lady Gaga showcased her immense abilities as a vocalist by performing selections from The Sound of Music at the Academy Awards for the 50th anniversary of the musical’s release. Later that year, she co-starred in American Horror Story: Hotel, for which she earned a Golden Globe.
Lady Gaga returned to the Grammy stage in 2016 where she performed a tribute to the late musician David Bowie, who was among her greatest musical influences. At the 2016 Academy Awards, United States Vice President Joseph Biden introduced Lady Gaga, who performed "Til It Happens to You." The Academy Award-nominated song is from the 2015 documentary The Hunting Ground, which examines the issue of sexual assault on college campuses.
Content Author- Marianna Gatto
Design- Robert Checchi
Curation- Robert Checchi and Marianna Gatto
Video Projections- Christopher Sprinkle
Graphics- Robert Checchi and Clyde Crossan
GCI Videos- Francesca Guerrini
Images Courtesy of the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles, Alamy, CBS (Unforgettable Licensing), Chuck LaChiusa, Disney, Elena Santillo Valencia, Frank Mancuso, the Venti-Lara family, Margaret Herrick Library, Mole-Richardson Co., Lady Gaga, University of Southern California Digital Library, Viacom (VH1), Lantz family estate, Buffalo Historical Society, Paramount Studios, MGM STudios, the Germanotta family and Haus of Gaga.
Special thanks to Lady Gaga, Steve Soboroff, Frank Mancuso, Eric Eisenberg, the Venti-Laura family, the Annette Funicello Research Fund, Francesca Guerrini, Marilyn Gonzalez, and Haus of Gaga.