PRINT Summer 1990


Rome, the 5th of July 1912. Confidential.
Mr George Kleine CHICAGO

Dear Sir,

Herewith I beg to inform you that it is my intention to release twice the year a feature film which will require very big expenses and will be as an advertisement for our firm.

Owing to these very exceptional expenses I beg to ask weither you would be able to make better conditions, to buy original negatives, than the present ones, or order positive prints? I am starting next week with one of these feature films, staging the Quo Vadis?. For this purpose I have now here twenty lyons which will stay in our theaters for over 4 weeks. Just to tell you how marvellous will be this film I beg to point out that the negative’s cost will be about 80,000 lire. Its lenght will run between 1500 and 2000 meters.1

THIS LETTER MARKS THE beginning of one of the greatest periods of Italian cinema’s history in the international market. Written by Baron Alberto Fassini, director of the Rome film company Cines, it invited the American distributor George Kleine to make a bid for the exhibition of Fassini’s movies in the United States, and Kleine responded with enthusiasm, immediately starting out to explore the difficulties of importing and distributing work that seemed likely to change the standards of film in terms of duration, expense, and scale. Problems had to be resolved over authors’ rights and over competition with America’s own production of movies, which could be damaged by the large-scale import of work superior in quality and length to any film made up to then in the United States. In a month and a half the obstacles were overcome and an agreement reached: Kleine would do business on the condition that the film was accepted by the American commission of control and censorship.

In the Kleine Collection—a cache of about 500 copies of European films and 100,000 documents (contracts, publicity, reviews, correspondence, copyright registrations, box office receipts, and so on)—film historians have one of the most complete and significant archives for the study of the early film industry, from the first camera setup to the last turn of the projector in the remotest movie house of the most rural state. The core of the collection is the 50 Italian films Kleine imported between 1912 and 1915, of which at least a score—from Quo Vadis? (1912) to Marcantonio e Cleopatra (Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, 1913) to Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (The last days of Pompeii, 1913), Giulio Cesare (Julius Caesar, 1914), and Cabiria (1914)—changed both the production of movies and the mental geography of millions of spectators’ expectations. When work began on Quo Vadis?, Italian cinema was still in a stage we might call puberty, and in many ways showed the weaknesses of a late birth. The problem was not only the country’s decade-long delay in beginning to make movies after the invention of the medium, but also a frailty in the structure for financing and actually producing them. To overcome this problem and to develop an internationally competitive, specifically Italian cinema as quickly as possible, the early producers sought to administer to their movies robust injections of vitamins in the form of literature, alternated or mixed with proteins derived from history. From the beginning, of all the genres of film, historical dramas contributed the sustenance most needed by the developing production organism. Within a few years the film industry’s metabolism would allow a recurring cyclical transformation of the grist of history into economic and expressive energy. Unlike its American counterpart, Italian cinema sought not to celebrate and harmonize with the rhythms of modernity but to oscillate in a broad temporal cycle. By 1910 or so, the Italian film industry was consistently attempting to find a meeting point between the rhythms of an industry of the future and a glorious historic past that was considered infinitely reversible and reconstructible for the present moment.

Few of the 19th century’s staged tableaux vivants could distill the essence of the Homeric poems, say, or of other great literary masterpieces. Few could bring alive the subjects of the Renaissance painting cycles, or of contemporary oleographs and other popular illustrations. Early Italian cinema took from all these sources—it was an open system, oriented in many directions—but it managed to establish a “grand manner” as its iconographic scale, to use Heinrich Wölfflin’s term for the art of the Italian Renaissance. In “Retour au réalisme,” an important essay in Ciné-Journal in 1911, Victorin Jasset cast the international acceptance of Italian historical film as a recognized fact:

Italy in its turn was moving into an important role in the market. The country had marvelous ingredients for this role—a quality of light among the most favorable for photography, lower production and labor costs, abundant capital. . . . After a certain period Italy came to specialize. The temperament of its artists pushed them toward scenes of exaggerated, grandiloquent movement. At the same time, the relatively minimal cost of extras brought a focus on great panoramas of crowds and costumes. Italy monopolized the historical image. A school formed.2

Jasset was acknowledging a situation realized even before the success of Quo Vadis?, a film that marked more of an evolution than an innovation or change of direction. But if history was the genetic code of early Italian cinema, the industry grew thanks not only to history but to the discovery of the spectacular, expressive, dramatic, and symbolic possibilities of screen space. Time may have stood still, or repeated itself, in Italian cinema, but space seemed to expand to the view. The mix attracted an ever larger and wider public, as though there were a correspondence between the expanded space of cinematic representation and the expanded audience’s field of vision.

With the success of Quo Vadis?, Ambrosio, Itala, and Pasquali, the large film companies of Rome and Turin, decided to push farther in search of the universal spectator. But the United States at first seemed completely closed to them. Edison and the other American producers had fought bitterly for control of the domestic market, agreeing finally to the establishment of the General Film Corporation to distribute the movies of the largest companies, from Edison to Biograph, from Vitograph to Kalem. (Kleine had been involved in this agreement.) Both the distributors and the cinema owners had to accept the conditions imposed by General Film, including particularly the stipulation that they would handle only the movies produced by the trust. Thus the American market was almost completely controlled after 1909, and whoever tried to organize an independent production would have to face an army of lawyers charging the illegal infringement of every type of film patent. The filmmakers’ flight to California, the birth of Hollywood, and its rise as the film capital of the world stemmed from the need of the small producers to remove themselves from the clutches of the Edison company and its allies. In this situation it became next to impossible for any foreign producer to think of conquering even a tiny portion of the American market. In showing Quo Vadis?, then, Kleine was reenacting the story of the Trojan horse, allowing an advance guard to open the way for a legion of followers to enter the citadel of the nation’s movie houses. Thanks to Kleine, Italian film producers came to enjoy a kind of cinematic imperialism, taking advantage of a stalemate in the American film industry’s internal battles for their own profit.

The Italian producers wanted a cinema that would expand its audience’s cultural horizons. They also wanted it to transmit the symbols of national identity, for Italy had achieved its integrity only a few decades before. Thus their movies embodied a triumphant image of Italian culture and history, and also supported the highly charged nationalistic ideology that was slowly heating up the international political climate. It is legitimate to observe that films set in classical Rome reflected Italy’s great explosion of nationalism in the first decades of this century. The outbreak of the country’s wars with Turkey and with Libya, in 1911, decisively confirmed the union of film, nationalist ideology, and imperialist ambitions, and the imperial eagle, the fasces, and the Roman salute all became strong symbols of nationhood. The movies’ military rituals, parades, and triumphs were the mirror of the frenzy of war that infected increasing numbers of young Italians. Between Nerone (Nero, 1909) and Cabiria, made in 1914, one can see a considerable increase in the nationalistic spirit, and a series of functional shifts of meaning in keeping with changes in the domestic and international political picture. The way that these films used history as a window through which the popular imagination could project its desires is not entirely discomfiting, though. The movies were certainly vehicles of the nascent nationalist ideology, but they also maneuvered events, emotions, and plots in such a way as to support the idea that, for example, even the most famous historical personages might exhibit an unexpected interclass mobility of the sentiments: slaves fall in love with emperors,or,on the other hand, are loved by the pharaoh but prefer the lowly shepherd, or kill themselves rather than be kissed by kings or great commanders.

Nerone was directed by Arrigo Frusta, and drew, typically, on an eclectic range of sources besides actual classical history: its visual models include popular oleographs, the etchings of Bartolomeo Pinelli, neoclassical painting, and the great European and American circuses of the 19th century, such as the Franconi circus, or the Barnum. The cinematographic means of Frusta’s film are rather limited. Every scene is conceived as a tableau vivant, enclosing an autonomous “unit” of meaning and action. Some of the graphic, narrative, and acting conventions fixed in the movie’s limited range of shots would reappear throughout the entire genre: backdrops of papier-mâché alternate with outdoor location settings, and the actors recite their lines with theatrical emphasis as they turn toward the public. Only toward the end are there original effects, and these fall into the category of spectacle, in the red-toned scenes of people panicking as Rome burns. International success was immediate. In 1911 the critic of the New York magazine Moving Picture World wrote, “The pomp of processions, the splendor of costumes and performances, and finally the great conflagration of Rome: such marvelous realism of effects that, seeing this part of the film in color, it seemed to us, as it were, that we were hearing the words of the victims.”3

The spectacular seems to have inspired these early directors’ most inventive imaginings. Formal analysis reveals only modest dynamic use of the movie camera and of montage until the making of Giovanni Pastrone’s masterpiece Cabiria (directed under the pseudonym Piero Fosco), but one cannot help noticing that these historical films offered enormous possibilities for expressive use of light, space, and, just as relevant, crowds. Alongside its ideological and visual ambitions, and as part of them, Italian cinema sought to become the epic singer of the collective history. It made the crowd a new participant in society, impelling it into view, as in Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo’s painting Quarto stato (Fourth estate, 1901). People surge through the space blocked off by painted sets to become the true protagonists of the story of the nation. The rise of Italian cinema between 1912 and World War I was in part due to the thousands of extras who spread out and marched through the movies—marched counterclockwise, in conquest of the past. This crowd might sweep into Russia with Napoleon in Frusta’s Brigadiere Roland (Sergeant Roland, 1912), or throng the Roman arenas and circuses (Quo Vadis?, Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, Giulio Cesare, Marcantonio e Cleopatra), or meet to celebrate the rituals of society and religion (Cabiria). These thematic concerns had visual consequences: the directors may not have developed a broad syntax of camera movement, but they showed an increasingly strong need to pass from the two-dimensional views they had inherited from the theater to three-dimensional representation. Thanks to the necessity of moving large masses of people in space in these historical films, cinema began to utilize the laws of perspective. If interior sets were soon insufficient to contain the crowds, exteriors put no limits on the camera’s eye, and revealed possibilities never before seen in other forms of spectacle.

Pastrone is notable for his innovative scenic solutions after 1910 or so—one only has to think of the entry of the gigantic horse into the city of Hector and Priam in La caduta di Troia (The fall of Troy, 1910)—but Enrico Guazzoni was more thoughtful in his use of set, space, and perspective. In an article of 1918 he wrote, “It is from Shakespeare that I drew my conviction that a grand polyphony could take the place of the boring ‘solo,’. . . and, always heeding the canons of the greatest Shakespearean plays, I sought above all for the crowd to be the true protagonist, the grand, multicolored crowd that harbors a variety of feelings, the most disparate passions, beliefs, prejudices. But it is necessary to give an esthetic to this crowd, a cinematographic esthetic.”4 With Quo Vadis?, taken from the 1895 best-seller by Henryk Sienkiewicz, Guazzoni genuinely advanced the narrative and visual system of film. The historical story remains secondary while the loves, jealousies, and hatreds among the various protagonists interweave in the foreground. The young Vinicio and the emperor Nero compete for the love of Licia, who has as her protector the slave Ursus. Ursus watches over Licia and at one point descends into the circus arena to fight a bull on whose back the naked girl has been tied. The destruction of Rome by fire, the persecution of the Christians, the popular insurrection against Nero, and the tyrant’s death at the hands of a freedman provide the fictional story with a historical backdrop that was universally admired. With hitherto unknown freedom, the characters inhabit all the dimensions of the space described by the camera. In the final scenes in the circus the dialectic between individual and crowd is discovered and exploited, with dramatic and emotional effects that would be influential for several generations of directors in the future. A manuscript note describing the film, found among Kleine’s papers, conveys his immediate perception of the film’s novelty: “This superb spectacle marks an epoch in the evolution of the silent drama. It will probably remain the greatest work of this kind for years to come. It develops a story of human passions, of Roman luxury, of the contempt of the patricians for the masses, impossible to tell in books or on the stage.”5

Guided by Quo Vadis? the Ambrosio film company made Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei, directed by Mario Caserini. It is a more modest work, but has its own spectacular merits. Here, too, the love between two young people, Ione and Glaucus, is opposed by an older authority, Arbace, priest of Isis, who resorts to every means to suppress his rival. Meanwhile Nydia, a young blind girl who sells flowers, is secretly in love with Glaucus. Static for much of its length—with actors playing to the fourth wall and extras arranged in a semicircle against the backdrop, as in opera—the film changes rhythm in its final scenes, which show the eruption of Vesuvius. The special effects here are extraordinarily convincing. Thousands of extras are packed into the circus, and the movements of these masses of people are dazzlingly wild. Crazed crowds swarm through the streets only to be buried by ashes, lava, and by collapsing buildings. With biblical fury, the catastrophe makes a clean sweep of an Italian city likened to Sodom, and leads to the salvation of Ione and Glaucus, thanks to Nydia, who sacrifices herself for their sake. A rhythmic montage adroitly juxtaposes the “documentary” and this fictional footage. The story comes from a novel of 1834 by Bulwer-Lytton, and the film was so successful that within a few years, four more versions of the book had been shot.

The genre reached its apex between 1913 and 1914, when directors grasped how to avoid breaking up the action into distinct shots separated by interminably long intertitles. Now they could tell a story largely by visual means alone. With the international success of Quo Vadis?, particularly in America, the major Italian film companies followed Fassini in contacting Kleine. For three years, films on Roman life, or on the history of Venice, enjoyed wide approval from public and critics. These films put the public on familiar, nonreverential terms with the famous figures of history. High and tragic style was blended with the everyday; love mingled with reasons of state, the public with the private, and often the people participated directly in the decisions of government.

Encouraged by the reception of Quo Vadis?, which changed the American public’s relationship with the screen and led to movie houses as large as cathedrals for showing popular films in the most sumptuous kind of setting, Kleine continued to play a role for some time. With every release his risk grew, for he was not only acquiring distribution rights but advancing increasingly large sums of money. In late 1913 he negotiated a million-dollar contract with Ambrosio for the production and exclusive distribution rights for four films, “to be no less than 2,000 meters in duration and equal in quality to the Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei.”6 At some point in each film, he requested, the screen was to be filled with at least three to four thousand extras. In 1914 Kleine bought a vast complex of buildings in Grugliasco, outside Turin, where he intended to start work on his own productions. The first film was to have been a Mephistopheles: all the sets were ready, and he was preparing to open the studio, when Italy entered World War I. Thus the magical moment of fortune came to a sudden end.

From this point on, having achieved success and a sort of hegemony, Italian cinema seemed to want to live off its past, refusing to acknowledge that the linguistic and narrative system of film was evolving independently from it in other countries and continuing to think of itself as a fundamental reference point for cinema throughout the world. This trend was interrupted with Cabiria, an emblem and summation of a whole genre of films dealing with history and myth. If in earlier movies Guazzoni, Caserini, and Pastrone could have been considered the apostles of the new visual word, the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio was that word’s utterer, its long-invoked prophet. All these directors were influenced by him; for Cabiria, he actually came to the studio to guide and inspire the hand of the director, Pastrone, and to celebrate the ritual of cinematic creation. It has often been said that D’Annunzio’s interest in cinema was purely economic, but in fact the poet was exalted by his experience of movie-making. It was as if the white screen could be overloaded with the weight of great mythologies, as if the past could be reproposed as the figural reality of an entire people’s present aspirations. D’Annunzio saw in cinema the privileged place for the realization of a modern epic, and of the total work of art theorized by Wagner and Nietzsche.

Cabiria unifies many myths, from that of Rome to the idea of the strong popular hero. The general design is based on the Punic wars; Hannibal, Carthage, the siege of Syracuse, the eruption of Etna, and other historical events are freely manipulated and combined with motifs from the comedy of Plautus, from Milesian fable, and from D’Annunzio’s own pen. The film begins with the eruption of Etna and the kidnapping of the baby Cabiria by Carthaginian pirates. She is to be sacrificed to the god Moloch, but just as the priest orders her body thrown into the flames, she is saved by Maciste and the Roman Fulvio Axilla. They flee, but she is recaptured and becomes the slave and favorite maidservant of Sofonisba, queen of Carthage. The high priest Karthalo is irresistibly attracted to the beauty of the young slave, now called Elissa. But eventually the victory of the Romans over Hannibal allows Fulvio Axilla and Cabiria to be reunited, and he declares his love and returns triumphantly to Rome with the young girl in his arms.

The mix of narrative levels in Cabiria is also a mix of spatial planes; the moments of the greatest cinematic spectacle combine with the greatest inventiveness in the sets. Less through any individual directorial decisions than through their totality, Cabiria, even today, seems a key point in the evolution of cinematic language. At its most expressive and tense it tries to achieve a sympathy between images and intertitles, aligning them by rules of rhythm and language instead of maintaining them in different registers. The intertitle becomes an autonomous structure through which D’Annunzio’s presence is felt, but in the course of the film it has many different roles to play, from simple narrative indicator to metaphor and autonomous symbol. Cabiria was greeted enthusiastically wherever it was shown, and its influence was felt in many films that tried to project and imagine fantastic places and constructions in the past, present, and future, and that tried to expand the powers of vision.

Cabiria is an extraordinary film, one of the wonders of early cinema and a true vehicle for D’Annunzio’s personality, with whatever qualities of charisma and disquiet that may involve. (This remains true even though Pastrone is the material craftsman of the work in its visual structure, its meter, and the topological relationship among its characters and the elements of the set.) With the sudden disaster of war, however, the imagination of the Italian homo cinematographicus was completely redirected to the most reduced and familiar forms, the geometries of Liberty interiors and the urban habitat of the early–20th-century European city. Kleine’s business too was tied to the fortunes of Italian cinema, and underwent harsh setbacks. Until the war, Kleine had turned everything he touched into gold. When Louella Parsons remarked that he was for the film industry what John Rockefeller was for Standard Oil, she wasn’t completely exaggerating. But with the depletion of his Italian gold mine, Kleine found himself at the margins of a market that had taken other directions. He still had one card to play, both poignant and, for our purposes, laudable: throughout the ’20s he distributed his Italian films to the alternative markets of American universities. Thus Giulio Cesare, Quo Vadis?, and Marcantonio e Cleopatra achieved new success in the history and Latin classes of academia, from Battle Creek, Michigan, to Athens, Ohio, to Newcastle, Cherokee, and Arlington. Thanks to Kleine, film became a supplementary teaching tool in the university and was welcomed with honors by professors and students who had previously been exposed only to linear, written culture. The final document of the Kleine archives is a little receipt for $12 for the projection of Quo Vadis? at the University of Petaluma in early 1929. At this point the adventure was truly over. Two years later, on June 12, 1931, the New York Times published, without comment, a notice of the death of George Kleine, “pioneer of American film.”

Gian Piero Brunetta teaches film history and criticism at the University of Padua. His latest book, Buio in Sala, was published by Marsilio Editori, Venice, last October.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.



1. Letter from Baron Alberto Fassini to George Kleine, 5 July 1912, in the George Kleine Collection, the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., box 8.
2. Victorin Jasset, “Retour au réalisme,” Ciné-Journal, Paris, 21 October–25 November 1911. Republished in Marcel Lapierre, Antologie du cinéma, Paris: Alcan, 1946, p. 89.
3. Moving Picture World 5 no. 19, New York, 6 November 1909, p. 635.
4. Enrico Guazzoni, “Me confesseró,” In Penombra 1 no. 2, Rome, July 1918, p. 55.
5. Kleine, note on the casting and intertitles of Quo Vadis?, n.d., in the George Kleine Collection, box 8.
6. Kleine, document of December 1913 in the George Kleine Collection, box 32.