Italian silent film actor and director Gustavo Serena (1882 - 1970) is now best remembered as diva Francesca Bertini's co-star, but he did much more than that.
Italian postcard by the magazine Film (Naples/Rome). Photo: Caesar Film.
Gustavo Serena was born into a wealthy Neapolitan aristocratic family in 1881 or 1882. He left his military career for the stage. In 1909, he switched to the cinema He made his film debut in the Cines film Bianca Cappello/White Chapel (1909), a period piece by Mario Caserini. From 1910 on, Serena acted in the films by the Italian Pathé film unit Film d'Arte Italiana. Here he was already paired with his future partner Francesca Bertini in 6 period pieces such as La Contessa di Challant e Don Pedro de Cordova/The Countess de Challant (1911, Gerolamo Lo Savio), Romeo e Giulietta/Romeo and Juliet (1912, Ugo Falena) and Ruy Blas (1912). Then, Serena and Bertini both moved to the Cines company, though they did not play together there. At Cines, Serena also started to direct films. In 1913, he had a major breakthrough as Petronius in the epic Cines film Quo vadis? (1913, Enrico Guazzoni). That year he also acted in productions by Roma Film. In 1914, he moved on to the Turinese company Pasquali, where he played in films by Umberto Paradisi and opposite actors as Maria Jacobini and Anna Petersen. In 1915, he left Pasquali and came back to Rome to work at Caesar Film, where he became not only an important actor but also a major director.
Italian postcard by Vettori. Poto: still from La signora dalle camelie (1915), based on Alexandre Dumas fils' classic stage play La dame aux camélias, which in its turn was the basis for Giuseppe Verdi's classic opera La traviata.
At Caesar, Gustavo Serena directed various films with Francesca Bertini. In the meantime she had become an adored film star, a 'diva'. Among the films of Serena with Bertini, the first was the classic precursor of neorealism: Assunta Spina (1915, Gustavo Serena), based on the Neapolitan stage play by Salvatore Di Giacomo. Today, Serena's direction of the film is discussed; some historians maintain Bertini directed a part of or even the whole film. At Caesar, Serena played the lead opposite Bertini in 11 feature films. Of these, he both directed and played in Assunta Spina (1915), Diana l'affascinatrice/Diana, the Adventuress (1915), Ivonne la bella danzatrice/Yvonne, the Beautiful Dancer (1915), Il capestro degli Asburgo/The Rope of Habsburg (1915), and La signora dalle camelie/The Lady of the Camelias (1915). In 1916, Giuseppe De Liguoro took over the direction of the Bertini-Serena films, with such titles as Odette (1916) and Fedora (1916), but in 1917 Serena again both directed and acted in Andreina (1917). After that, Alfredo De Antoni took over the direction, and later successes with the golden couple Bertini-Serena followed such as Il processo Clémenceau/The Clemenceau Affair (1917), Tosca (1918) and Frou-Frou (1918). When Bertini starred in seven films based on the 7 mortal sins, Serena played opposite her in L'ira/Anger (1918, Edoardo Bencivenga) and L'avarizia/Greed (1919, Gustavo Serena). These were their last collaborations. Serena was replaced as Bertini's co-star by actors such as Livio Pavanelli, Sandro Salvini and Mario Parpagnoli.
Italian postcard by Vettori, Bologna, no. 451bis.
Fascist Propaganda Piece
While not making films with Bertini, Gustavo Serena continued to direct films at Caesar, with actors from its regular troupe, such as Carlo and Olga Benetti. Among these films were A San Francisco (1915), based on another play by Di Giacomo; Parigi misteriosa/Mysterious Paris (1917), based on Eugene Sue's novel Les mystères de Paris, and Fernanda (1917), starring Leda Gys. He often played in these films too. Serena continued to direct films up to 1923, often with the actresses Anna Fougez, Tilde Kassay and Nella Serravezza. Until 1926, Serena regularly acted in films too, including the German 2-part period piece Sterbende Völker/Dying People (1922, Robert Reinert), shot in Italy; the fascist propaganda piece Il grido dell'aquila/The Shout of the Eagle (1923, Mario Volpe); the Ronald Colman-Lilian Gish melodrama The White Sister (1923, Henry King), also shot in Italy, and Fra Diavolo (1925, Roberto Roberti, Mario Gargiulo) in which Serena played the title role. When sound film came to Italy, Serena made a handful films, based on regional theater, such as Zappatore (1930), in which he played the lead himself. He quitted directing after that, but continued to play minor roles in Italian sound films in the late 1930's. During the war years, Serena was production manager for a few films. Again from the late 1940's and all through the 1950's, he acted in several films, though in small parts. His last roles were even uncredited: bit parts in I soliti ignoti/Big Deal on Madonna Street (1959, Mario Monicelli) and Don Camillo monsignore ma non troppo/Don Camillo: Monsignor (1961, Carmine Gallone). Gustavo Serena's parabole ended in 1970, when he died in Rome.
Italian postcard by Film Cines, Roma, no. 6572. Gustavo Serena as Petronius Arbiter and Amleto Novelli as Marcus Vinicius in Enrico Guazzoni's epic film Quo vadis? (produced 1912, released 1913), based on the famous homonymous novel by Henryk Sienkiewicz.
Sources: Aldo Bernardini/Jean A. Gili (Le cinéma italien 1905-1945), Gianfranco Mingozzi/Vittorio Martinelli (Francesca Bertini), and IMDb.