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25 August 2013

Lea Giunchi

Lea Giunchi (1884-?) was the first comical actress in Italian cinema. She acted either in her own 'Lea' series, or with male comedians such as Ferdinand Guillaume (Tontolini) and Raymond Frau (Kri Kri). She also played in the Italian silent epic Quo vadis? (1913), modern dramas and action films.

Lea Giunchi and Bruto Castellani in Quo vadis?
Italian postcard by Uff. Rev. St. Terni. Photo: Cines Film. Publicity still for Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913). Lygia (Lea Giunchi) saves Vinicius (Amleto Novelli) from the hands of Ursus (Bruto Castellani). Ursus, protector of Lygia, has just killed a gladiator who had been charged by Vinicius to kill Ursus while he himself planned to abduct Lygia.

Lea, Tontolini and Kri Kri
Despite Wikipedia indicating differently, Lea Giunchi was born Armanda Carolina Giunchi in Dusseldorf, Germany in 1889. She was the daughter of an Italian father and a German mother. In 1909 she moved to Rome. There her professional career took off when she became the companion of Natale Guillaume. Together with his elder – and more famous - brother Ferdinando Guillaume, Guillaume was the fourth generation of a French family who had fled from France in the late 18th century and led the life of wandering circus artists. Natale left the family circus after his father Onorato remarried. His brother Ferdinando joined him, and together they did circus acts in various European circuses. Around 1907 they started to perform in vaudeville at the Sala Umberto in Rome, under the name of 'Les Guill-Guill'. Wikipedia suggests that Giunchi was already a part of these performances.

In 1909 the Guillaume brothers were hired by the Cines film company in Rome, to become comical actors and compete with the popular French comedian André Deed. In 1910, a whole series was designed around the character of Tontolini, played by Ferdinando, and with Natale as his sidekick or antagonist. It is then that Lea Giunchi as well started to act in the films with the Guillaume brothers, firstly in Tontolini e Lea al mare/Tontolini and Lea at the Seaside (1910). Immediately she became the companion of the character Tontolini, using the name Lea (not Armanda and without her last name). Giunchi remained Ferdinando Guillaume’s sidekick in countless comedies, until Guillaume moved over the Turinese company Pasquali and became Polidor. Giunchi had become so popular that she got her own Lea series, as of 1910, starting with Lea in convitto/Lea in Her Boarding School.

 Until 1916 Giunchi surely acted in some 34 Lea comedies, which were distributed all over Europe and to the United States. Examples are Lea si diverte/Lea has fun (1912), Lea vuol morire/Lea wants to die1912), and Lea e il gomitolo/Lea and the ball (1913). Giunchi collaborated with several male comedians: the fat Giuseppe Gambardella, known as Checco, Lorenzo Soderini aka Cocò, also often in drag as the ugly female antagonist of Lea, and foremost Raymond Frau, who replaced Guillaume as first comedian at Cines, when the latter left for Pasquali. Known as Kri Kri, Frau coupled with Giunchi in many comedies in the early 1910s, such as Kri Kri ama la tintora/Kri Kri loves tintora (1913) and Kri Kri e Lea militari/Kri Kri and Lea military (1913).

Giunchi continued to play in the Kri Kri films until 1915. She also joined forces in comical shorts with her own little son Eraldo, born in Rome in 1910 (and not 1906 as Wikipedia and IMDb write), and known as Cinessino. In 1911 Giunchi and Guillaume had a daughter, Sylvia. In the meantime Giunchi played in dramatic films, e.g. as Marta in Enrico Guazzoni’s adaptation of Faust (1910), and (despite her pregnancy of Eraldo) she was the Blue Fairy in Pinocchio (Giulio Antamoro, 1911), an early feature-length film with the whole Guillaume family acting.

Quo vadis?
Italian postcard by Uff. Rev. St. Terni. Photo: Cines Film. Publicity still for Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913). Helped by Acte, Nero's former mistress, Ursus (Bruto Castellani) subtracts Lygia (Lea Giunchi) from the orgy of the imperial banquet, where the drunken Roman Vinicius tries to rape her.

A Worldwide Sensation
Lea Giunchi had her breakthrough as dramatic actress with the part of the Christian girl Lygia (Licia in Italian) in the epic Quo vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1912). The film was a worldwide sensation. She played also dramatic roles in Fior d’amore e fior di morte/Flower of love and death (1912) and Immolazione/Immolation (Enrico Guazzoni, 1914). Because of her special physical talents, Lea Giunchi played in several types of action films, from Westerns like Due vite per un cuore/A Sister's Ordeal (1912) and Sulla via dell’oro/On the golden way (1913) to mystery and detective films, such as Le mani ignote/The unknown hands (1913) and La polizia moderna )1912).

In her thesis on Giunchi, Marzia Ruta writes: “Giunchi’s acting peculiarity consisted in her ability to combine two different aspects in one single characterization: she made use of her body in a very free way, yet at the same time she also managed to be extremely charming and feminine. This is a case on its own in the context of Italian cinema of the time, where no other comic actress presented both these aspects at once: either they were the big fat woman who hit and tyrannized her poor little comic partner, or, in reverse, the coquettish and funny girl with a great ability in facial expressions (the best example of this type being the great Gigetta Morano). On the contrary, Lea made use of both the free and unprejudiced movements of her body and a coquettish femininity: this was quite a revolutionary combination of elements for the time, and Giunchi was the first, and probably the only actress to introduce it in Italian cinema. (...)

In Lea e il gomitolo (1913) Giunchi destroys her parents’ whole apartment by desperately searching for a lost ball of wool: her frenzy movement, quite like a demoniac possession, is a metaphor for Lea’s desperate search for the only female identity she knows and can imagine; by destroying the apartment, she conquers both her right to read in peace and the possibility of an alternative female identity. At a time when Italian women were not allowed to vote because their husbands were held to also represent their will, Lea persuades her boyfriend’s parents to let their son marry her by disguising herself as a doll: a big puppet who complies with all of its owner’s instructions (Lea bambola/Lea doll, 1912).”

Quo vadis?
Italian postcard by Uff. Rev. St. Terni. Photo: Cines Film. Publicity still for Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913). Vinicius (Amleto Novelli) finds back Lygia (Lea Giunchi) at the catacombs of Ostriano. Left of Lygia is St. Peter (Giovanni Gizzi), right of her protector Ursus (Bruto Castellani). Vinicius plots to abduct Lygia, with the help of the Greek Chilo (Augusto Mastripietri) and a gladiator.

Quo vadis?
Italian postcard by Uff. Rev. St. Terni. Photo: Cines Film. Publicity still for Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, 1913). Ursus (Bruto Castellani) and Vinicius (Amleto Novelli) implore the audience and emperor Nero to grace the Christian Lygia (Lea Giunchi), after Ursus has killed the bull on whch back Lygia had been bound. The audience raves because of Ursus' tour de force. Vinicius has stripped his cloth to show his scars from the wars, while Ursus holds up Lygia. All around Nero hold their thumbs up for grace, even if this sign seems to have been a 19th century invention and historically incorrect.

A Fatal Blow
While Natale Guillaume acted in several Polidor-comedies in Turin in 1914-1916, Lea Giunchi seems to have stayed in Rome, continuing at Cines. In 1915 Giunchi also signed a contract with the Caesar Film and acted for this company in such films as La cieca di Sorrento/Blind Woman of Sorrento (Gustavo Serena, 1916) in which she had the lead as the blind girl, Parigi misteriosa/Mysterious Paris (1917), an adaptation of Eugene Sue, and P.L.M., ossia l’assassinio della Paris-Lyon-Mediterranée/P.L.M. ie the murder of the Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée (Edoardo Bencivenga, 1918).

In the mid-1910s she also acted at companies like Celio in La maschera dell’amore (Ivo Illuminati, 1916), and Film d’Arte Italiana in La chiamavano Cosetta (Eugenio Perego, 1917). The big wave of Italian short comedy petered out during the mid-1910s, which meant less work for Giunchi. A fatal blow came after the First World War, when her companion – they apparently never married – Natale Guillaume was killed in an aerial accident, during the shooting in Naples of a film for Polidor Film, the company founded by his brother Ferdinando.

A few months after, Lea Giunchi married Anselmo Muto, a doctor from Gaeta fifteen years older than she. Giunchi withdrew from public life for good. Muto died in Rome in 1940. After the Second World War, in 1946, Lea and Sylvia left Rome and moved to Gaeta, probably to join Muto's family. In 1951 Lea emigrated with Sylvia and Eraldo and their families to Rio De Janeiro, after which traces of her get lost. While Giunchi remains a rather enigmatic personality, several of her long and short films remain in archives inside and outside of Italy. Her brother-in-law Ferdinando was rediscovered by Federico Fellini in the post-war era and would act in Le notti di Cabiria/Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini, 1957) and La dolce vita (Federico Fellini, 1960). He died at the high age of 90.

Lea Giunchi
Stage actress Mab Paul as Lygia. British postcard by Rotary in the Opalette Series, O.3077.A. Photo: E.C.

Sources: Marzia Ruta,(Riavvolgendo il gomitolo: Lea Giunchi, storia di un corpo comico dimenticato (thesis, Bologna, 2008)), Marzia Ruta (Women and the Silent Screen conference 2010), Wikipedia (Italian) and IMDb.

Thanks to Marzia Ruta and Marlène Pilaete for additional information and corrections.

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