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27 December 2013

Totò

Today, it's Postcard Friendship Friday again on the net. A weekly event in which postcard blogs present themselves. Start at Beth's blog with the great title The Best Hearts Are Crunchy, and enjoy some rare vintage postcards that are preserved on the net by bloggers like me.

Totò (1898–1967) was one of the most popular Italian film stars ever, nicknamed il principe della risata (the prince of laughter). He starred in about 100 films, many of which are still frequently broadcast on Italian television. Totò is an heir of the Commedia dell'Arte tradition, and can be compared to Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. His style and some of his recurring jokes and gestures are universally known in Italy.

Totò
Small Italian collectors card, no. 291. Photo: Ivo Meldones.

His Imperial Highness


Totò was born Antonio Clemente in the Rione Sanità, a poor district of Naples, in 1898. Totò is a typical pet name for Antonio in Naples and it most properly comes from the Neapolitan dialect variant Totonno. He was the illegitimate son of Anna Clemente from Sicily and the penniless Marquis Giuseppe De Curtis from Naples, who did not legally recognize him until 1937.

The young Totò preferred sports to studying, and in an incident with either a football or in the boxing ring, part of his nose became paralyzed. It gave him that look which later became his trademark.

Totò much regretted growing up without a father, to the point that at the age of 35, when he was already very popular, managed to have Marquis Francesco Maria Gagliardi Focas adopt him in exchange for a life annuity. As a consequence, when Marquis de Curtis recognized him, Totò had become an heir of two noble families, hence claiming an impressive slew of titles.

In 1946, when the Consulta Araldica—the body that advised the Kingdom of Italy on matters of nobility—ceased operations, the Tribunal of Naples recognized his numerous titles, so his complete name was changed from Antonio Clemente to Antonio Griffo Focas Flavio Ducas Komnenos Gagliardi de Curtis of Byzantium, His Imperial Highness, Palatine Count, Knight of the Holy Roman Empire, Exarch of Ravenna, Duke of Macedonia and Illyria, Prince of Constantinople, Cilicia, Thessaly, Pontus, Moldavia, Dardania, Peloponnesus, Count of Cyprus and Epirus, Count and Duke of Drivasto and Durazzo.

For someone born and raised in one of the poorest Neapolitan neighbourhoods this must have been quite an achievement, but in claiming the titles (at the time they had become meaningless) the comedian also mocked them for their intrinsic worthlessness. In fact, when he was not using his stage name Totò, he mostly referred to himself simply as Antonio De Curtis.

Totò's mother wanted him to become a priest, but as soon as 1913, at the age of 15, he was already acting as a comedian in small theatres, under pseudonym Clerment. In the minor venues where he performed, Totò had the chance to meet artists like Eduardo De Filippo, Peppino De Filippo and Carlo Scarpetta.

He served in the army during World War I and then went back to acting. He learned the art of the Guitti, the Neapolitan scriptless comedians, heirs to the tradition of the Commedia dell'Arte, and began developing the trademarks of his style, including a puppet-like, disjointed gesticulation, emphasized facial expressions, and an extreme, sometimes surrealistic, sense of humour.

In 1922, Totò moved to Rome to perform in bigger theatres. He performed in the genre of Avanspettacolo, a vaudevillian mixture of music, ballet and comedy preceding the main act. He became adept at these revues and in the 1930s he had his own company, with which he travelled across Italy.

Totò
Italian postcard by Il Piùlibri. Photo: youth portrait of Antonio De Curtis (Totò) with dedication.

Italy's Favourite Comedian


In 1937, Totò appeared in his first film Fermo con le mani/Hands Off Me! (Gero Zambuto, 1937). His debut contains some classic scenes, like the one in which he tries to give a haircut to a bald man. Another scene where he fishes from the fishmonger's counter was repeated in later films like Guardie e ladri/Cops and Robbers (Mario Monicelli, Steno, 1951) and Totò a Parigi/Totò in Paris (Camillo Mastrocinque, 1958).

As middle aged orphan Gaspare in I due orfanelli/The Two Orphans (Mario Mattoli, 1947) he had his big breakthrough. The majority of his films were essentially meant to showcase his performances, and contain his name Totò in the title.

Often they were parodies of established film genres. Fine examples are Totò al Giro d'Italia/Totò at the Tour of Italy (Mario Mattoli, 1948) with a cameo of famous cyclist Fausto Coppi, Totò Sceicco/Totò the Sheik (Mario Mattoli, 1950), Totò Tarzan/Tototarzan (Mario Mattoli, 1950), Totò terzo uomo/Totò the Third Man (Mario Mattoli, 1951), and Totò a colori/Totò in Color (Tonino Delli Colli, Steno, 1952).

Totò a colori, filmed in Ferraniacolor, was the first Italian colour film. It is widely regarded as Totò's masterpiece. He appears in a chase scene where he hides from his pursuers by disguising himself as a wooden marionette on stage. Once the show is over, his body collapses just like a dead puppet.

Another masterpiece is Guardie e ladri/Cops and Robbers (Mario Monicelli, Steno, 1951) with Aldo Fabrizi. The style of the film, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti, is close to Italian neorealism. For his part Totò won the Nastro d'Argento (Silver ribbon award), and the film was a huge success with the public and was also liked by the critics. For Totò, Guardie e ladri represented a real turning point, for the first time his film got exclusively positive reviews, and his interpretation is still considered one of the best of his career.

Totò had the opportunity to act side by side with virtually all major Italian actors of the time. In Fifa e arena/Fright in the Arena (Mario Mattoli, 1948) and several other comedies his co-star was the beautiful Isa Barzizza. His co-star in 47 morto che parla/47 dead speak (Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, 1950) was another film beauty, Silvana Pampanini. And Sophia Loren was the beauty in Miseria e nobiltà/Poverty and Nobility (Mario Mattoli, 1954).

He co-starred with Orson Welles in L'uomo, la bestia e la virtù/Man, Beast and Virtue (Steno, 1953). The most renowned and successful team which Totò formed was with Peppino De Filippo. De Filippo was one of the few actors to have his name appear in film titles along with that of Totò, for example in Totò, Peppino e la malafemmina/Toto, Peppino, and the Hussy (Camillo Mastrocinque, 1956) and Totò, Peppino e i fuorilegge/Totò, Peppino and the outlaws (Camillo Mastrocinque, 1956), for which Peppino De Filippo was awarded with a Nastro d'Argento (Silver ribbon award) for best supporting actor.

During a tour in 1956 Totò lost most of his eyesight due to an eye infection that he had ignored to avoid canceling his show and disappointing his fans. The handicap however almost never affected his schedule and acting abilities.

Among Totò’s best-known films are also the anthology film L'Oro di Napoli/The Gold of Naples (Vittorio De Sica, 1954), the classic crime comedy I soliti ignoti/Big Deal on Madonna Street (Mario Monicelli, 1958) with Marcello Mastroianni and Vittorio Gassman as a pair of thieves who head a group of criminals in a break-in attempt, and the French-Italian comedy La Loi C'est la Loi/La legge è legge/The Law Is the Law (Christian-Jacque, 1958) with Fernandel as a French customs sergeant who conducts an on-going war of nerves with Italian smuggler Totò on the Franco-Italian border. The publicity attending the long-anticipated teaming of France's favourite comedian and his Italian counterpart helped to make The Law Is the Law one of the most successful films in both comedians' careers.

Totò
Italian postcard.

Controversial, Spicy Gags


Totò's unmistakable figure, with his peculiarly irregular ‘stone-face’, and his unique ability to disarticulate his body like a marionette, were very popular and his comic gags are now part of the Italian culture. Wikipedia notes that his typical character is uneducated, poor, vain, snobbish, selfish, naïve, opportunist, hedonist, lascivious and generally immoral, although fundamentally good-hearted.

Partly because of the radical, naïve immorality of his roles, some of his most spicy gags raised much controversy in Italian society. Che fine ha fatto Totò Baby?/Whatever happened to Totò Baby? (Ottavio Alessi, 1964) a parody of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (Robert Aldrich, 1962), included a cheeky and gross celebration of cannabis, in an era when drugs were generally perceived as depraved and dangerous. Nevertheless, such controversies never affected the love of the Italian public for him.

In Pasolini's Uccellacci e uccellini/The Hawks and the Sparrows (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1966) with Ninetto Davoli as Totò’s son, the episode La Terra vista dalla Luna/The Earth As Seen From The Moon from Le streghe/The Witches (Pier Paolo Pasolini a.o., 1965-1967) with Silvana Mangano, and the episode Che cosa sono le nuvole/What are clouds? from Capriccio all'italiana/Caprice Italian Style (Steno, Pier Paolo Pasolini a.o., 1968 - released after his death), he displayed his dramatic skills. These roles gave him the artistic acknowledgment that had eluded him so far by more stringent critics, who only began to recognize his talent after his death.

Despite his physical appearance Totò had a reputation as a playboy. He had for example a relationship with gorgeous film star Silvana Pampanini in the 1940s. One of his lovers, the cafe-concert singer Liliana Castagnola, committed suicide in 1930 after their relationship ended. This tragedy marked his life. He buried Liliana in his family's chapel, and named his only daughter Liliana De Curtis. She was born in 1933 to his first wife Diana Bandini Rogliani, whom he had married in 1932 (according to IMDb in 1935). He dedicated his most famous song Malafemmena (Wayward Woman) to Diana after they separated in 1939.

From 1951 on he lived with Franca Faldini and they married in 1954. A personal tragedy was the premature birth of their son Massenzio in 1954. The boy died a few hours later.

In 1967, Totò passed away at the age of 69 in Rome, after a series of heart attacks. Wikipedia: “Even in death he was unique — due to overwhelming popular request there were three funeral services: the first in Rome, a second in his birth city Naples — and a few days later, in a third one by the local Camorra boss, an empty casket was carried along the packed streets of the popular Rione Sanità quarter where he was born. Totò's birth home has been recently opened to the public as a museum, and his tombstone is frequently visited by fans, some of whom pray to him for help, as if he were a saint.”


Trailer Totò a Parigi/Totò in Paris (Camillo Mastrocinque, 1958). Source: Unidisjollyfilm (YouTube).

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Volker Boehm (IMDb), AllMovie, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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