14 January 2014


Italian silent film actress Thea (1898-?) looks so innocent on this postcard, but in her film Il Giogo (1919),  she is Zoe, a double natured woman. Zoe's foster father, dr. Caselli, has raised this daughter of an assassin together with his own daughter Rita, trying to confirm his theories that a character's individual is based on the expression of its surroundings. Zoe first seems a perfectly educated girl, but then she shows her true nature. She steals Rita's fiancé Riccardo, but also has an affair with an adventurer, with whom she secretly visits orgiastic parties. Riccardo discovers Zoe's true nature, tells Rita and her father, and the poor doctor has to admit his theories are worthless. Zoe ends as a dancer in an ill-reputed tavern.

Italian postcard, no. 489. Photo: still from Il Giogo (1919).

A Monkey Called Jack

Thea was born as Teresa Termini in Rome, Italy in 1898. Sometimes she was called Thea Zerni and her name is also written as Théa.

She debuted in the Italian silent cinema with the film I Martiri di Belfiore/The Martyrs of Belfiore (Alberto Carlo Lolli, 1915), a patriotic and anti-Austrian period piece, set in Mantova 1851. The leads were played by Enna Saredo and Achille Vitti, Teresa had only a minor part.

In 1916 Teresa had only one role, in L'albergo nero/The Black Inn (Gustavo Serena, released in 1920). So after I Martiri di Belfiore, it took two years before she could be seen on the screen again, in the Cines production Il segreto di Jack/Jack's Secret (Enrique Santos, 1917). Here, Termini used her nom de plume Thea for the first time and she had her first lead, opposite a monkey called Jack.

The reviewer of La Cine-fono demanded Thea to stop 'borelleggiare', to act like Lyda Borelli, and to be more natural, precise and characteristic. This critique of being a Borelli epigone remained in subsequent films. Il segreto di Jack though, proved to be such a successful film, that Thea's career really took off.

Next followed two films with French star Aurele Sydney: Una strana avventura/A strange adventure (Aurele Sydney, 1918) and L'Incubo/The nightmare (Amleto Palermi, 1918) with Bruto Castellani, and in between La reginetta Isotta/Queen Isolde (1918), based on a story by Honoré de Balzac.

Italian postcard by Fotocelere.

Italian postcard by Ed. A. Traldi, Milano, no. 524.

Huge Crowds

In 1919 Thea performed in six different films. Primerose/Primrose (Mario Caserini, 1919) was inspired by Lyda Borelli's debut Ma l'amor mio non muore/Love Everlasting, which had also been directed by Caserini.

The other films were La notte del 24 aprile/The Night of 24 April (1919), Incantesimo/Spell (Ugo Gracci, 1919), Il giogo/The Yoke (Gaston Ravel, 1919), L'agguato della morte/The ambush of death (Amleto Palermi, 1919), and Capitan Fracassa/Captain Fracasse (Mario Caserini, 1919).

Except for Incantesimo, Thea had the female lead in all the other films. If the reviewers didn't like her very much, she did attract huge crowds, in particular as the real Lyda Borelli had retired from acting in the previous year 1918, because of her marriage to count Vittorio Cini.

Thea's last film was L'Albergo nero/The black Inn (Gustavo Serena, 1920), produced already in 1916 but only released in 1920. Director Gustavo Serena also played the male lead. Critics complained about the incomprehensibility of the film, which might have had to do with cuts by the censor.

In 1920 Thea married and withdrew from the screen, just like her big example Borelli had done. Today almost all films of Thea are lost. In 1991, a fragment of La notte del 24 aprile was found at the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now EYE Film Institute Netherlands) and presented at the Cinema Ritrovato film festival in Bologna.

Lyda Borelli
Lyda Borelli. Italian postcard. Photo: Emilio Sommariva, Milano, no. 504. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Gustavo Serena
Gustavo Serena. Italian postcard by Vettori, Bologna, no. 451bis.

Sources: IMDb.

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