When Mussolini went Hollywood

American films in Fascist Italy

Roseanne Wells
May 31, 2007

What could you buy in Italy in 1937 for two lire? Here’s what it got you: a seat in the dark, waiting in quiet anticipation of an exhilarating adventure, a tear-jerker love story or the thriller of a lifetime—at least until the next movie was released in the theatres. In Fascist Italy, going to the flicks became a national pastime, an hour devoted to escaping the monotony of life and entering into the fantastic realm of the imagination. And while Italian cinema did exist, the majority of films viewed by Italians were imported from Hollywood, adding to the appeal and magic of the silver screen. People were so enamored with movies that Benito Mussolini adopted a Hollywood-style model when constructing Cinecittà, or Cinema City, in the Roman capital. Although most of the world saw America only through Hollywood’s rose-colored lens, America’s glamorous divas and charming playboys quickly become the world’s principal reference points for American life and culture. People wanted to laugh with Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, swoon for Gary Cooper and dream of being Greta Garbo.

 

Mussolini recognized the country’s mass desire to emulate what the people imagined as the prosperous American lifestyle. By changing the taxation on exports to make them more expensive, he in turn favored American cinema, Italy’s principal import at the time, in an effort to appease the masses. The populous wanted to forget their dreary lives caused by the economic and political failures of the Fascist State and thus craved this type of cinematic escapism. Perhaps more importantly, what Mussolini saw in American cinema was a successful model of industrialization, a sort of business plan to follow in the difficult process of modernizing Italy.

 

Most of the money used to fund Italian cinema came from exporting films to Great Britain, France and the United States. At the same time, Italian film makers were in fierce competition with their imported rivals, particularly those from the aggressive, dominant Hollywood studios. The silver screen played and replayed the rags-to-riches American Dream into Italian everyday life. With so many foreign films entering movie halls throughout the country, the majority of Italy’s film studios folded in mass bankruptcy after 1920. Mussolini’s Fascist government soon took possession of them in hopes of creating their own profitable version of the internationally flourishing American cinema empire. These businesses were conglomerated and re-established at a motion-picture studio located on the outskirts of Rome in 1937, Cinecittà. Meant to be the ‘Italian Hollywood’, Cinecittà dominated Italian moviemaking during the Fascist rule, centralizing almost two-thirds of the country’s entire film production output.

 

While he set up his own Hollywood, Mussolini did nothing to impede the introduction of American culture into the despotic Italian state. In fact, he encouraged it, especially through the pictures. At the beginning of the Fascist regime, Mussolini’s public image emphasized maintaining the vast myriad of centuries-long traditions throughout the sweeping Italian countryside. After he garnered all of the possible support from the largely uneducated rural population, the Fascist leader’s focus turned to the urbanized middle class.

 

He soon found that this sector of the populous reflected a general Italian fascination with the Hollywood version of American life. The Italian bourgeois envisioned movie celebrities like Barbara Stanwyck as down-to-earth people who had overcome the toughest of obstacles in order to fulfil their American dream. Even left-wing intellectuals, who were largely ignored by Mussolini and his Fascist counterparts, idealized America as everything that Italy was not: free, prosperous, and devoted to the populous. Conservatives affected by industry backed fascism because it seemed like a way to boost business and catch up with the world market, which was in turn led by the United States. Everyone wanted a piece of what America was willing to offer, and the easiest route to this land of supposed prosperity and opportunity for Italy was facilitated by the Hollywood movie.

 

But what the Italian public didn’t see was the American life that lurked behind the scenes: the decadent but short-lived roaring 20s, the bleak and impoverished 30s, and the isolationism of the early 40s. Of course, Hollywood was not interested in marketing a less sugared version of America to international movie-goers. And Mussolini, interested in maintaining the status quo that encouraged his Fascist rule, was not interested in revealing the bleak reality tucked away behind the American silver screen. Without the knowledge of these truths, the Italian people were led to believe that Americans really existed as the movies portrayed them, mistaking fiction as fact. They paid two lire to live in the dark, one candied cinema dream at a time.

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