10 January 2018

Pina Menichelli – silent movie star

Screen diva who enjoyed worldwide fame

Pina Menichelli in one of the extravagant costumes she wore in Il Fuoco
Pina Menichelli in one of the extravagant
costumes she wore in Il Fuoco
The actress Pina Menichelli, who became one of the most celebrated female stars of the silent movie era, was born on this day in 1890 in Castroreale, a village in northeast Sicily.

Menichelli’s career was brief – she retired at the age of just 34 – but in her last eight or nine years on screen she enjoyed such popularity that her films played to packed houses and she commanded a salary that was the equivalent of millions of euros in today’s money.

Without words, actors had to use facial expressions and body movements to create character in the parts they were playing and Menichelli, a naturally beautiful woman, exploited her elegance and sensuality to the full, at times pushing the limits of what was acceptable on screen.

In fact, one of her films, La Moglie di Claudio (Claudio’s Wife) was banned by the censors for fear it would offend sensitivities, particularly those of the Catholic Church.

Generally cast in the role of femme fatale, Menichelli thus became something of a sex symbol in the years after the First World War and there was considerable shock when she announced abruptly in 1924 that she was quitting the film industry for good.

Born Giuseppa Iolanda Menichelli, she came from a theatrical background.  Her parents, Cesare and Francesca, were touring theatre actors, part of a dynasty of performers that included Nicola Menichelli, an 18th century comedian. Two sisters and a brother also became actors.

Menichelli and Amleto Novelli in the film Padrone delle Ferriere directed by Eugenio Perego
Menichelli and Amleto Novelli in the film Padrone
delle Ferriere directed by Eugenio Perego
She grew up on the road. She went to school in Bologna in northern Italy and joined a theatre company to tour Argentina as a teenager in 1908.

While she was living in Buenos Aires she met and married Libero Pica, an Italian journalist who was based there, and had two sons, the first of whom, sadly, survived only a few days.

Had things worked out differently, her big-screen career might never have happened, but after she became pregnant for a third time the couple separated and she returned to Italy. Her third child, a daughter, was born in Milan in 1912.

In 1913, with the Italian film industry still in its infancy, Menichelli signed up with the Rome studio Cines, and between 1913 and 1915 made 35 movies, graduating from small parts in short films to lead roles in features.

She was climbing the ladder towards fame, having earned favourable comparisons with Lydia Borelli and Francesca Bertini, the most famous Italian actresses of the day, when she moved to Itala Films of Turin, lured there by the director, Giovanni Pastrone, who saw in her the potential to become a star.

Giovanni Pastrone recognised Pina Menichelli's star potential
Giovanni Pastrone recognised Pina
Menichelli's star potential
He gave her the lead role in a film entitled Il Fuoco (The Fire), about the tempestuous love affair between an aristocratic poet (Menichelli) and an impoverished painter (Febo Mari), which was critically acclaimed and became a global success.

Her next role, as a glamorous Russian countess pursued by an amorous diplomat (Alberto Nepoti), in Pastrone’s Tigre Reale (Royal Tiger), had critics trying to outdo one another in the extravagance of their praise, referring to her “erotic charge, seductive glances and provocative body movements.”

One critic, noting Menichelli's propensity for writhing poses and sudden, dramatic movements, rather unflatteringly dubbed her "Our Lady of the Spasms."

It established Menichelli as the biggest star of all the divas of Italy’s silent movie scene and her salary catapulted almost overnight from around 12,000 lire per year working for Cines to move than 300,000 lire per year at Itala.

In 1919, she took the bold decision to leave Pastrone and Itala Films in order to sign up with Rinascimento Film of Rome, a company set up specifically for her by Baron Carlo d’Amato, who would later become her second husband.

The Italian film industry was beginning to struggle as the economic hardships of the 1920s began to take hold, yet by targeting foreign markets D’Amato was able to buck the trend and Menichelli continued to enjoy success.

La Storia di Una Donna won critical acclaim for Menichelli
La Storia di Una Donna won
critical acclaim for Menichelli
She was also given a platform to show off a different range of acting talents by a director willing to experiment.  His 1920 feature La Storia di Una Donna starred Menichelli as a mystery woman taken unconscious with gunshot wounds to a hospital, where a detective trying to identify her finds a diary telling the story of her life, which is then played out for the audience as a series of extended flashbacks, a technique at the time that was highly unusual.

Menichelli made a total of 13 films for D’Amato, rounding off with a couple of light-hearted comedies before the two were married in 1924, following the death of her first husband, who had always refused to allow their marriage to be annulled.

It was then that she announced she was not only retiring but turning her back on the cinema to the extent that she wished almost to erase it from her life, destroying every photograph, poster and programme she possessed and making it known that approaches from journalists, biographers or cinema historians who might wish to chronicle her career would not be welcome.

Wealthy enough never to have to worry about money, she seemingly wanted nothing but to resume the life of a housewife and mother that was denied to her when she parted acrimoniously from her first husband.  The image of a “vamp”, a femme-fatale, a sex symbol, she felt was incompatible with that of a good wife.

She lived the remainder of her life – another 60 years – out of the spotlight, outliving her husband and dying in relative obscurity in Milan in 1984 at the age of 94.

The hilltop town of Castroreale in Sicily
The hilltop town of Castroreale in Sicily
Travel tip:

Castroreale, where Pina Menichelli was born, is a hilltop village in northeast Sicily about 9km (5.5 miles) inland and 30km (19 miles) southwest of the city of Messina. It is notable for having 80 churches – roughly one for every 35 residents.  Notable among these are the 15th century Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, with its Mannerist façade with Baroque and classical decorations, the church of the Candelora on Via Umberto I, which contains a 17th century wooden altar with carvings attributed to Giovanni Siracusa.  Two art collections, housed in the former church of Santa Maria degli Angeli, and in the Civic Museum, are worth a visit.

The Villa della Regina was a palace of the House of Savoy
The Villa della Regina was a palace of the House of Savoy
Travel tip:

The studios of Itala Film, where Menichelli found fame, were in Via Luisa del Carretto, a street in Turin in the neighbourhood of Gran Madre, a quiet residential area across the Po river from the main part of the city yet only five or 10 minutes from the centre.  Nearby is the Villa della Regina, a 17th century palace designed by Ascanio Vitozzi for the House of Savoy.

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