After World War II, Rome became a center of international film production, not only as the hub of the Italian film industry, but also by attracting moviemakers from around the world as a cost-effective and picturesque location for increasingly spectacular international productions. But long before Rome became the center of Europe’s cinematic universe, Naples—poorer, messier, and more chaotic than its northern neighbor—had been on the forefront of Italy’s moviemaking. Months before the Lumière brothers’ camera arrived in Naples in 1890, a local inventor had patented a similar contraption, only to be driven out of business by the Frenchmen’s superior version. Soon after, at least one of the city’s music halls was converted to screen films, then several more theaters opened exclusively to show movies.
In 1904, a nineteen-year-old Neapolitan law student named Gustavo Lombardo abandoned university to distribute motion pictures, and a few years later became the sole distributor of Charlie Chaplin’s films in south central Italy. By 1919, his company, Lombardo Film (later, Titanus Films), was not only distributing but also producing motion pictures from its Naples studio that had belonged to the recently defunct Polifilms. Like other Neapolitan production companies, Lombardo frequently focused on stories about southerners, shooting around the region and providing unparalleled views of customs and life in the south. Among Lombardo’s biggest successes were the films that starred the vivacious Leda Gys.
The Rome-born Gys likely made her screen debut in 1912—it is difficult to confirm her first movie appearance because most of her more than eighty films are lost. Her then-lover, the poet Carlo Alberto Salustri, known as Trilussa, reportedly suggested her professional name, a near-anagram of her real first name, Giselda. Early in her career Gys appeared in more than two dozen short films, with titles such as Leda Innamorata (1914), which showed off her flair for comedy. Gys’s first important role in a feature was as the Virgin Mary in the 1916 religious epic Christus, and she also appeared in her share of the so-called “diva” films, the Italian melodramas of the era that featured strong female protagonists portrayed by dynamic and charismatic stars such as Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini, and Pina Menichelli. Diva movies were filled with over-the-top acting, sweeping emotions, grand gestures, glamorous costumes, and lush decors. Gys also worked in Spain and France. But it was not until she began a personal and professional relationship with Lombardo in the late 1910s and settled with him in Naples that her gift for comedy broadened her horizons, just as the craze for diva films was waning. The films Lombardo and Gys made together combined the style of modern American cinema with Italian themes, and Gys was the ideal actress for them. She was, as one Italian film reference noted, “more Cinderella than vamp.”
According to film historian Angela Dalle Vacche, “Gys specialized in positive female roles, playing naïve or innocent young women caught in evil webs and manipulated by family members and suitors.” Dalle Vacche writes that Gys’s characters combined the “girl-next-door innocence of Mary Pickford and the suffering pathos of Lillian Gish.” If so, then Gys’s role as the mischievous orphan in Trappola is on the rollicking end of the Pickford spectrum. Some of Gys’s characters may have been divas, but the star had a sense of humor about them and Italian fans and critics noticed and approved. “The audience laughs, and laughs with pleasure when it sees La Gys caricature Bertini or [Maria] Carmi. We suggest an imitation of Borelli!” a reviewer wrote of one her performances, referring to an unholy trinity of Italian divas.
Gys’s wit, sparkling and assured, is on full display in Trappola. By that time, she had moved away from the suffering diva roles and appeared to relish the opportunity to lampoon them. Her character in Trappola, also named Leda, is a good-hearted student at a convent boarding school who runs away to help a friend whose boyfriend has left her. Leda’s comic misadventures include recovering stolen jewels, being arrested and jailed, and getting work as an extra on a movie set and out-diva-ing the diva. Along the way, there is plenty of satire of convent life, the hypocrisy and greed of the clergy, and the ridiculousness of moviemaking. Surprisingly for such a lighthearted and guileless comedy, Trappola ran into problems with censorship. According to Vittorio Martinelli’s history of Italian silent cinema, censors objected to scenes “in which Leda dances on the kitchen table, surrounded by other schoolgirls; that in which … she appears in a chemise and then in knickers; when Leda is in prison with a group of no-goods; and that scene repeated several times of kisses exchanged by Claudio and Furetta in unseemly poses.”
Critics of the era lauded Gys’s satirical take on the diva in Trappola. According to a review in Turin’s daily newspaper La Stampa, “this is an amiable and stinging satire on certain ‘prima donnas of the cinema,’ maudlin or worse. Leda Gys pokes fun at her colleagues with grace and good taste. The film reveals many risqué backstage scenes at the studios, showing the audience the Eleusinian mysteries of film-making.”
Dalle Vacche notes that Gys was the only Italian diva who never played vamps and whose career spanned the entire silent era. Another historian of early cinema, Richard Abel, writes that Gys’s popularity spread beyond her native Italy, noting that she “specialized in the playful Neapolitan type” and was a favorite of Italian immigrant audiences in the United States and in South America as well. After Gys and Lombardo married in 1932, she retired to raise their son Goffredo, who grew up to become a producer.
Trappola director Eugenio Perego was one of Gys and Lombardo’s favorite collaborators. He directed ten of Gys’s films, and all his films after 1924 starred Gys. Several of their films together featured Neapolitan themes with titles in the local dialect, such as Napuli è’na canzone (“Naples Is a Song,” 1927). Perego appears to have had a knack for working with women, directing another Italian diva, Pina Menichelli, in several films, including the popular Il padrone delle ferriere, a 1919 adaptation of the French novel Le Maître de forges (The Ironmaster). He also codirected La Vagabonda (1918) along with its French star, Musidora. Perego began his film career in 1913, as one of the writers of an early film adaptation of the classic Italian novel, The Betrothed. His directing career apparently ended with the silent film era.
In the early 1930s, Titanus Films moved to Rome and today continues to distribute features and produce films for Italian television. The company was headed by Goffredo Lombardo, the son of Leda Gys and Gustavo Lombardo, until his death in 2005, and he in turn was succeeded by his son Guido. Among the company’s 21st century productions were a biographical film about Gys’s former lover, the poet Trilussa, and a 2010 documentary The Last Leopard: A Portrait of Goffredo Lombardo, directed by Cinema Paradiso’s Giuseppe Tornatore.
— Margarita Landazuri
shown with San Francisco, 1906 footage restoration
The same Miles Brothers who shot A Trip Down Market Street just four days before the 1906 San Francisco earthquake also took their camera on another trip down the city’s main artery to survey the ruins. This nine-minute segment, recently recovered at a California flea market, was identified by David Kiehn, the same Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum historian who had determined that A Trip Down Market Street was filmed so close to the estimated eight-point temblor that rocked the City by the Bay. The recovered footage is actually a composite of three films, showing not only from Fifth Street down to the Ferry Building, but also City Hall and, in a section tinted in red, the demolition of Prager’s Department Store at Jones Street. Restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in partnership with Silver Shadows Gallery Ltd and the Essanay museum, these rarities are a small portion of the almost two hours of footage that the Miles Brothers shot of the devastated city.
Presented at SFSFF 2018 with live music by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra