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Giorgio Bertellini

Sep 25, 2020

The Divo and the Duce

Promoting Film Stardom and the Political Leadership in 1920s America

University of California Press 2019

In 1927, the Hollywood stars (and spouses), Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr stood outside their California home, arms raised in fascist salute. The photo’s caption, referencing the couple’s trip to Rome the previous year, informs fans that the couple “greet guests at their beach camp in true Italian style.” How did “America’s sweetheart” and her husband, a swashbuckler on and off screen, both patriots who had promoted Liberty bonds following the United States’ entry into World War I, come to normalize something like Italian Fascism in its first decade? How did the Italian-born divo, or star, of Hollywood’s silent cinema, Rudolph Valentino come to function as foil and counterpart to Benito Mussolini’s, the duce, in public opinion in American culture in the 1920s?

Winner of the 2019 award for best book in film/media from the American Association for Italian Studies, The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and the Political Leadership in 1920s America (University of California Press, 2019) tells the story of the relationship between celebrity culture, charismatic leadership and national sovereignty as it plays out on both sides of the Atlantic from roughly 1917 to the end of 1933.

Giorgio Bertellini asks how two racially othered foreigners, Valentino and Mussolini, became leading figures in America and how these two icons of chauvinist Latin masculinity became public opinion leaders in a nation undergoing a major democratic expansion in terms of gender, equality, social mobility, and political representation. In the post-WWI American climate of nativism, isolationism, consumerism, and the democratic expansion of civic rights and women’s suffrage, the divo and the duce became surprising paragons of both authoritarian male power as well as mass appeal. Bringing together star studies, screen studies, political science, Italian Studies, and American Studies Bertellini’s study teaches us to think in new ways about cinema, political authority, masculinity, and race in Italian cinema and beyond. Meticulously archived, the author pays especial attention to the mediators between screens and the polity, a vast cast of players including journalists, photographers, ambassadors and other functionaries of state, advertisers, sponsors, and publicity agents, all of whom, on concert, work to promote the “ballyhoo” of the day.

Thanks to the efforts of TOME (Toward an Open Monograph Ecosystem), a collaboration of the Association of American Universities, the Association of University Presses, and the Association of Research Libraries, The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and the Political Leadership in 1920s America is available free in an open access edition.

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