Cramer Brownell on Bertellini, 'The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920s America'

Author: 
Giorgio Bertellini
Reviewer: 
Kathryn Cramer Brownell

Giorgio Bertellini. The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920s America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019. 352 pp. $34.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-30136-8.

Reviewed by Kathryn Cramer Brownell (Purdue University) Published on H-Italy (November, 2019) Commissioned by Matteo Pretelli (University of Naples "L'Orientale")

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54809

Il Duce and Valentino

In 1922, public intellectual Walter Lippman wrote his seminal book, Public Opinion. In it, he expressed concern for the political shifts he had witnessed during World War I with the birth of the Committee for Public Information (CPI) and its use of new technology, notably the motion picture, to shape civic knowledge and participation. “Any description in words, or even any inert picture, requires an effort of memory before a picture exists in the mind. On the screen, the whole process of observing, describing, reporting and then imagining has been accomplished for you” (quoted, p. 37). He worried that this passive viewership threatened the democratic process, and his observations proved prescient. Over the next decade, the Fascist political dictator Benito Mussolini turned to cinema and Hollywood’s unique publicity tools to gain support for his authoritarian regime in the democratic United States.  

In a well-researched and compelling book that astutely connects politics and film in the 1920s, Giorgio Bertellini recreates the world that concerned Lippman almost a century ago and demonstrates the various ways that celebrity culture was used for antidemocratic purposes. By deploying a powerful network of businessmen, journalists, public relations agents, and filmmakers, Benito Mussolini used “architects of ballyhoo” (p. 6) to become the “Duce”—an international celebrity.

The book uses a seemingly simple question to penetrate the deep and complex connections between film and politics. At a time of nativism and xenophobia, how did an Italian immigrant and an Italian dictator, two “racially othered foreigners” become “leading figures in America”? Bertellini effectively demonstrates that their power came not just from the silver screen but rather from how this cinematic image was crafted by publicity agents behind the scenes to connect to movie-goers in very specific ways. Both Rudolph Valentino, “the Divo,” and Mussolini used new publicity tactics to advance their careers, understanding that they both needed to manage an “ever-increasing and diverse crowds capable of accessing film theaters, consumers good, and voting booths” (p. 12).  

Political historians frequently subscribe to the idea of technological determinism when thinking about the ways that new media, and in particular visual mediums of film and then television, shaped the political process. As a result, many discussions about the power of celebrity in shaping political leadership begin with the election of an actor to the American presidency in the 1980s. However, new scholarship over the past few years has challenged these assertions by excavating the contentious political process by which Hollywood values and productions transformed American political culture and expectations of political leadership.[1] Bertellini’s advances this historiography in significant ways by looking at the global stage. In doing so, he effectively demonstrates how the roots of celebrity politics are firmly in the post-WWI period when a newly professionalized public relations industry convinced a range of political leaders—from Woodrow Wilson to Benito Mussolini—to turn to Hollywood film and its unique publicity style to sell their ideas and personalities to a mass public. Significantly, Bertellini reminds us that film itself did not change the presentation of leaders in the public eye. Rather, publicity agents did by actively constructing images both on- and off-screen, studying public responses, and then revamping their strategies in the wake of observations about what worked and what did not.   

The Divo and the Duce represented different values on the spectrum of political ideology: “the dictator’s antiegalitarian manliness and ideological virilization—molded on the political and discursive repression of the feminine—was hardly compatible with Valentino’s sexually transgressive and ambiguous masculinity” (p. 160). But both used professional publicity agents to manage and manipulate the masses, the former for economic gain and the latter for political gain. And the American popularity of Mussolini, Bertellini contends, would not have been possible without the inroads that Valentino paved for thinking about the lure of an Italian leading man.  

Mussolini understood this. His administration used force and violence to control the press in Italy, but how did it promote a positive image of Fascism and its national leader in the democratic United States? Bertellini provides the answer: “Casting the Duce as the Fascist regime’s celebrity-performer meant inserting him in fictional or nonfictional narratives that were familiar to the American public but that were not his own making or under his control” (p. 199). While historians have documented the role of film propaganda in Italy, Bertellini uncovers the various networks that the administration crafted with Hollywood to inject the idea of the Duce as a celebrity and actor. Most famously, Mussolini Speaks (1933) shows the fruits of this strategy. While not explicitly propaganda, which the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America refused, this promotional film generated massive interest in the Italian dictator and proved just how successful Mussolini was at navigating American popular culture in “new, daring, and efficient” ways (p. 225). As Bertellini effectively shows, the popular reception of Mussolini in America added to his authority at home and allowed him to advance his antidemocratic and imperialistic agenda abroad.  

The Divo and the Duce makes a powerful case for why we need to take entertainment seriously to understand fully political history. After all, fascist dictators studied the cinema and thought about how to compete with its stars for public loyalty and used the forum to advance their agenda. Moreover, as the American public fanned over stories about film celebrities, they also consumed the stories of international leaders. Bertellini shows how both types of stories had a similar narrative because the same types of people—public relations experts—were constructing them. Bertellini captures how and why popular culture became so entangled with politics during the 1920s, and this matters for understanding not just history but also the power dynamics embedded within the twenty-first-century media landscape.[2] “The resonances between the two men’s carefully crafted public personas have underscored the paradox that a public with expanded civic and consumer opportunities is also a public primed to embrace a celebrity’s iconic authority” (p. 229). Ballyhoo allowed Mussolini to gain acceptance in 1920s America, and today it has become even more pervasive and powerful, allowing a former reality-TV star to deploy similar strategies to win the White House.   

Notes

[1]. Steven Ross, Hollywood Left and Right: How Movie Stars Shaped American Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); Burton W. Peretti, The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2012); Kathryn Cramer Brownell, Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Emilie Raymond, Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities and the Civil Rights Movement (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2015). 

[2]. Giorgio Bertellini, “When Americans loved Benito Mussolini—and what it tells us about the Donald Trump’s rise,” Washington Post, February 28, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2019/02/28/when-americans-loved-benito-mussolini/.

Citation: Kathryn Cramer Brownell. Review of Bertellini, Giorgio, The Divo and the Duce: Promoting Film Stardom and Political Leadership in 1920s America. H-Italy, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54809

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.