Benito Mussolini ever the publicity conscious politician managed to find himself playing an important role in history of cinema by appearing in the first newsreel that had synchronised sound in the late 1920s. As many of you already know the 20s was the bridge between silent films and ‘talkies’. As technology developed through the decade Hollywood production companies were obsessed with bringing out the first film with sound, the first ‘talkie’. This race led to Il Duce speaking to the American nation in 1927. Here’s how the story goes.
By 1927 two companies were neck and neck for the grand prize; Warner Bros who had developed a recording – on – disc method called ‘Vitaphone’ and Fox who were developing a technology called ‘Movietone’ in which the audio was recorded as a variable – density optical track on the film alongside the visual image instead of on a separate gramophone record.
In 1927 it all came to a head with Warner Brothers planning to bring out the first feature film ‘talkie’ – ‘The Jazz Singer’. In anticipation of this momentuous occasion Fox decided to premier their Movietone feature ‘Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans’, by the German expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau in late September, two weeks before ‘The Jazz Singer’. Even though Murnau’s film had sound it had no dialogue and so Fox included two Movietone newsreels to be shown before the main screening; one of the Vatican choir, the other of Mussolini.
In the Fox advertisement they claimed;
‘See and Hear ‘The Man of the Hour’ His Excellency Benito Mussolini, Premier of Italy’, he speaks to you and lives before your eyes on the Movietone!’
The ground – breaking newsreel was a publicity coup for both Fox and the dictator. Film historian Donald Crafton provides some background in his book The Talkies: American Cinema’s Transition to Sound, 1926-1931:
On 20 April 1927, Charles Pettijohn, general counsel for the Hays Office and head of the Film Boards of Trade, was meeting with Benito Mussolini. He suggested that the dictator sit for a filming, and Mussolini, a longtime film buff, readily agreed. Il Duce liked the result so much that he ‘is having a talking film prepared that will show his daily activities.’ Mussolini reportedly said, ‘Let me speak through [the newsreel] in twenty cities in Italy once a week and I need no other power.’ This film would enable him to appear in public with no threat of assassination.
The original version of the ‘Mussolini Movietone’ included footage of Fascist regiments drilling and a grand introduction of the dictator by the American ambassador to Italy, Henry P. Fletcher. Unfortunately this is the 1929 version. No matter. In the film Mussolini says;
I am very glad to be able to express my friendly feelings towards the American nation, friendship with which Italy looks at the millions of citizens, who from Alaska to Florida, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, live in the United States, which lay deeply rooted in our hearts.
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