Saturday, August 15, 2015

The Italian Vamps: All For Love

This is my entry in the Anti-Damsel blogathon, hosted by Movies, Silently and The Last Drive In. Click HERE for more great posts about the great, strong women of film. This post also serves as the second part of the 3-part series on Vamps. Click HERE for the first entry about Theda Babra and Nita Naldi. 

The Vamp, the term for ladies who, in the early days of the 20 th century, liked sex, was a potent antidote to the virginal heroines of the silent screen.  The cure for too much Mary Pickford might be “take a Theda Bara and call me in the morning.” Too much Lillian Gish? A shot of Nita Naldi might cure what ails you.

During these vamp-ish times, a trio of Italian divas tore up the screen and added an element of suffering and passion on a grand, operatic scale. They made Theda look positively sedate. They were never damsel s in distress in the strict sense. No, the overwhelming passion and were usually the cause of the distress of their own making.
Lyda Borelli

Beautiful and fashionable, Lyda Borelli was an Italian stage and screen actress of great influence. Lyda was born in 1887 into a family of actors. By the time she was 18, she had already made a name for herself on the Italian stage, based on her beauty, talent and fashionable appearance. Her looks, mannerisms and clothing were copied by her many admirers.  Young women who copied her looks were said to have dressed in the “borellismo” style.

In 1913 she made her first film (“Everlasting Love”). It was a smash and her success now extended beyond the Italian stage to the world of screen. She was the epitome of florid romance, desire and sensuality.  Her characters emotionally operatic and usually ended up at the wrong end of a bottle of poison or a dagger (her fate was death in more than half of her films).


She continued her highly successful film career through 1918, when she married a count and abruptly retired. At her last theatrical performance the audience wept and pelted her with flowers, so great was her enchantment.   Lyda spent the rest of her life caring for family and living the life of a countess until her death in 1959. Clearly, the drama was for the stage and screen only.

Francesca Bertini


Francesca Bertini (born in 1892) was also the child of an actress. Like Lyda Borelli, she got her start on the stage, but unlike Lyda, she moved quickly into the new art of the silent films.

She began her movie career in 1913 and quickly established herself as a strong, elegant and talented performer. Her fame quickly spread beyond the borders of Italy. By 1915 she was earning more than Mary Pickford. While her roles included the heavy-duty characters of Odette, Tosca and Camille , her acting was considered to be more natural and understated than that of the typical vamp. She suffered, she loved, but she did it “naturally.”


Bertini was able to move into sound films with limited success, but the Italian film industry took a nose dive starting in the 1930s and during World War II. She was offered a Hollywood contract by Fox, but she had retired after the war, enjoying her life with her wealthy Swiss husband. She had made but a handful of films from 1930 – 1943. She appeared for Bernardo Bertolucci in is 1976 film “Novecento (“1900”) and consented to an interview in 1982.  Francesca passed away at age 93 in 1985.

Check out this fabulous diva in all her glory. What a woman.




Pina Menichelli

Think decadent, think bodice-ripping, think hand-wringing and eye-popping and you pretty much have the acting style of silent screen  vamp Pina Menichelli, known as  "our lady of spasms."




Like her sister-vamps, Pina was born into a theatrical family and acted as a child, but unlike Lyda and Francesca, she was a passionate off-screen as on. After a failed teenage marriage to an Argentine gent, Pina began her Italian film career in 1913 at the age of 23. Critics took notice and she soon entered the rarefied queendom of fellow divas Borellia and Bertini. She attained international stardom in "The Fire" and "Royal Tiger," 2 films whose names aptly describe Pina's ardent, florid, and dangerous persona.




Pina maintained her stardom through 1923, when she retired. Although she was estranged from her first husband, he would not divorce her. Upon his death in 1924 Pina was free to marry again and, like the true diva she was, she destroyed all physical evidence of her great film career and never spoke of it again in public for the rest of her life. Pina Menichelli passed away at age 94 in 1984. 

Lyda Borelli, Francesca Bertini and Pina Menichelli- divine divas and vamps who were larger than life and definitely bellisima!


18 comments:

ClassicBecky said...

What a trio! Borelli a voluptuous siren, Bertini with the fabulously strong face, and Menichelli with that gun! Perfect for the anti-Damsel bunch. I never heard of any of these ladies, but I'll never forget them now!

FlickChick said...

Many thanks, Becky. These really are the ancients, but oh those faces!

Silver Screenings said...

I knew NOTHING about these glam women, so I was glad to read your post. Now I'll know why they were a big deal when I come across them. :)

Fritzi Kramer said...

Thank you so much for the intriguing look at these wonderful women. What style and what flair!

Christian Esquevin said...

Great subject FlickChick - and very informative as I didn't know of the work of these three divas. They sound very interesting. I might assume that they were influenced by one of the greatest (non-actor, but thoroughly dramatic) Marchesa Casati. An icon of Italian style and muse to artists and writers.

FlickChick said...

Hi Ruth: I went out on a limb with these 3. Not very well known, but they so intrigued me.

FlickChick said...

Thanks for hosting, Fritzi - so many great entries - it will take me weeks to get through them all.

FlickChick said...

Christian - hmmm - I can sure see Lyda Borelli there - she seemed to travel in those circles.

said...

Wonderful! I love Italian films, but I'm only familiar with the ladies from 1914's Cabiria. Nice to know these wonderful divas - Pina is just gorgeous! And I'm happy to see the vamps didn't have sad lives outside the screen :D
Thanks for the kind comment!
Kisses!
Le

The Lady Eve said...

Mama mia, I didn't know any of this! What fascinating women and each so unique. I'm going to have to take another look at "1900" and watch for Francesca Bertini (it's nice to know someone was making more money than Mary Pickford!)

Joe Thompson said...

Excellent essay. I wish I had learned about Lyda Borelli and the others while my Italian grandparents were still alive. My grandfather left Italy earlier, but my grandmother may have seen many of these movies.

FlickChick said...

Le - these ladies had a much happier ending than their Hollywood counterparts. They knew how to grab the royalty and make it last.

FlickChick said...

Hi Patty- - yes - I am longing to spot Bertini in "1900" - such a fascinating woman.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Joe. It is so great to hear from our grandparents about the films they love.

Rick29 said...

What an interesting trio! I was not familiar with any of them, but am definitely interested in learning more about Pina Menichelli.

FlickChick said...

Hi Rick - thanks so much for stopping by. I have just started learning about these ladies and Pina is by far the most fascinating to me.

Inge Gregusch said...

Gorgeous and informative--as always. How beautiful were these women?

Jo Gabriel said...

Thanks so much for joining us! What a wonderfully put together tribute to outrageous women! who deserve to be in the anti damsel pantheon... I'm terribly fascinated by Pina Menichelli. Your tribute has added so much to our celebration - Cheers Joey of The Last Drive In