Sign in | Log in

Frank Capra Films Italian-San Francisco

Frank Capra Films Italian-San Francisco

Laura E. Ruberto (February 3, 2010)
(agenzia bozzo)
The Italian Cruiser, Libia, at its baptism, November, 11, 1912

Capturing Italy’s encounter with California in Frank Capra’s documentary "La visita dell’ Incrociatore Italiano Libia a San Francisco, Calif., 6-29 Novembre 1921"


On December 3, 1921, a documentary called La visita dell’ Incrociatore Italiano Libia a San Francisco, Calif., 6-29 Novembre 1921 (The Visit of the Italian Cruiser Libia to San Francisco, Calif, November 6-29, 1921) premiered at the People’s Theater in San Francisco.

The film was directed by a then-unknown Italian immigrant, Francesco “Frank” Capra, who had come to the U.S. at age 6 from Bisacquino, Sicily, and was raised mostly in Los Angeles. The theater was on Howard Street, near Third, and might have been razed to build the George Moscone Center in 1981, though any Italian American tie-in between the city’s slain mayor and the Hollywood director would be coincidental.

Harvey Milk & George Moscone, San Francisco, 1977
La visita, though may very well be the first film directed by the future Oscar-winner and remains today under-circulated and under-studied. At the Pacific Film Archive’s Jan. 24, 2010, screening of the film, Capra biographer Joseph McBride noted that Capra himself did not even readily admit to having directed La visita until much later in life (most sources name 1922’s Fultah Fisher’s Boarding House as his directorial debut).

As the title of La visita explains, the short film documents the arrival and sojourn of the Italian warship Libia to San Francisco in November 1921. The Libia, in a post-World War I two-year celebratory tour, had previously stopped in other Italian American enclaves in California: San Diego, San Pedro, and Monterey (the film concludes with a rudimentary world map and a line tracing the cruiser’s route around the globe).
In certain ways, La visita embodies a nationalistic fervor that we can rightfully call fascistic (although Mussolini’s March on Rome occurred in 1922, his Fasci di Combattimento were formed in 1919, and by May 1921 Agostino Di Biasi had even formed a Fascist organization in New York). Between the fluttering Italian flags, the clouds of balloons, the name of the ship, the healthy lean men in uniform, and a written prologue that references the glories of the madre-patria, it’s hard not to think of the colonizing efforts and nationalistic fervor that helped bring Mussolini to power.
Whatever Capra’s ideological commitments,the film is an amazing document of early-twentieth-century San Francisco and the cultural elite of the city’s Italian community; at the same, it offers subtle previews of elements that would later get defined as Capraesque.
The film presents a vision of the city that is almost wholly Italian, so centralized it is on the neighborhoods comprising today’s North Beach and parts of Fisherman’s Wharf. Other than a ceremonial encounter on what seems to be the steps of city hall with a group of local officials, including then-mayor James Rolph, the film stays almost entirely in or around Washington Square and Pier 43—comprising practically the two ends of what was then known as the Latin Quarter.
 "Self-portrait, Looking at North Beach and Bay," 1934 John Gutmann
What’s more, the narrative focus is on happenings related to the Italian Virtus Club (the film’s producers). The club was an Italian American athletic organization—one of a handful of Italian fraternal organizations that existed with a specific sports angle in the city. Eventually the clubs merged into the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club. That the word “Italian” was removed from the name of the club during WWII and reintroduced in the post-civil rights era (1978) is a tidy illustration of the fluctuating connotations of an Italian immigrant identity in the U.S. 
In the film we see members of the Virtus Club meet the cruiser when it moors and accompanies the sailors throughout most of their stay in the city. Before the joyful encounter, we see a few shots of fisherman and their families on their fishing boats as well as Capra himself talking on the pier.
 Italian Crab-Fisherman, San Francisco (by J.B. Monaco, circa 1900)
There is a beautiful series of shots as the fishing boats move towards the cruiser, almost embracing it, as the large ship moves towards the pier. Here is how Brown University Italian Studies doctoral candidate Evelyn Ferraro recalls this scene: “it so nicely evokes the reunion of a mother—la nave madre patria—with the migrant children, but in a reverse situation whereby the symbol of the madre patria is the mobile element” (email exchange, January 29, 2010). In fact, the last inter-title, in  flowery verse, refers to the cruiser as the “lembo viaggiante” (literally, the “traveling hem,” suggesting a part of the country that has gone astray perhaps) and then reads “Viva l’Italia! Viva la Marina Italiana! Viva la Libia!”
From a soccer game to a grand dinner and ball at the famed Fior d’Italia (a spot that claims to be the oldest continually-operated Italian restaurant in the US), these sailors were living large. The Italian visitors were showered with treats: trays of pastries and cakes paraded onto the Libia as a way to sweeten the “bitter waters” of the ocean, a special reception in their honor by the local Vittoria Colonna Club (a social service organization run by Italian American women) at one of the Bank of Italy’s buildings, and a meal with Hollywood celebrities like Dorothy Revier (née Velegra), known as the “Queen of Poverty Row,” later the model for the “torch lady” for Columbia.

The "Queen of Poverty Row"
Although a solemn mass is said on board, most of the scenes are secular, indulgent, and jovial (that it was the era of prohibition certainly makes one wonder what the sailors may have brought from the homeland to share with their American cugini). In referring to his canonical works, Lee Lourdeaux argues that the Italian aspects of Capra’s films show the “joyful side of communal city life” (Italian and Irish Filmmakers in America 132); such a view certainly comes across here.
The sailors’ stay on the Barbary Coast did not cause much of a stir in the city at large, an idea reinforced by the film’s focus on all-things Italian American. Joseph McBride noted a number of headline events happening in the city that month (most scandalously the trial of Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle) that probably detracted from this international visit.

Mug shot, Roscoe Conkling “Fatty” Arbuckle, 1921
The reprint comes from the Library of Congress in conjunction with Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation. How exactly the Library of Congress obtained its copy is unclear, though at some point someone at the Italian American Athletic Club recognized Capra’s name on a reel in their archives and sent it to D.C. (McBride lecture, PFA, January 24, 2010).
The film’s intertitles are all in Italian (titles by “Frank Capra and J.J. DeMore/Giulio DeMoro”), suggesting that the film was meant for export or, more likely, for an Italian immigrant audience  in the States. As work by Giorgio Bertellini, Sabine Haenni, and others has recently begun to characterize, U.S. film production in the silent era was quite international, with a recognition of the niche markets afforded by recent immigrant filmgoers.
In any case, the film remains a gem: important for the transnational migration history it documents and the socio-cultural stories it displays. Further, it calls attention to Capra’s Italian identity in ways that much of his work tends to do only indirectly. That in it we might also start to detect the playful narrative style and sometimes cloying tone Capra was later known for only adds to the significance of this silent film.

DISCLAIMER: Posts published in i-Italy are intended to stimulate a debate in the Italian and Italian-American Community and sometimes deal with controversial issues. The Editors are not responsible for, nor necessarily in agreement with the views presented by individual contributors.
This work may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, without prior written permission.
Questo lavoro non può essere riprodotto, in tutto o in parte, senza permesso scritto.