Someday, perhaps, some bold internationalist will consecrate an alley off Hollywood Boulevard to those other superstars of world cinema—the ones who never made it to America. I’m thinking of the Chinese silent-movie diva Ruan Lingyu, the Czech comedy team Werich and Voskovec, the Hindi all-rounder Raj Kapoor, the Anglo-German operetta queen Lillian Harvey, the Argentine tango god Carlos Gardel, the Soviet songbird Lyubov Orlova, and the Neapolitan comic born Prince Antonio Vincenzo Stefano Clemente de Curtis Gagliardi, otherwise known as Totò.
Currently having his first New York retro at the Walter Reade, Totò (1898-1967) was, without question, the most popular film personality in the history of Italian cinema—as well as one of the most naturally funny individuals to ever mug before the movie camera.
A product of Naples’s impoverished nobility (his inherited titles included Prince of Byzantium, Duke of Cyprus, and Noble Knight of the Holy Roman Empire), Totò broke into show business in the early 1920s, around the same time Benito Mussolini marched on Rome. Between 1937 and his death, Totò made nearly 100 pictures—some years starring in as many as six. Most incorporate his name in the title—Totò le Moko, Totò of Arabia, Whatever Happened to Baby Totò?—and all apparently were hits, sustaining his posthumous career through the present day. No visitor to Naples with even cursory television access will fail to encounter Totò’s quizzical stare, regal beak, and trademark lantern jaw.
This little guy with the sad-faced Pulchinella profile is an irresistible physical comedian—running from danger in an absurd flailing waddle, devouring a meal with unconcealed gusto, raising the semaphore of his eyebrows in counterpoint to the fantastic sign-system of his gestures. In Hollywood terms, the Totò “masque” sometimes resembles Bob Hope, sometimes Droopy Dog, and occasionally the Indian rubber man from Freaks. Like the Yiddish comedian Leo Fuchs, Totò was famous for his rippling chicken moves—a startling capacity to cock his neck and disarticulate his limbs.
Totò was heir to American silent comedy as well as Italian commedia dell’arte and the Neapolitan varietá. His first feature, the 1937 Hands Off Me!, begins with a prolonged, wordless sequence in which he is woken up by a jerry-built alarm system. (Saving time to waste it, Totò sleeps in his clothes—including bowler hat—and showers with his shoes on.) The scene evokes both Keaton’s ingenuity and Chaplin’s pathos. Totò’s persona, particularly as represented in his still-popular fumétto, can be Chaplinesque as well—in Hands Off Me!, he plays a fastidious scrounger who, in the course of his scurrilous adventures, adopts fascist Italy’s resident Shirley Temple clone.
The film historian Adriano Aprà has described the Totò character’s key motivations as hunger and “irreverence toward authority.” For the most part, Totò is an anarchic presence who, intentionally or (more often) not, serves to upset basic social conventions. Only a few of his films, most notably the 1954 adaptation of comic playwright Eduardo Scarpetta’s Poverty and Nobility, are steeped in specifically Neapolitan modes, but Totò nearly always reads as Neapolitan—wearing a turned-up porkpie hat, calling on San Gennaro, and talking, if not ranting, in an invented southern dialect. Although this wordplay, founded on verbal repetition and malapropism, can scarcely be translated, subtitles give some idea. In his 1955 Are We Men or Corporals?, Totò substitutes “Neapolitan” for “Napoleonic” and mistakes “judicious” for “Jewish,” using this apparent question regarding his identity to again proclaim himself Neapolitan.
A short, farcical history of wartime and postwar Italy, Are We Men or Corporals? presents Totò as everyman—a stupid but sly movie extra who stumbles onto the stage of world events (actually the set of an elaborate Roman Empire peplum). He ruins one take and then another, throws a tantrum, and winds up in a mental hospital recounting his story to a sympathetic doctor—his start as a professional jumper of ration lines, his stint in a German prison camp, his career entertaining American soldiers as part of an elaborate striptease act.
Totò’s fondness for drag notwithstanding (in Are We Men or Corporals?, he escapes in drag, lands on a fashion show runway, and gets busted as a hooker), his characters are not identical. In the 1962 mock murder mystery Totò Diabolicus, he plays multiple roles, including a marquis, a baroness, a priest, and a fascist general. The particularly entertaining Totò Versus the 4 (1963) allows him to impersonate an officious, natty, and completely ineffectual police chief.
Totò Versus the 4 is really Totò Versus the World. He not only has to endure the theft of the new auto (complete with Pinocchio good-luck charm) that he won in the lottery, but field a succession of idiotic, if not insane, civilian complaints. The station house is filled with paranoids and hysterics. Most conversations are marked by mad conclusion-jumping and carried on with fevered intensity at drastic cross-purpose. His nemesis is an underworld priest (Aldo Fabrizi, the somewhat gentler padre in Open City). The film’s comic high points come when Totò attempts to get the priest to confess whom he has confessed.
Although nearly as voluble as his contemporary successor Roberto Benigni, Totò is a far more generous, less narcissistic performer. If anything, Totò is at his best when sharing the screen with another overexcited comic—he excels in extended two-shot riffs and, beginning with the surreal backstage comedy Totò, Peppino and the Hussy (1956), teamed for six years with fellow Neapolitan Peppino De Filippo.
The physically slighter Totò is typically the more assertive, volatile, and craven of the pair, with Peppino playing a robust, glowering peasant. Their hilarious Totò and Peppino Divided in Berlin (1962) begins with Totò, just up from Naples, wandering into a West Berlin bar to babble about his plans to become a used-clothing peddler. Instead, he’s recruited by former Nazis to impersonate a war criminal at a Nuremberg-like trial. Peppino, who has been hired to provide the evidence against him, launches into his torrential testimony—provoking Totò to blow his cover—and thereafter the two are bound together, sometimes in handcuffs, in a cowardly, self-serving “friendship.”
Chased by Americans, Soviets, and neo-Nazis, the two hapless Neapolitans are trapped in the East when the wall goes up (around them) overnight. This artless, irresponsible farce is as outrageous in its way as One, Two, Three—and even more ruthless in its Cold War travesty, dramatizing the European situation as that of the beleaguered, weak, opportunistic Totò.
A living legend for much of his career, Totò was largely ignored by Italian critics and cineastes. Roberto Rossellini created the unsuccessful Where Is Freedom? (1952) around Totò’s little-man persona; six years later, Mario Monicelli gave Totò a cameo in his comedy Big Deal on Madonna Street. (The Rossellini film isn’t included in the Walter Reade retro; the Monicelli, in which Totò, a paroled felon absurdly dressed in an ascot and striped smoking robe, delivers a pedantic lecture on safecracking, is—and, as the definitive Rififi parody, is a must-see.)
Monicelli also cast Totò in The Passionate Thief (1960), alongside the volcanic diva Anna Magnani—with whom Totò had appeared many times onstage—and the young Ben Gazzara. It’s a long night of drama and coincidence in which Totò, who plays a penniless old theater director, is too pathetic and too much a third wheel for my taste—despite a classic bit of business in which he greedily stuffs his face at a swank New Year’s Eve party.
The movie that established Totò’s reputation outside Italy was Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Hawks and Sparrows (1966). The most playfully “new wave” of Pasolini films, this on-the-road allegory predates both Godard’s Weekend and Buñuel’s Milky Way while fulfilling an earlier cinematic dream. In the 1920s, the painter Fernand Léger wrote a scenario for a Chaplin marionette; in Hawks and Sparrows, Pasolini got to employ Chaplin’s equivalent, the flesh-and-blood Totò, with Ninetto Davoli as his idiot son. Pasolini called Totò and Ninetto, a far less substantial sidekick than Peppino or Aldo Fabrizi, “two typical heroes of neo-realism . . . living out their lives without thinking about it.” The setup suggests a parody of The Bicycle Thief (even as it echoes the situation of Chaplin’s The Kid), except that Pasolini has added a talking Marxist crow who, in the film’s best joke, becomes Totò’s dinner.
Hawks and Sparrows won Totò a special award at Cannes, but Italian audiences were disappointed. According to Pasolini, “They went to see Totò and have their usual laugh, which they gradually realized they would not be able to do.” Hawks and Sparrows is not without its qualities, but after gorging on a score of Totò’s other vehicles, I think I know how his Italian fans felt.