Category Archives: Film

Visconti, a Scented Story

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Cipria, published by A. & G. Carisch & C° in 1931, illustrated by Bonfanti.

The ‘Cipria’ slow fox-trot sheet music is publicity for a perfumed face powder sold by Gi.vi.emme. Cipria is the Italian word for face powder. Gi.vi.emme, after the initials of its founder Count Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone, was one of the largest perfume houses during the twenties and thirties in Italy.

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Count Giuseppe Visconti di Modrone

Giuseppe belonged to the Visconti dynasty, that combined one of the oldest Italian aristocratic families with a great Milanese industrial empire. Although Giuseppe was openly bisexual, he married the elegant daughter of a pharmaceutical and cosmetics industrialist, Carla Erba. The couple got seven children, one of whom would become the famous film director Luchino Visconti (Death in Venice, The Damned, The Leopard, …). The family owned some marvellous palaces which would eventually be used by Visconti in his films to recreate the splendour of his own childhood.

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Carla Erba, wife of Giuseppe and mother of Luchino Visconti

Giuseppe and Carla belonged to the circle of King Vittorio Emanuele III and his wife Queen Helena. Giuseppe even became gentleman-in-waiting to the queen and some say he became her lover. Apparently also Carla had extra marital relations. The Visconti couple was said to live apart. The composers Toscanini and Puccini were their friends, but also the music editor Ricordi and the novelist Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Giuseppe Visconti was a person with eclectic interests. Noblesse oblige: he became patron of the arts, was on the board of directors of the Scala, and managed several theatres. He himself was an amateur actor and liked to put on make up and dress as a woman. The Viscontis enjoyed a private theatre not only in their Milanese palazzo but also in their monumental villa near Lake Como.

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In the middle Giuseppe Visconti performing in his home theatre.

In the first years of the 20th century the romantic Giuseppe Visconti created from some hovels and old stables surrounding a castle falling into ruin, a complete and totally faked but charming medieval village. This place called Grazzano Visconti, near Milan, can still be visited today.

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The neo-medieval village, Grazzano Visconti, created by the father of Luchino Visconti.

Giuseppe also was director of Inter Milan and an entrepreneur. Asked by his father in law, Giuseppe started to create perfumes. He was so taken by mixing fragrances that he started his own firm: Gi.vi.emme. After the March on Rome in 1922 by which Mussolini came to power in Italy, industrialists felt optimistic to become leaders in their speciality. So did Gi.vi.emme. It wanted to create a new perfume representative of the revolutionary times. To this end they held one of the first nation-wide marketing researches in Italy. The survey took months and as a result Gi.vi.emme created a new fragrance. The writer and family friend Gabriele d’Annuncio tried the perfume and named it Giacinto innamorato, after its main component: the scent of hyacinths.

The brand name Giacinto innamorato is of course also noticeable on the ‘Cipria’ sheet music cover, as is the typical Gi.vi.emme signature.

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The perfume flacons were packaged and designed in beautiful art-deco style with a lot of rich gold ink.

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Giacinto Innamorato perfumed postcard.

With the help of an intensive publicity campaign Giacinto Innamorato soon became known in the whole country. Soon there would follow other well-known fragrances. Gi.vi.emme stopped its activity in 1970.

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Another Giacinto Innamorato perfumed card.
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G.vi.emme perfume shop, Milan 1955

We’ll end this post with an extract from Luchino Visconti’s last film I’Innocente (1976) based on a novel by family friend Gabriele d’Anniunzio. Although Luchino Visconti had Marxist principles, no one was in a better position than him to portrait the elegance and lavishness of the Italian aristocracy as well as their decadence and irresponsibility. The sumptuous costumes and settings were a second nature to him.

Cryin’ for the Carolines: the first music video ever?

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‘Cryin’ For The Carolines’, illustrated by Würth (Publications Francis-Day, Paris, 1930)

For the cover of the American song Cryin’ For The Carolines, the French illustrator Würth designed an imaginary art-deco tropical landscape of the Caroline Islands. Complete with palm tree, bird-of-paradise and Pacific Ocean it echoes the weariness with city life expressed in the lyrics:

     Big town you lured me,
     Big town you cured me,
     Tho’ others hate to say goodbye to you
     I’m leavin’ but I’ll never sigh for you.
     Big town you robbed me of ev’ry joy I knew.

and also conveys the longing for a wild, unspoiled nature:

     How can I smile mile after mile,
     There’s not a bit of green here.
     Birdies all stay far far away,
     They’re seldom ever seen here.

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Left, the American sheet music cover (Remick Music Corp., 1930). Right, composer Harry Warren (the first major American songwriter to write primarily for film) at the piano.

Harry Warren, the prolific film music composer, created Cryin’ For The Carolines in 1930. It was the theme song out of the eight or so songs in the now-forgotten film Spring is here. The cover of the American sheet music shows a movie still, revealing that it is a passionate love story. We spare you the plot!
In the film, the song Cryin’ For The Carolines was performed by the Brox Sisters. They were an a capella girl group enjoying their greatest popularity in the 1920s and early 1930s. They are often considered as the forerunners of The Andrew Sisters.

Both sheet music covers explicitly announce the film Spring is here as a First National and Vitaphone production. Now, Vitaphone was a sound film system which was successfully used by Warner Brothers and its sister studio First National from 1926 to 1931. The soundtrack was not printed on the film itself, but issued separately on phonograph records, resulting in a much better audio quality. The 33 ½ rpm discs would be played on a turntable physically coupled to the projector motor while the film was being projected.

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An engineer demonstrates Vitaphone sound film in 1926. He holds a soundtrack disc, ready to put it on the turntable with a massive tripod base.

Warner Brothers also used the Vitaphone sound system between 1930 and 1931 to distribute their Spooney Melodies. These were a series of five musical short films, which are now considered as the first musical videos ever: the short films had no other aim than to promote the publisher’s music and turn them into world-wide hits. And… now is the moment to clap hands: it seems that our song Cryin’ For The Carolines is the only Spooney Melody to have survived! And it is publicly available.

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Organ player and singer Milton Charles, 1897-1991 (source: http://vitaphone.blogspot.fr). On the right, the keyboard of the 1929 ‘Mighty Wurlitzer‘ (photo: Andreas Praefcke).

We concede that the first two minutes (of the six) in the following film are somewhat boring, and yet another demonstration of the primitive card-board animation techniques at that time. But when the live-action, featuring the Singing Organist Milton Charles at his Wurlitzer, is mixed with the moving dark decors, one gets the full homesickness of the song. And from the strange slow images (a blend of Eisenstein, Bauhaus, DaDa and Andreas Feininger’s visual experiments) one feels the message: you cannot but cry for the Carolines…

Warner Brothers abandoned the Spooney Melodies in favour of the Merrie Melodies which still were built around songs but featured recognizable characters and settings. Their first effort was the 1931’s cartoon Lady, Play Your Mandolin. The lady definitely is a rip-off of Mickey Mouse. Hardly a surprise as the animators responsible for the cartoon – Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman – had previously worked at Walt Disney’s studio.

The soundtrack for the cartoon Lady, Play Your Mandolin was composed by Oscar Levant. The beautiful cover for his theme song is illustrated by the American illustrators and airbrush artists Ben and Georgette Harris, signing their work as Jorj.

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‘Lady, Play Your Mandolin’, illustrated by Jorj (Harms, New York, 1931).

If you can’t get enough of historical links in this story: Nick Lucas who is posing as guitarist on the above cover, once co-starred in Warner Brothers’ Technicolor musical Gold Diggers of Broadway, which was…  a Vitaphone production! Hehe.

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Poster for Gold Diggers of Broadway (source: El blog de Manuel Cerdà)

The vendor of pleasures

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Postcard of a ‘Marchand de plaisirs’, late 19th or early 20th century

‘Marchands de plaisirs’ were cookie vendors in France. They announced their arrival into villages and markets by rattling a metal handle on a wooden board: clac-clac!  They carried and protected their cookies in a large cylindrical container. On the lid of the drum was a roulette wheel. Children, but also elder customers, paid a few coins to spin the wheel that would tell them how many cookies they won.

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A more luxurious cookie container than the one photographed on the postcard above.

The cookies were called plaisirs, which is the French word for ‘pleasures’. These were simple very thin wafers rolled into a cylinder or cone.

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Wafer-thin rolled cookies, called ‘plaisirs’ (also known as ‘oublies’ or ‘oublis’).

Recently I saw a wooden variant of the container at The House of Alijn, a museum dedicated to everyday life. It thus appears that the game or treat was also popular in Belgium during the late 19th and early 20th century. But in the Flemish variant no wafers were involved: one could win roasted hazelnuts or almond-vanilla flavoured macaroons instead. The device though was cleverly rigged: the odds were higher to win nuts rather than the more prized macaroons.

Belgian container 'Makaronkast' at the House of Alijn museum
Belgian container ‘Makaronkast’ at the House of Alijn, Ghent (click on image to view the museum’s description).

Marchands de plaisirs or ‘pleasure vendors’ have been active in France since the Late Middle Ages. They were then called oublieurs or vendors of oublies, the original name for the cookies of which the origin is closely linked to the bread used in catholic liturgy. Their trade was to wander through the streets of Paris every night and to go into the bourgeois households after supper to offer their wafers as desert. However, under the pretext of an innocent cookie-lottery, many of them organised illegal high-stakes gambling and some of them even robbed their patrons. So oublieurs became known as rascals, crooks and thieves. Soon the police forbade these con men to enter the houses at night and imperceptibly the oublieurs vanished. They were succeeded by the marchands de plaisirs who sold their wafers in the public space.

'Le Marchand de Plaisirs', partition musicale illustrée par Poulbot
‘Le Marchand de Plaisirs’, waltz composed by Marcel Lattès and cover illustrated by Poulbot

The lifestyle of the vendor of pleasures inspired the imagination of songwriters and storytellers. Le Marchand de Plaisirs is a waltz composed in 1923 for a silent movie with the same name. The dashing actor Jaque Catelain, who also played the leading role of the vendor named Gosta, directed it. Gosta is a poor young man with an alcoholic father and a ragged mother. He falls in love with a beautiful and rich lady. When his father breaks into her home to steal, Gosta shoots him dead and returns the loot to the beautiful lady. She is thankful to Gosta but marries her rich fiancée –also played by Catelain- who is the spitting but nonetheless more sophisticated image of Gosta. In short, the perfect plot for delicious late night television.
The composer of the waltz is Marcel Lattès who was murdered in Auschwitz in 1943. The sheet music cover for Le Marchand de Plaisirs was illustrated by the Montmartre personality Francisque Poulbot who also designed the film poster.

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Jaque Catelain as illustrated by Poulbot for the movie ‘Le Marchand de Plaisirs’ (left) and a still of Jaque Catelain (right).

The cover for Gaston Maquis’ song about the female vendor of pleasures was created by one of our favourite illustrators: Léon Pousthomis. His sharp drawing makes it perfectly clear that her all-male clientele is not interested in buying cookies but in another kind of pleasure. Are they game enough to spin her wheel?

'La Marchande de Plaisirs', illustrated by Pousthomis
‘La Marchande de Plaisirs’, illustrated by Pousthomis (La Chanson Moderne, ca. 1905)