White-Telephone Films
Isa Miranda in La Signora di tutti, (http://www.altfg.com/blog/best-films-of/best-films-of-1934/)

White telephone films, or Telefoni Bianchi, were melodramas and comedies made in Italy in the 1930s and 1940s that were located in upper class settings and about the upper class. This symbol of wealth represented by the white phone served not only as a visual hallmark of the genre, but also implies its time: the era of sound.[1] Inspired by and using the techniques and perspectives of Hollywood cinema, these films came before the trend of Fascist propaganda and neorealism of the late 1940sand early 1950s.

Italy and The Film Industry 1930-1945

The coming of sound films increased the decline in production in Italy’s ailing industry in the early 1930s. The vertical integration of Italy’s film industry by Stefan Pittaluga’s Cines firm in the late 1920s in attempt to revive the film industry dominated Italian production, but while exhibition prospered, foreign films, especially American, still ruled.[2] After 1932 Cine’s power faded to Lux, Manenti, Titanus, ERA, and other production companies. The government helped aid the industry with a series of laws from 1931-1933 that protected the cinema by guaranteeing subsidies based on box-office receipts, taxing foreign films, forcing theaters to program a number of Italian films; however, the legislation did not help conditions and throughout the 1930s the average production lost money.

Though Luigi Freddi -supervisor of the Fascist propaganda office- headed the General Direction of Cinema, established the National Office for the Cinema Industry, and oversaw the building of a government-owned studio complex in 1935, Italy was never a state-based political cinema, staying mostly in private control. Legislation such as the Alferi Law and the Monopoly Law in 1938 gave aid based on ticket sales and gave the ENIC control over imported films, respectively.[3] These dramatic laws led four major Hollywood firms to withdraw their products from Italy, resulting in near double production in 1941.The government did receive international prestige for its investment in film as well, bringing foreign directors to Italy to make films. [4]

A Cinema of Distractions

Freddi’s attitude concerning government intervention in cinema was encouraging but not dictating, and he supported the desire for a “cinema of distractions” similar to Hollywood style. He believed the audiences would reject films heavy with propaganda and that an entertained public was also a quiescent one. The industry was not without propaganda, but the “Facists of the left” were not financially successful in their epic spectacles, so the cinema of distraction was king until the strong propaganda of WWII. Freddi's approach is characterized by the aim to modernize the industry along Hollywood lines, with a production policy that favored entertainment over propaganda.[5]

During this period of the 1930s, known as the "Freddi Era"[6] the white-telephone film flourished. Though few such films were actually seen on Italian screens, it did ha

ve successes.[7] Known for its presentation of modern decor and tales of upper class life closely associated with the bourgeois theatrical tradition, the genre derives its name from the white telephones in the opulent living-room setting, a symbol of wealth and obligatory status symbol.[8] [9] From a quote by Stuart Bryon and Elisabeth Weis, comedies of the ‘white telephone era’, like the other movies, were about people would could afford white telephones.[10] In addition to romantic melodramas, white telephone films included depression-era situation comedies with luxorious settings and glamorous stars.[11] The unreal atmospheres and cosmopolitan locations in which white telephone films were set allowed for exotic looking foreign or partly foreign actresses to be cast.[12] Such films are a legacy of the comedy of manners. Lavish settings, evocation of a world of wealth and luxury, and characters with marital infidelity problems are some identifying features. These stories would seem to deserve the condemnation upon them of being frivolous or inconsequential, but at a closer look, these seemingly trivial characters and situations are an indicator to familiar conventional myths and attitudes. Dominant conflicts in these narratives are incompatibility, sexual identity, and submission to conformity.[13]

White telephone films offer fascinating images of sexual politics, fantasies about men and women, marriage, and broader social relationships. The stories are not self-conscious about social class roles, but they do portray class conflict, are aware of class difference, and many times take a satiric attitude toward the upper class.[14] While some, such as Bruno Torri, refer to white telephone films as “escapist films which uphold the ethic of the family and religion, concealing exploitation and class struggle”, others, such as Casadio called white telephone films “indirect propaganda” for what they fail to show: working-class life, social conflict, reality, and sex.[15]

Some examples of these romantic melodramas and comedies are (The Song of Love, 1930), T'amero sempre (I Will Love You Always, 1933), Noi vivi (We the Living, 1942), and La Signora di tutti (Everybody's Lady, 1934).


By the early 1940s, the 1938 legislation had streamlined the film industry, and Italy's success on the battlefield boosted the film business as well. With Cines producing more films than any other firm between 1942 and 1943 and attendance and output at high levels, the surge in production encouraged young directors to start careers. Even in wartime Eitel Monaco, Freddi's successor at The General Direction, liberalized censorship[16]
La Terra Trema (http://www.oeff.jp/article528.html)

While one trend in artistic options, calligraphism, was known for decorative impulses, retreat from social reality, and nineteenth-century theatrical traditions, the younger, intellectual generation debated the merits of realistic art. Writers and critics, as well as journalists, called for a return to the Italian tradition of regional naturalism and films that showed the problems of ordinary people in their surroundings. Such debates were supported from films released during the war years that relied on regional dialects, location shooting, and non professional actors. Influences included American authors such as Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, Soviet Montage films, French Poetic Realism, and Hollywood populist directors such as Frank Capra and King Vidor.[17] Again referring to Bryon and Weiss, this neo-realist movement, stunning the world when it appeared after the fall of Mussolini, focused on the kinds of people, both urban and rural, who had black telephones or no telephone at all.[18]

External Links


British Film Institute:



Landy, Marcia. (1986). Fascism in Film: The Italian Commercial Cinema, 1931-1943. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN: 0-691-05471-1

Landy, Marcia. (2000). Italian FIlm. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 0-521-64977-3

Reich, Jacqueline and Piero Garofalo.(2002). Reviewing Fascism: Italian Cinema, 1922-1943. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. ISBN: 0-253-34045-4

Thompson, Kristin and David Bordwell. (2010). Film History: An Introduction. Boston: McGraw Hill. ISBN: 978-0-07-338613-3
  1. ^ Landy, Italian Film, p. 8
  2. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p. 253
  3. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p. 254
  4. ^ Thompson & Bordwell, Film History, p. 253-254
  5. ^ Landy, Facism in Film, p. 12
  6. ^ Landy, Facism in Film,
    p. 12
  7. ^ Di Nolfo, Reviewing Facism, p. 99
  8. ^ Landy, Italian Film, p. 8
  9. ^ Reich, Reviewing Facism, p.15
  10. ^ Landy, Facism in Film, p. 230
  11. ^ Stone, Reviewing Facism, p.298
  12. ^ Gundle, Reviewing Facism, p. 334
  13. ^ Landy, Facism in Film
    , p. 122
  14. ^ Landy, Facism in Film, p. 273
  15. ^ Forgacs, Reviewing Facism, p.142
  16. ^ Thompson and Bordwell, Film History, p. 256
  17. ^ Thompson & Bordwell, Film History, 255-258
  18. ^ Landy, Facism in Italy, p. 230