Anna Magnani, Vittorio De Sica, Teresa Venerdì, and screwball comedy at the Pacific Film Archive

Saturday night, I visited the Pacific Film Archive to see Teresa Venerdì, a 1941 screwball comedy directed by and starring Vittorio De Sica. (When the film was finally released in the USA in 1951, it was renamed Doctor, Beware.)

If the phrase “screwball comedy directed by and starring Vittorio De Sica” makes your head want to explode, calm down. De Sica is remembered today primarily for such serious dramas as Bicycle Thieves and The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. But he started his career as a handsome leading man. And as a director, he made far more comedies than dramas. (The first film of his I ever saw was After the Fox, a 1966 Peter Sellers vehicle written by Neil Simon.)

Saturday’s screening launched the PFA’s new series, Anna Magnani: Eternal Soul of Italian Cinema. It struck me as a strange choice for opening a series on the great Italian actress. She has a small role–I doubt she’s on screen for 20 minutes. On the other hand, when she’s on screen, she’s hilarious. She plays the star of a song-and-dance act who rehearses as if she’s bored out of her mind.

Most of the comedy centers around De Sica’s character, a doctor who gets far more visits from creditors than from patients. And of course he has woman problems. His jealous mistress (Magnani’s bored showgirl) is getting suspicious. He gets engaged to the daughter of a rich man in hopes of a big dowry. And a sweet orphan girl–just now old enough to leave the orphanage and brimming with romantic fantasies–falls madly in love with him.

De Sica and his collaborators found a great deal of madcap action for the story. When the three creditors come to the doctor’s home (which they plan to repossess), they fight over the one comfortable chair. And the doctor’s remarkably inept servant adds slapstick with his vacuum cleaner troubles.

By American standards, Teresa Venerdì seems slow for a screwball comedy–especially in the first half. But the zany atmosphere and funny characters earn it a B+ in my book.

This is not the sort of film one would expect from a Fascist country at war (which Italy most certainly was in 1941). It’s risqué and funny. There’s no hint of war anywhere. And like all good comedies, it thumbs its nose at authority figures–in this case the rich, the creditors, and the women running the orphanage. I don’t know how much freedom Mussolini gave his filmmakers. Perhaps I should look into that.

The PFA screened Teresa Venerdì off of an English-subtitled 35mm print imported from Italy. The print had its problems, but for the most part they weren’t serious. There was one point, however, where I felt that a scene had been chopped off too soon–as if there was some missing footage.

The Anna Magnani series will run over the next two months. I’m looking forward to more of it.