An occasional series, where Dr Victoria Lowe reflects on her work in the personal archive of film critic, Caroline Lejeune (1897-1973).
Finding a letter..
What do you do when you are researching the papers of C. A. (Caroline) Lejeune and an envelope tumbles out of a file full of newspaper cuttings and publicity materials? As you can see, it is addressed to the critic and seems to have been forwarded from the newspaper where she worked, The Observer, to her home address in Middlesex. What is even more intriguing, is that the back of the envelope, displays the sender’s name, the Contessa Mary Senni and her address, Badia Pretaglia, near Arezzo, Italy. By sheer co-incidence, this is about 5 km from where my husband’s family live in Italy….
…which leads to a celebrated Italian film.
The handwriting you can see on the left, is from Lejeune herself. She was one of the most important film critics of her generation, with a newspaper column in the Observer from 1928 to 1960. The letter was placed among other items in her files pertaining to the film Roma, Citta Aperta (Rossellini:1945), known in English as Open City, or Rome, Open City, the neo- realist classic which tells the story of a diverse group of characters living in Rome under the Nazi occupation. It won the Palme D’Or at the 1946 Cannes Film Festival and is considered to be one of the most important films of the 20th century. Lejeune’s proof copy of her review for the Observer is also included in the file and demonstrates her customary sensitivity to both the story and the way it is told, through what were then fairly innovative filming techniques. Her review starts by acclaiming the film as one ‘of tremendous power: a film that makes the ordinary resistance film look effete and silly […] a film that, for all its horror, evidences a deeply compassionate quality, and leaves one with a manifest promise of the freedom and nobility of man’.
Selling Neo Realism
Also included in the clutch of papers is the original publicity booklet for the film. It is notable that whilst there are pictures of the film’s stars, Anna Magnani and Aldo Fabrizi, the publicity booklet also emphasises the conditions in which the film was made as an act of resistance in and of itself: ‘cameras were stolen from the Germans, frequently at the cost of Italian lives’. In the light of the film’s subsequent reputation for articulating the tenets of neo-realism as film style, it is also significant how much space the booklet dedicates to convincing its readers of the authenticity of the film’s setting and characters. In terms of the former, the booklet describes how ‘wherever possible, the producer shot the sequences at or near the locale of the incidents portrayed in the picture’. Later on in the pamphlet, it states that ‘ Roberto Rossellini, the director […] claims to be able to make an actor of anyone, regardless of whether or not that person possesses any histrionic ability. Vito Annicchiarico, a former Piazza Barberini shoeshine boy was “picked off the street” to perform in the film and add to its realism’.
Different copy for different readers
Lejeune, as a jobbing critic, also wrote for an illustrated weekly journal called The Sketch (1893-1959) and whilst the final copy is not included in the materials in the file, her handwritten review of Open City is. Unlike some of the files where, presumably, as she was writing in the dark, her scribbles are virtually unreadable, this is a slightly easier read. Though, some words are almost illegible, the general sense of the review is able to be deciphered. She clearly has not changed her mind about the film, though as the piece is more of a longer article, the tone is palpably different, starting on a more personal note than her Observer review: ‘There can be few people who have a more cowardly aversion from horror in entertainment than I have. Scenes of torture and violence make me feel physically sick’. She then introduces the film in these terms: ‘So it is something of a salute to “Open City” that it never once crossed my mind to get up and walk out during the last twenty minutes which are as savage as anything I have ever seen in pictures’. As you can see here, the copy has many crossings outs and inserted words which demonstrates the care with which Lejeune crafted her reviews. We can also see in them phrases from the publicity materials she was sent to accompany her viewing of the film.
The importance of the female critic for film culture
Tracking the materials in this file then gives us some insight into the labour of the film critic at the time, in synthesising a range of materials for different publications and different readers. It also gives an idea of the importance of the film critic in English film culture in articulating the value of different types of films for audiences. Whilst there has been some excellent work on Lejeune (Bell: 2010, Bell: 2011, Stead: 2017), which recognises her substantial contribution to film culture, they have focussed on her published work. Her archive provides the unique opportunity to examine the processes that went into the final published article from contact with other reviewers, producers and distributors, the writing of notes during screenings and editorial interventions before reviews and articles went into print. An understanding of these processes enables not just a better grasp of the materiality and bodily labour of the female critic but also a richer understanding of film cultures in Britain at different historical moments and ‘the mediated contexts in which cinema is conceptualised, produced, distributed and experienced’ (Wasson, 2006:160).
And finally, what was inside the envelope?
So in this respect, it is absolutely fascinating to come across Senni’s letter in the archive which gives a rare insight into how Lejeune’s reviews were actually received. Dated August 1, 1947, (Lejeune’s Observer review was published on 6th July 1947), the Countess begins by complimenting Lejeune on her work (‘for many years they have always been the first thing I turned to in the Observer’) and then recounts her experiences being in Rome in the war years, under the German occupation. She recalls how one day she had encountered a friend ‘under the shock of Don Morosini’s execution that morning’. Assisting in his last mass, he had told her how: ‘he said it as calmly as if nothing was amiss and how his hand never trembled as he raised the chalice. The Italian squad refused to fire and they had to call the German soldiers to shoot him’. As she goes on to detail, Morosoni was the ‘the original of the priest in Open City and I believe every detail is taken from his life’. Apart from the verification of the film’s producers’ claims to authenticity, the letter also provides an insight into how Lejeune’s reviews were encountered by her female readers. Senni calls herself a ‘resolute non-film goer’ in the letter (it’s clear also that she hadn’t actually seen Open City), and yet the way she expresses her engagement with Lejeune’s writing in the letter, demonstrates the importance of the specifically female film critic, as one of the few opportunities for women in the post war era to participate in the public sphere. Indeed, Lejeune recalled in her 1964 autobiography that at the beginning of her career ‘women had very little standing yet as journalists. They were relegated, nameless, to the back pastures of the paper’s “Woman’s Page”. The Press was still materially a man’s world in 1921’ (1964: 70).
Contessa Mary Senni
Of course, my interest is also piqued by the address of the letter as it’s so close to where my husband’s family lives and in one of the many rabbit holes I’ve gone down whilst undertaking this work, I started to research a little of the history of this Contessa Mary Senni, who, like myself, married an Italian, but (unlike me!), settled in Italy, with a grand house in Rome and a summer residence in Badia Pretaglia. She was American born, but on a trip to Europe in 1903 met the Count Giulio Senni and after a longish courtship, married him in 1907. The picture above is of their honeymoon on Long Island in 1907. Mary had a long and fascinating life and is perhaps best known for establishing a municipal Rose Garden in Rome You can read more about her life including details of letters to and from her mother here. But that’s another story…..
Next time: A post which looks at materials in the archive relating to the film Ourselves Alone (1936) Sinn Fein Propaganda/Misguided Melodrama?