Billy Bragg sings Woodie Guthrie’s song about Ingrid Bergman while she was filming Roberto Rossellini’s STROMBOLI (1950) .
A documentary has recently been made about the highly romantic and scandalous love affair between Bergman and Rossellini that erupted into public view during the filming of STROMBOLI . The War of the Volcanoes ( La guerra dei vulcani ) (2012) was screened during the London Film Festival at the British Film Institute. Below is their promo material:
WAR OF THE VOLCANOES
Director Francesco Patierno
Producer Clara Del Monaco
Screenwriter Chiara Laudani, Francesco Patierno
A scintillating documentary: a delightfully gossipy combination of film history and romantic soap. Consisting of glorious film clips, black & white and colour archive footage and newsreel, War of the Volcanoes plots the 50s scandal surrounding legendary Italian director Rossellini’s dumping of his star and lover, Anna Magnani, in favour of a new creative and emotional affair with Swedish-Hollywood icon Ingrid Bergman. The result was tabloid headlines galore, and – stoking them – two rival films in production at the same time on near-adjacent Aeolian islands: Volcano, starring Magnani, and Rossellini’s own Stromboli, featuring, of course, his new muse Bergman. A revealing treat.
I first became aware of the Eolian Islands while living in Italy in the late 1980s. Luca, my boyfriend at the time, obsessively played the lottery and finally won, not a huge amount, but enough to take me on the holiday of my dreams to Panarea. From our hotel window we could see the volcano on Stromboli erupt every fifteen minutes. Those islands, which were as close as I had ever come to finding paradise on earth, will always remain for me the epitome of romance. I would later make use of the Rossellini, Bergman, Mangani love scandal and its formidable backdrop in my novel A Man of No Moon (2007):
To me the Aeolian islands were a place of Homeric invention. I was never completely convinced that they existed–and in some senses they didn’t. Fausto had told me that three of the seven were uninhabitable–Alicudi, Filicudi, and Vulcano–and Panarea did not have electricity. The others had tiny populations surviving on the bare minimum. The advent of two feature films–Vulcano and Stromboli–now being shot on these islands would change things forever. Our destination, Lipari, was where most of the film Gladys was in would be made. The picture’s eponymous island lay southeast of Lipari but deemed too inhospitable a location, without plumbing or electricity, its atmosphere saturated with a sulfur stench. Only a few key scenes would actually take place there. Originally, we had meant to go to Lipari by train and ferry. That boat ride would have been mercifully short. But when Prudence mentioned our journey to Tullio, he had insisted we take La Speranza.
“It’s a pity I can’t come with you,” Tullio had said. “You’ll be sailing into the most ferocious battle since Zeus and Hera fought over Io.”
He was referring to the saga Anna Magnani, Roberto Rossellini, and Ingrid Bergman had been playing out in every tabloid worldwide. The curtain rose on this extravaganza when Ingrid Bergman saw Roberto Rossellini’s Open City and sent him a telegram calling his film brilliant and hinting that she wanted to work with him. Rossellini, lover of his leading lady Anna Magnani, responded immediately to the between-the-lines communiqué and arranged to meet with Ingrid alone in Paris. Rossellini returned to Rome from Paris and continued working on a feature idea with his cousin Renzo Avanzo, owner of Panaria Film, a small production company known for its documentaries about the Aeolian islands. Rossellini had appreciated the visual potential of the raw and violent landscape of the “undiscovered” islands, home to Vulcan, the smith God, and Aeolus, the God of the winds, and had begun to write a Magnani vehicle with Renzo.
Next Rossellini visited Bergman and her husband at their Beverly Hills home. Once back in Rome, he cut all ties with both Magnani and Avanzo. Variety soon reported that Rossellini would direct a picture, bankrolled by Howard Hughes, set on a volcanic island. The title of the picture: Stromboli, Land of God. Magnani lost no time in joining up with the co-jilted Avanzo who quickly came up with his own script entitled Vulcano, pitched as, “A story of passion and blood culminating in an underwater duel.” The climax, in fact, had Magnani, ex-prostitute returned home in shame, avenging her sister (Gladys) by severing the air line of the island’s Lothario as he dove for sponges. Magnani watched as sharks devoured his body, then tossed herself into the crater of Vulcano’s volcano.
Renzo’s wife Uberta Visconti, Luchino’s sister, got David O. Selznick involved in the project. Selznick brought in the German American William Dieterle to direct and loaned Rossano Brazzi, currently under contract to him in Hollywood, to play the male lead. Dieterle hired Erskine Caldwell to translate Avanzo’s script into English. Even though Anna Magnani would play the female lead if it was the last thing she did on this earth, the new script was circulated in Hollywood to create buzz. Hedy Lamarr, Joan Crawford, Gene Tierney, and Greta Garbo, who was considering coming out of retirement, were all offered the lead. Variety quoted Garbo as saying, “Great script but I refuse to end my career by killing a man in so inelegant a fashion.”
Within a week of shooting the non-location scenes at Cinecittà, already Dieterle had had enough of Anna the Terrible’s stomping off the set, screaming at underlings, and so on. Before he would allow that kind of prima donna behavior on his set, Dieterle told Magnani, he would replace her. Myrna Loy, who had been living in Italy for some months, was much speculated about. Fueled as Magnani was by the desire for retribution, she became docile as a lamb, announcing to the press that Vulcano would be a classic, as great as Amore or Paisà, and promising the performance of her life. Magnani, and the money now behind her, were determined Vulcano would be in the cinemas before Stromboli come hell or highwater. Both film crews had already colonized their respective islands and were racing neck and neck to finish first. Some even wondered if the entire epic was a carefully planned publicity stunt for both movies. Whatever the case, the fray had thrown Gladys into the limelight and her stock rose considerably.
Prudence explained to Fausto and Pino the story of the rival pictures and Gladys’s involvement as they ate lunch. “Gladys got the part at the last minute. Geraldine Brooks had been cast but she got pregnant and pulled out.”
Pino touched my hand and said, “Closing your eyes makes the nausea worse. Focus on the horizon and think about apples.”
I followed his instructions. Both Fausto and Pino had heard about the fracas already, the topic more talked about than the Soviets lifting the Berlin blockade or the FBI’s communist fingerpointing. The stormy affair had even eclipsed the deaths of the entire Turin soccer team after their plane crashed. Everything about the story was topsy turvy which is what made it so popular. Ingrid Bergman, the beloved innocent of the screen, was now perceived by the Americans as a whore, and Anna Magnani, the cinema’s leading sexual predator, was now an innocent victim. The American public felt vindicated in their belief that Italians were uncontrollably lecherous; and the Italian public felt vindicated in their perception of Americans as puritan prudes. I didn’t pay much attention to what Prudence was saying as I tried to maintain my focus on that most perilous of fruits. It seemed to be working but every once in a while, when my imagination began to falter, Pino would lean over and whisper in my ear, “Apple.”
If I were superstitious, I might have hesitated to sail into this triple triangle of amorous woe (Roberto’s threesome, Vulcano’s threesome, my own threesome) unfolding among remote volcanic islands. Surely, a symbologyst would have deciphered doom. But as literary philosophers from Homer to Freud have shown, the triangle is the most alluring shape in nature.
Here’s a clip from Vulcano (1950) where you can see Gladys (actually played by Geraldine Brooks) as Anna Magnani’s sister.
And here’s the whole film:
For the seriously fanatical like I am here is a catalog of books from Edizioni del Centro Studi Eoliano including an entire section on Cinema Eoliano featuring Rita Cedrini’s extraordinary two volume slipcased set of photographs and text, many taken on the set of Vulcano (1950), entitled Le Eolie della ‘Panaria Film’, 1946-1949
Thanks to Christian Clark and Erin Cramer for their contributions to this post.