Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Lea Giunchi: The Story of a Lost Comical Body
Marzia Ruta

Last modified: 2010-05-12


The purpose of my speech is to present a still almost unknown aspect of Italian silent cinema: the comedy actress, considered not as a mask, but rather as a body. In this respect, a very interesting case study is represented by the figure of film comedienne Lea Giunchi. During her comic career, Lea partnered with such important comedy actors as Ferdinand Guillaume (Tontolini), Raymond Frau (Kri  Kri) and Giuseppe Gambardella (Checco). But her personality as an actress was so exuberant and her physical ability so effervescent that she soon became the principal of a comedy series entitled after her own name: produced by Cines, the “Lea” series counts a dozen titles, covering the years between 1910 and 1916. In the meantime, Giunchi also played in so many different genres as the peplum (Quo Vadis?, 1913), the melodrama (Immolazione, 1914),  the literary adaptation (Pinocchio, 1910, and Parigi misteriosa, 1917). Because of her special physical talents, she played in several types of action movies, from westerns (Due vite per un cuore, 1912; Sulla via dell’oro, 1913) to mystery and detective films (Le mani ignote, 1913; La polizia moderna, 1912).

Giunchi’s acting peculiarity consisted in her ability to combine two different aspects in one single characterization: she made use of her body in a very free way, yet at the same time she also managed to be extremely charming and feminine. This is a case on its own in the context of Italian cinema of the time, where no other comic actress presented both these aspects at once: either they were the big  fat woman who hit and tyrannized her poor little comic partner, or, in reverse, the coquettish and funny girl with a great ability in facial expressions (the best exemple of this type being the great Gigetta Morano). On the contrary, Lea made use of both the free and unprejudiced movements of her body and a coquettish femininity: this was quite a revolutionary combination of elements for the time, and Giunchi was the first, and probably the only actress to introduce it in Italian cinema. Lea’s comedies were made in the same period when the Vamp and the Diva myths were being established, when even a small piece of  skin revealed on the screen was enough to intrigue and scandalize both women and men. Just at the same time, Lea’s performances were made of jumps and somersaults and funny circles in which she appeared not just as a beautiful woman, but as the one and only owner of her charming, as well as fairly undressed body. 

In Lea e il gomitolo (1913) Giunchi destroys her parents’ whole apartment by desperately searching for a lost ball of wool: her frenzy movement, quite similar to a demoniac possession, is a metaphor for Lea’s desperate search for the only female identity she knows and can imagine; by destroying the apartment, she conquers both her right to read in peace and the possibility of an alternative female identity.  At a time when Italian women were not allowed to vote because their husbands were held to also represent their will, Lea persuades her boyfriend’s parents to let their son marry her by disguising herself as a doll: a big puppet who complies with all of its owner’s instructions (Lea bambola, 1912). 

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