Commedia all’italiana: Rethinking Comedian Comedy Beyond Hollywood

By Natalie Fullwood

A man, played by a comic star whose performance drives the film, finds himself in an unhappy marriage that he cannot escape. The solution: he plans to kill his wife, but the plans go awry to comic effect. This brief summary describes both an Italian and a Hollywood comedy made within six years of each other: Il vedovo / The Widower (Dino Risi, 1959), starring Alberto Sordi, and How to Murder Your Wife (Richard Quine, 1965), starring Jack Lemmon. The films tackle their similar subject material in very different ways, but the function of the star comedians at the centre of these comedies shares many similarities. In this article I explore how we might apply ideas of comedian comedy to the Italian comedy genre known as commedia all’italiana, or Comedy, Italian Style, and conversely what these Italian comic films might add to our understanding of comedian comedy theory. To do this I focus on the Italian comic star Alberto Sordi. I draw parallels between Sordi and Jack Lemmon by comparing scenes of comic performance in Il vedovo and How to Murder Your Wife. Although critical discussions of comedian comedy have largely centred on Hollywood filmmaking, Comedy, Italian Style represents a particularly rich example of how this type of comedy is in fact a feature of many filmmaking traditions. Tracing developments in ideas of comedian comedy through the work of scholars including Steve Seidman, Henry Jenkins and Geoff King, this article outlines how a renewed attention to the similarities and differences between Hollywood and Italian comedy in the 1960s can further enhance our understanding of cinematic comedy genres.

Comedy, Italian Style is a label given to a series of comic films made in Italy in the late 1950s and 1960s. Although debate continues about its exact dates, the genre emerged around 1958 and its heyday continued throughout the 1960s. This coincided with Italy’s postwar economic miracle and the genre takes much of its comedy from the changes to people’s everyday lives associated with this period of rapid economic growth. The films revolve around the trials and tribulations of a (usually male) anti-hero as he tries, but most often comically fails, to come to terms with the changes taking place in a rapidly modernising Italy. The genre was associated with a core group of filmmakers, but its most important feature was its comic stars. It was particularly associated with Alberto Sordi, Vittorio Gassman, Ugo Tognazzi and Nino Manfredi, four comedians who became iconic figures in Italy. In their film work of the 1960s they were associated almost exclusively with Comedy, Italian Style and they had prolific work schedules. In the period 1958-1970, for example, Sordi appeared in 43 comedies. The sheer number of titles in which the four stars appeared meant that a large body of films linked by their presence appeared in a relatively short space of time. The genre tends to be structured around the comic performance of these star comedians, but their star performances are also sometimes combined in ‘ensemble’ comedies where several stars appear together: the crime caper Crimen (Mario Camerini, 1960), for example, stars Gassman, Manfredi and Sordi. The films mix comedy with much darker elements including frequent treatments of themes such as crime, corruption and death. Finally, and very importantly, the films tend to resist any kind of happy ending.

Comedy as a mode has been a central part of Italian cinema since its beginnings. It has always been, and remains, one of the most commercially successful parts of the Italian film industry. Much discussion about Comedy, Italian Stylehas focused on the comedies’ relationship to the Italian filmmaking tradition; in particular, the films’ attention to everyday life, their representation of contemporary social change and their use of realistic settings have led some commentators to view them as continuing some of the concerns of neorealism. The director Ettore Scola, for example, has described the genre as “the slightly degenerate offspring of neorealism”.[1] For critic Jean Gili, the genre combined regional and variety theatre with the experience of neorealism.[2] Others have traced Comedy, Italian Style’s roots back through early Italian film comedy, comedies made under fascism and the so-called ‘pink neorealism’ comedies of the 1950s.[3] Tullio Masoni and Paolo Vecchi, for example, argue that the genre is characterised by a middle-brow address and “a horizon of predominantly petit bourgeois values” which it shares with Italian comedies from the 1930s and 1950s.[4] Others have called for the need to take a much broader view and see the films in terms of the longer Italian comedic tradition, right back to sixteenth-century theatrical traditions of the commedia dell’arte. The director Mario Monicelli, for example, suggested that the genre’s “mixture of clowning and desperation is very much part of the Italian tradition, and is something that comes from commedia dell’arte”.[5] The films are undoubtedly rooted in their Italian context, yet an emphasis on the exclusively ‘Italian Style’ features of these comedies overlooks the affinities they share with other comic filmmaking traditions. The genre provides many examples of an Italian form of comedian comedy and approaching it in these terms can help us rethink Comedy, Italian Style in a way which moves beyond and across national borders.

Steve Seidman first theorised comedian comedy films based around the performance of a comedian – in his 1981 book: Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film.[6] Seidman’s discussion of comedian comedy focuses on two main areas. Firstly, he discusses the stylistic elements of comedian comedy which break with the ‘hermetic’ conventions of classical Hollywood cinema, particularly its use of ‘extrafictional’ features (defined as: “anything that interrupts the smooth exposition of a fictional universe”).[7] Secondly, he examines comedian comedy’s narratives, which he understands as constructing a tension between the countercultural drives embodied by the comedian and the cultural order with which the comedian comes into conflict. As Frank Krutnik puts it: “all forms of comedian-centered film reveal a structuring conflict between eccentricity and conformity”.[8]

Seidman highlights three main ways in which comedian comedy incorporates extrafictional elements. Firstly, he notes that stars in comedian comedy often began their careers in other spheres, for example vaudeville or stage performance, where interaction with the audience was part of the performance style. Secondly, he observes that comedians repeatedly break with classical narrative cinema’s convention of not acknowledging the audience in film by using direct address to the camera. Thirdly, he states that comedian comedies also break their own illusion by referring either to their star’s status as stars or to their status as films through devices such as cameo appearances of other stars or references to other films.

All of these features can be found in Il vedovo and its star, Alberto Sordi. Sordi began his comedy career in Italian variety theatre and was also very successful on the radio before establishing himself as a film actor. He was also linked to the Hollywood tradition of comedian comedy as he performed the voice of Oliver Hardy in Italian dubbed versions of Laurel & Hardy films. Sordi’s characters tend not to look into the camera and address the audience directly. However they do make frequent comic asides and quips to themselves in moments which are solely for the audience’s benefit and implicitly recognise their existence.[9] The chief way in which Sordi’s performances fit with Seidman’s model of comedian comedy is in their frequent reference to his status as a star and the status of his films as films. In Una vita difficile / A Difficult Life (Dino Risi, 1961), for example, Sordi’s character visits Cinecittà, the film studios in Rome, to convince producers to make his screenplay (also called Una vita difficile) into a film, and we see cameo performances from famous actors such as Silvana Mangano and the comedian Vittorio Gassman. In Il vigile / The Traffic Policeman (Luigi Zampa, 1960), Sordi plays a traffic policeman who helps the actress Sylva Koscina, appearing as herself in a cameo role, when her car breaks down. In the scene, Sordi turns his head and asks Koscina: “Do I have a photogenic face?” playing on his own status as a comic star with a physique that decidedly did not conform to accepted standards of attractiveness for a male film star.

Il vedovo contains several such metacinematic moments that mark the film as a comedian comedy. Alberto Sordi plays Alberto Nardi, the similarity of the actor/character names here underscoring the centrality of Sordi as star comedian for the film.[10] Sordi/Nardi is an inept businessman married to a very rich wife, Elvira Almiraghi (played by Franca Valeri). When Elvira refuses to finance any more of his doomed business ventures, Sordi/Nardi wishes her gone. His wish is granted the following day when Elvira is reported dead in a train crash. Sordi/Nardi sets about celebrating her funeral with gusto but the reports were mistaken; Elvira is alive and well. Having enjoyed being a widower, he plans to murder Elvira for her huge inheritance.[11] The opening scene sets up Sordi’s comic performance as central to the film, whilst also making metacinematic reference to both his star status and the film’s fictionality. The film opens with a short skit between Sordi/Nardi and his friend and confidante, Marchese Stucchi, as Sordi/Nardi recounts an amusing dream he had the previous evening where his wife died (this also sets up the premise necessary for the rest of the film in which women dying is a source of humour). The closing punchline to the story is that his wife woke him up asking: “What’s up, Cretinetti? You’re laughing in your sleep”. His wife’s nickname for Sordi/Nardi, Cretinetti, apart from underscoring the inept nature of his character with its pun on cretino/idiot, recalls the Italian tradition of comedian comedy. Cretinetti was the comic persona of French actor André Deed who appeared in a series of silent Cretinetti comedies made by the Itala studios in Turin in the early twentieth-century. As Sordi/Nardi recounts his dream, Stucchi asks if he dreams in colour or black and white. Sordi/Nardi responds: “In colour, I always dream in colour”. The dialogue about colour images, spoken in a black and white film, recalls the materiality of the film itself, reminding us that the images we are watching are a fictional creation, different to but not entirely unlike a dream.

The opening conversation about the dream is only the first minute of the film, positioning Sordi as comedian firmly at the centre of the next hour and a half’s entertainment. The references to the film’s status as film do not end here, however. In a later sequence, which I shall call the copione (screenplay) scene just before the murder, Sordi/Nardi and his accomplices rehearse their plan, which they have typed out, like a screenplay. Sordi directs the rehearsal, like a director, reading lines, dictating corrections and making sure that everyone knows their part. The copione scene is shot in two sequence shots: one of four minutes, followed by a cut, and another shot of a minute and a half. In the four-minute long sequence shot, Sordi is at the centre throughout. He removes his jacket so that his white shirt stands out from the three actors around him, whose costumes are all dark. Furthermore, he sits under an overhead lamp which, as a diegetic spotlight, picks out the comic star (see figure 1). As Sordi reads aloud from the murder plan, punctuating his performance with a repeated cry of “turn the page”, background extra-diegetic music rises to a crescendo as the dialogue gets slowly faster and faster, displaying the comic prowess of our performer. As Sordi cries “halt”, the extra-diegetic music stops, as if on the cue of a director. This four-minute long shot is a complex piece of cinematic performance involving three character entrances (one by Sordi, two by a maid), two exits, several reframings and five actors. With its use of a diegetic script to describe a scene that the audience is about to watch in the closing sequences of the film, it is also a comic piece of metacinema. Not only does it foreground Sordi’s comic performance skills, it highlights the film’s nature as a film structured around Sordi’s performance, whilst also foreshadowing Sordi’s own move into directing with Fumo di Londra / Smoke Over London (Alberto Sordi, 1966)and Scusi, lei è favorevole o contrario? / Pardon, Are You for or Against? (Alberto Sordi, 1966).

Figure 1

Figure 1

Such ‘extrafictional’ moments are typical of Sordi’s Comedy, Italian Style films. They are one of the ways in which his comedies share features of comedian comedy as it has been understood in the Hollywood context. There are other ways, however, in which Sordi’s Comedy, Italian Style performances do not entirely fit Seidman’s model. For Seidman, the extrafictional elements of a comedian’s persona exist in tension with narrative. He states at one point that comedian comedy uses a narrative exposition that is “‘spoiled’ by actors who ‘step out’ of character”.[12] However, in the case of Comedy, Italian Style, elements of comic performance tend to exist as part of the narrative; they reinforce narrative rather than work against it. Sordi/Nardi’s experience of his wife’s wrongly reported death in Il vedovo, for example, provides ample opportunity for comic performance within the film’s narrative. The scene where Sordi/Nardi first reads of her death in the newspaper includes deft facial performance, as he shows the first inklings of a satisfied smile, before Sordi/Nardi remembers he is supposed to be a devastated widower, and starts wobbling his bottom lip in a forced performance of grief (see figure 2).In the subsequent scenes of Elvira’s funeral Sordi offers a skilled comic performance of someone performing grief badly. After Elvira turns up alive, Sordi/Nardi then breaks out into the hysterical crying that he had been unable to summon before; his grief upon discovering she is alive is now convincing, but entirely inappropriate for a man who should be delighted at his wife’s safe return.

Figure 2

Figure 2

These moments of physical comic performance reinforce the Sordi/Nardi character rather than breaking with narrative. Here it is necessary to draw on other critics who have expanded and nuanced Seidman’s original model. Henry Jenkins has traced two different traditions within 1930s Hollywood comedian comedy.[13] On the one hand he discusses what he calls ‘anarchistic comedy’ in the films of comedians such as the Marx brothers, which he argues largely follow Seidman’s model of comic performance and narrative existing in tension. On the other hand, Jenkins notes another strand, which he calls ‘affirmative comedy’, represented by the performances of comedians such as Joe E. Brown. For Jenkins, unlike anarchistic comedy, affirmative comedy placed “high emphasis upon the integration of comic performance into character and narrative development”.[14] Jenkins notes that it was the narrative model of affirmative comedy that became most influential after the 1930s as it adapted more easily to the conventions of classical Hollywood cinema. Sordi’s performances in Comedy, Italian Style fit much more with Jenkins’ model of affirmative comedy, where the skills of the comic star are used at the service of narrative. Adding further nuance to the debate, Geoff King suggests that it is not necessarily helpful to separate star performance and narrative, arguing that “the star comic persona can function effectively as part of the narrative infrastructure” with films drawing on the narrative expectations created by their stars’ comic personas.[15] King’s approach is particularly suggestive for Comedy, Italian Style. Gassman, Manfredi, Sordi and Tognazzi’s repeated performances throughout the 1960s constructed a gallery of anti-heroes associated with the actors; the use of these stars created generic expectations about the type of narrative their films would contain. The films were often written with these particular comic stars in mind. Grazia Livi, for example, notes that between 1954 and 1960 all of Alberto Sordi’s films were written by his long-term collaborator Rodolfo Sonego, creating comic narratives constructed specifically for Sordi’s star persona.[16]

At this point, I will turn to Jack Lemmon’s comic performance from the same period. Lemmon is perhaps an unconventional choice in a discussion of comedian comedy, but he provides a very useful point of comparison to the way in which Sordi’s comedian comedies integrate narrative with performance. Lemmon’s film comedies in this period range from the Doris Day rom com It Happened to Jane (Richard Quine, 1959), with Lemmon as a shorts-wearing, ukelele-playing scout leader, to sex comedies such as Under the Yum Yum Tree (David Swift, 1963), to his work with Billy Wilder in Some Like it Hot (1959) and The Apartment (1960). Although Lemmon’s training was more orientated towards classical theatre than the vaudeville performance styles associated with comedian comedy (he took acting classes with Uta Hagen in New York), his route to cinematic stardom involved work in theatre, nightclubs, radio and television. At the time he made How to Murder Your Wife (Richard Quine, 1965) he was still known predominantly as a comic performer in cinema, although the dramatic Days of Wine and Roses (Blake Edwards, 1962) gave an indication of how his star persona would move beyond comedy in later years in films such as Save The Tiger (John G. Avildsen, 1973) and The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979). In interviews, Lemmon himself rejected the label ‘comedian’, preferring to be known as an actor.[17] Seidman includes him in a long list of star actors he does not consider to be comedians.[18] Finding a description somewhere between comedian and actor, Frank Krutnik has characterised him as a ‘situational comedy’ performer and a ‘light comic’ performer.[19]

Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins’ influential volume on Classical Hollywood Comedy outlines Hollywood comedy’s ‘two traditions’ of comedian comedy and romantic comedy.[20] Much writing on Hollywood comedy tends to address either the performance-based comedy of comedians from the era of Chaplin and Keaton to later figures such as Jerry Lewis and beyond, or the narrative-driven banter of the rom com, through its many incarnations from screwball comedy to the Rock Hudson/Doris Day partnership of the 1960s and onwards to the present day. Perhaps because of the diversity of his comic output at this time, coupled with his later development into more dramatic roles, Lemmon tends to be overlooked in these discussions of Hollywood comedy (although he is often mentioned as a side note in auteurist discussions of Billy Wilder’s filmmaking). With the exception of It Happened to Jane, Lemmon’s comedies in this period do not easily fit the category of ‘romantic comedy’. Rather than the interaction of couples, they tend to focus more on Lemmon as an everyman figure muddling through against a series of obstacles. Yet the strongly narrative-driven nature of his comedies, coupled with his public persona as an ‘actor’ rather than a ‘comedian’, have meant that they are not discussed in terms of comedian comedy either.

In the history of Hollywood comedian comedy, the 1960s has generally been characterised as a transitional period, in line with the wider changes taking place in Hollywood filmmaking as a whole. As Frank Krutnik puts it: “From the late 1950s, the genre experienced substantial reorientations as Hollywood’s established mode of production was subjected to widespread transformations”.[21] For Jenkins and Brunovska Karnick: “The comedian comedy as a genre has lost its distinctiveness since the early 1960s, reflecting the tendency towards hybridisation within the postclassical Hollywood cinema”.[22] Although the success of a whole range of more contemporary comedians (including, for example, Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, Jim Carrey, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller) suggests that comedian comedy is still alive and well, the idea of hybridisation is useful in discussing Lemmon’s comic performances. Regardless of whether one understands Lemmon to be a ‘comedian’ tout court, many of his comic films display features of comedian comedy and provide a useful comparison to Alberto Sordi’s ‘Italian Style’ version of this type of comedy.

Alberto Sordi and Jack Lemmon’s comic personas in the 1960s share several common characteristics. Both tended to play everyman figures trying to make their way in the world and both men’s characters repeatedly experience the conflict between individual identity and the demands of wider society. Two of their most famous performances – Una vita difficile for Sordi and The Apartment for Lemmon – end with their characters walking away from jobs which would require them to sacrifice their dignity. The actors both play characters who are comically stubborn in various ways. In Il vigile, Sordi plays a traffic policeman who takes literally his obligation to treat everyone equally before the law, giving a speeding ticket to the mayor. Sordi’s over-zealous attempts to apply the letter of the law parallel the scene at the start of Irma la Douce (Billy Wilder, 1963) where Lemmon’s officious policeman character raids a brothel and inadvertently disturbs his own Chief Inspector. In Il vedovo and How to Murder Your Wife, both actors play characters in darkly misogynistic narratives who struggle to rid themselves of an overbearing wife.

Lemmon’s performance in How to Murder Your Wife presents striking similarities with Sordi’s in Il vedovo, as the Hollywood film includes repeated moments which highlight Lemmon’s status as star and the film’s status as film. Lemmon plays Stanley Ford, an incurable bachelor who relishes his freedom as a single man. Stanley works as a cartoonist with a successful strip based on the character Bash Brannigan, whose exploits Stanley acts out himself and photographs before turning them into cartoons. An early sequence of the film shows Lemmon/Ford in character as Bash Brannigan chasing criminals and performing daredevil exploits on a cargo ship, all of which is photographed by Stanley’s butler, Charles. At one point during the sequence, Charles has yet to arrive to take photos, and Lemmon/Ford stops the action. The actors hired to play characters in the cartoon strip all wait until Charles arrives. Lemmon/Ford then gives the go ahead and the madcap action resumes. This direction of the diegetic cast, rather like Sordi/Nardi’s direction of his accomplices in the copione sequence of Il vedovo, reminds us of Lemmon’s status as star comic whose performance drives the film. Furthermore, it reminds us of the film’s similarities with the photographed comic strip action, as fictional narrative images captured by a camera. Like the discussion of colour dreams in the black and white Il vedovo, two separate sequences in How to Murder Your Wife show Lemmon/Ford developing photos, with the black and white images developing in the diegesis of a colour film reminding us of the materiality of the celluloid film we are watching (see figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3

How to Murder Your Wife invites comparison with Comedy, Italian Style, as the film contains a moment which makes an explicit reference to the Italian genre. After a drunken night at a party, Lemmon/Ford wakes up married to an Italian woman, played by Italian actress Virna Lisi. At the start of their marriage Mrs Ford (we never learn her first name) speaks no English and there are several scenes without subtitles where she speaks in Italian. At one point, when the conversation turns to divorce (which was still illegal in Italy at this point), she refuses emphatically in broken English: ‘Ah no. Italian. No divorce’, before continuing excitedly, this time in Italian: ‘in Italy they made a film starring Marcello Mastroianni […] and do you know what he does in the end? He kills his wife!’ Lisi/Mrs Ford is referring to Divorzio all’italiana / Divorce, Italian Style (Pietro Germi, 1961). Divorzio all’italiana is one of the few Comedy, Italian Style films known beyond Italy’s borders, not least because it was nominated for three Oscars in 1963, including best director for Pietro Germi and best actor for Marcello Mastroianni, winning the Oscar for best original screenplay. Like How to Murder Your Wife and Il vedovo, the film shows a husband planning his wife’s murder. In this piece I have decided to focus on the earlier film Il vedovo rather than Divorzio all’italiana for several reasons. Firstly, it highlights that the comic narrative of man kills wife was not invented by Germi for the later film, but instead was already very much part of the genre’s repertoire. Secondly, given its international reach, Divorzio all’italiana is one of few films to have received significant critical attention in English.[23] Finally, looking at Il vedovo also allows me to focus on Alberto Sordi, one of the most important comic stars in the history of Italian cinema, and a figure who lends himself to rethinking ideas of comedian comedy. Although Comedy, Italian Style tends to be discussed in isolation from Hollywood, this moment in a Hollywood comedy where an Italian actress mentions Divorzio all’italiana suggests transnational links between the two comic traditions which warrant further investigation. The moment is also yet another instance of How to Murder Your Wife making a metacinematic reference to the business of filmmaking.

Beyond moments which acknowledge his films’ status as films, Lemmon’s comedies are also similar to Sordi’s in their integration of comic performance and narrative. In How to Murder Your Wife,Lemmon/Ford’s advanced state of drunkenness at the stag party where he meets his future wife not only provides narrative justification for his rash decision to get married, it also provides an opportunity for some narratively motivated physical humour in Lemmon’s performance of drunkenness (see figure 4). After he marries Lisi/Mrs Ford, she begins to cook him enormous Italian meals, which allow for further physical humour as Lemmon emphasises his rotund belly and performs his struggles to exercise with his fatter physique. In this sense, Lemmon’s comedies are part of a comic tradition which inherits the integration of comic performance and narrative which Henry Jenkins finds in Joe E. Brown’s earlier ‘affirmative’ comedian comedies. Philip Drake has argued that the term comedian comedy “helps us make a distinction between comedy that is oriented around the performance of a comedian, and narrative comedy in which the context or situation provides the humour”.[24] Like Sordi’s comic films, Jack Lemmon’s 1960s comedies demonstrate how difficult this distinction is to make in practice when comic performance is integrated into narrative.

Figure 4

Figure 4

A distinction between performance and narrative context also overlooks the way in which comedian star personas can be constructed through repeated performances, embedded within narrative, which occur across multiple titles. Lemmon/Ford’s womanising in How to Murder Your Wife, for example, draws on comic expectations created by his performance of a womaniser in Under the Yum Yum Tree. His performance of drunkenness is also a regular feature of his comic repertoire, recalling, for example, the scene in The Apartment where he gets drunk in a bar. This fusing of narrative and comic persona constructed over the course of multiple performances is a useful comparison with Sordi as his comedian comedies rely on precisely this mechanism. Il vedovo showcases two core aspects of Sordi’s comic persona: his nasty cynicism and his ineptitude. The performance contributes to his anti-hero persona in a way which prepares us for his inept failure in later films such as Il boom (Vittorio De Sica, 1963), where he ends up selling an eye to pay his debts, or Il marito di Roberta (Luigi Filippo D’Amico, 1966),where he marries a woman who has a sex change to get away from him. It also prepares us for his opportunistic amorality in films such as Il giudizio universale / The Last Judgment (Vittorio De Sica, 1961), where he makes money selling poor Neapolitan children to rich American families, or Il medico della mutua / Be Sick…It’s Free (Luigi Zampa, 1968), where he plays a doctor who makes a fortune taking advantage of Italy’s healthcare system.

Sordi and Lemmon differ in the way in which their affirmative comedies resolve their narratives. Indeed, the area of endings and narrative resolutions is where Comedy, Italian Style most distances itself from current theories of comedian comedy. For Seidman, resolution of comedian comedy’s conflict between the individual and cultural obligation can come in two forms: either by the comedian accepting his place in the cultural order, or by resisting social integration.[25] Henry Jenkins argues that affirmative comedy, where performance is integrated into narrative, follows the model of social integration, with narrative emphasising the comedian’s progressive assimilation into the social order over the course of a film. Like so much of Hollywood comedy, with its tendency towards ‘happy’ endings, Lemmon’s comedies tend to follow Jenkins’ model of social integration. Much of their comedy often comes from his characters’ resistance to this integration, which is delayed until the film’s ending. How to Murder Your Wife, for example, shows Lemmon/Ford pushing against the social pressure to marry. He repeatedly claims that he wants to divorce Mrs Ford. She begins to appear in his cartoon strip, which morphs from Bash Brannigan’s adventures as detective to a marital comedy about the Brannigans and their exploits. To get his cartoon strip back on track, Lemmon/Ford plans to murder the fictional Mrs Brannigan. When Mrs Ford sees the sketches for Mrs Brannigan’s fate, she disappears. Lemmon/Ford assumes she has returned to her mother in Italy, but after the cartoon strip appears, the police believe he has actually murdered his wife, and he finds himself on trial.

The trial sequence allows for some quite breathtaking misogyny. Lemmon/Ford assumes his own defence, providing ample opportunity for a bravura comic performance from Lemmon, whose figure is at the centre of the sequence performing rousing speeches to the jury. Calling his lawyer as a witness, Lemmon/Ford offers him the opportunity to make his wife disappear by pressing a fictional button. Describing the tantalising bachelor pleasures of a stylish townhouse, a sports car, freedom to spend his money on himself and, as Lemmon puts it, “a whole world full of girls, just think on that, a world pulsating with girls”, the lawyer is eventually convinced, and pushes the button in front of everyone in the court, performing in his imagination the crime which Lemmon/Ford is accused of performing in fact. Lemmon/Ford addresses the jury: “Do you realise the power that you have in your hand here today? If one man, just one man can stick his wife […] and get away with it, boy we got it made”. He then admits: “I did it. I killed her. I murdered my wife” and pleads to the jury: “I ask you to acquit me. Acquit me on the grounds of justifiable homicide. And not for my sake, for yours”. The jury unanimously and spontaneously acquit him, and he is carried outside on the shoulders of the men in the courtroom. The scene takes Lemmon’s resistance to the institution of marriage to comic, macabre excess. The courtroom scene sees Lemmon/Ford admit to a murder which never actually happened. Unlike Sordi/Nardi in Il vedovo, who does attempt to murder his wife, Lemmon/Ford never plans to kill his wife, only her cartoon counterpart. The violent misogyny of the courtroom sequence belies the underlying acceptance of marriage which forms the film’s resolution. During the last sequences of the film, Lemmon/Ford admits that he would be pleased if his wife returned. She does, and the very final shot of the film shows him kissing his wife on their marital bed, with the incurable bachelor Lemmon/Ford now successfully integrated into the institution of marriage.

The dynamics of social integration for the Sordi/Nardi character in Il vedovo work somewhat differently. Maurizio Grande’s work on Comedy, Italian Style shares similarities with Hollywood-orientated theories of comedian comedy, as Grande also discusses the Italian genre as involving the conflict between the individual subject and the expectations of society. For Grande, rather like Seidman, this conflict takes two forms: comic characters either display “excessive consonance” or a “hysterical and problematic dissonance” with the demands which society places upon them.[26] But note the ‘excessive’ in Grande’s formulation of the Italian comedies’ version of social integration. Comedy, Italian Style films tend to problematise any kind of social assimilation; there is often a dark cynicism to the excessive conformity of their characters. Sordi/Nardi in Il vedovo, for example, explains to his eventual murder accomplices: “I’ve realised that on the one hand you have twentieth-century modern life with a mad rush after money, and on the other lies nothing but sacrifice”.When his assistant responds: “Bravo, you’ve chosen sacrifice”, Sordi replies: “No, what are you talking about? I’ve chosen a mad rush after money!”. He proceeds to explain that his next business deal will involve killing his wife for her inheritance. As he puts it: “If we plan it properly, it will be a good business deal like any other”. Rather like Lemmon/Ford justifying murder on the grounds that it will be a warning to nagging wives, Sordi/Nardi justifies murder on the grounds of turning a profit. However, Lemmon/Ford’s outrageous defence of uxoricide is a comic attempt to resist social integration through marriage, a resistance which the film’s conclusion will ultimately abandon. The Italian film, on the other hand, makes a dark comedy from its protagonist’s comically excessive integration into Italy’s burgeoning consumer economy. If Lemmon/Ford ultimately embraces the social integration of marriage, Sordi/Nardi embraces a mad rush after money which ultimately leads to death.

Il vedovo’s ending is worlds apart from the happy ending of an affirmative comedian comedy. The plan goes awry, as is to be expected of the incompetent Sordi/Nardi, and, by mistake, his accomplices murder him instead of his wife. The closing images of the film show Elvira accompanying Sordi/Nardi’s coffin at his funeral, the very opposite of the description of his wife’s funeral which opened the film (see figure 5).This ending is not unusual for the genre; it makes widespread use of bitter, cynical or tragic endings. Comedy, Italian Style’s avoidance of the happy ending puts it at odds with Hollywood comedy. Most of Jack Lemmon’s comic performances have a happy ending which involves some element of social integration. The Apartment, Irma la Douce and How to Murder Your Wife, for example,all end in marriage (or the formation of couples), albeit through highly convoluted means. Although Comedy Italian Style’s integration of comic performance and narrative fit with Henry Jenkins’ model of affirmative comedian comedy, the genre’s narrative resolutions suggest we need to adapt Jenkins’ model for the Italian context. Film historian Vittorio Spinazzola has described Comedy, Italian Style as a “cinema of nastiness”.[27] Rather than affirmative comedy, we might need to speak about Comedy, Italian Style as a non-affirmative comedy, which resists the closure of a happy ending based on social integration.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Just this brief exploration of some of the parallels and differences between Sordi and Lemmon’s comedies suggests how much comedy theory has to gain by making comparisons across national borders. Although Comedy, Italian Style’s narratives and imagery are firmly embedded in an Italian context, the genre’s use of comic stars makes it clear that we need to include it in a wider, transnational history of comedian comedy. Comedy, Italian Style’s stars constructed comic personas through repeated performances throughout the 1960s. In a way which echoes Henry Jenkins’ observations regarding Joe E. Brown’s ‘affirmative’ comedies, and which bears comparison with Jack Lemmon’s 1960s comedy films, the Italian stars’ comic performances were integrated into narrative. More than this, however, the personas of Comedy, Italian Style’s star actors created generic expectations which were a crucial component of the types of narratives the genre adopted. If affirmative comedies in the Hollywood tradition tend to show their protagonists’ integration into society, Comedy, Italian Style portrays a gallery of anti-heros who enthusiastically integrated into the more negative aspects of contemporary Italian society, problematising any use of the term ‘affirmative’ to describe them. Finally, and most importantly, the genre’s bitter endings suggest that current models of comedian comedy are ill-equipped to deal with Comedy, Italian Style. The closing images of Sordi/Nardi’s coffin in Il vedovo call for the need to rethink comedian comedy theory to account for comic genres in other national traditions which resist the model of a happy ending achieved through social integration.


[1] As cited in Adriano Aprà and Patrizia Pistagnesi, Comedy, Italian Style, 1950-1980 (Turin: ERI, 1986), p. 51.

[2] Jean A. Gili, Arrivano i mostri: i volti della commedia allitaliana (Bologna: Capelli, 1980), p. 175.

[3]‘Pink neorealism’ is a term used to describe a series of commercially successful Italian comedies and melodramas made in the 1950s. It encompasses films such as the rural-based ‘bread and love’ series (including Pane, amore e fantasia / Bread, Love and Dreams (Luigi Comencini, 1953) and Pane, amore e gelosia / Bread, Love and Jealousy (Luigi Comencini, 1954)), as well as urban comedies such as Poveri ma belli / Poor but Handsome (Dino Risi, 1957). As Mary Wood puts it: “These films used many of the stylistic devices of neorealism – location shooting in recognisable places, working-class characters and themes – but heightened the emotional charge of the narrative and ignored the socialist political agenda”, in Italian Cinema (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005), p.106.

[4] Tullio Masoni and Paolo Vecchi, “Lo schiaffo al commendatore: la commedia di costume e l’ideologia del boom”, Cineforum 179 (1978): pp. 659-60.

[5] As cited in Gili, Arrivano i mostri, p. 181.

[6]Steve Seidman, Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981).

[7] Steve Seidman, “Performance, Enunciation and Self-reference in Hollywood Comedian Comedy” in Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader, ed. Frank Krutnik (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 24.

[8] Frank Krutnik, ‘A Spanner in the Works? Genre, Narrative and the Hollywood Comedian’, in Classical Hollywood Comedy, ed. Kristine Brunovksa Karnick and Henry Jenkins (New York and London: Routledge, 1995), p. 21

[9] Other Comedy, Italian Style stars do address the camera directly. Ugo Tognazzi, for example, speaks directly to camera in La vita agra/ Its a Hard Life (Carlo Lizzani, 1964)and Il commissario Pepe/ Police Chief Pepe (Ettore Scola, 1969).

[10] This device is also used in a comedy of the previous year Il marito/The Husband (Nanny Loy and Gianni Puccini, 1958) where Sordi plays another character called Alberto.

[11] The film has recently been remade as Aspirante Vedovo (2013, dir. Massimo Venier) with Fabio De Luigi in the protagonist role. I am grateful to the editors of the special issue for bringing this film to my attention.

[12] Seidman, Comedian Comedy, p. 55.

[13] Henry Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic (New York: Columbia University Press, 1992).

[14] Jenkins, What Made Pistachio Nuts?, p. 150.

[15] Geoff King, Film Comedy (London: Wallflower, 2002), p. 39 (original emphasis).

[16] Grazia Livi, “L’eroe negativo” in Goffredo Fofi, Alberto Sordi: LItalia in bianco e nero (Milan: Mondadori, 2004), p. 107.

[17] Joe Baltake, Jack Lemmon: His Films and Career (London: Columbus, 1986), p. 24.

[18] Seidman, “Performance, Enunciation and Self-reference”, p. 23.

[19]Krutnik, ‘A Spanner in the Works?’, p. 21; and Frank Krutnik ‘Post-classical comedian comedy: Introduction’ in Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 167.

[20] Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins (eds), Classical Hollywood Comedy (New York and London: Routledge, 1995).

[21]Krutnik, ‘A Spanner in the Works?’, p. 21.

[22] Henry Jenkins and Kristine Brunovska Karnick, ‘Introduction: Acting Funny’, in Classical Hollywood Comedy, p. 161.

[23] See, for example, Peter Bondanella, Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present (New York: Continuum, 2001), pp. 150-53; John David Rhodes, “Divorzio allitaliana Divorce, Italian Style” in The Cinema of Italy ed. Giorgio Bertellini (London: Wallflower, 2004), pp. 113-21; or Rémi Fournier Lanzoni, Comedy, Italian Style: The Golden Age of Italian Film Comedies (London and New York: Continuum, 2008), pp. 105-17.

[24] Philip Drake, “Low Blows? Theorizing Performance in Post-classical Comedian Comedy”, in Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader, ed. Frank Krutnik (London and New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 19.

[25] Seidman, Comedian Comedy, p. 145.

[26] Maurizio Grande, La commedia allitaliana (Rome: Bulzoni, 2003), p. 51.

[27] Vittorio Spinazzola, Cinema e pubblico: lo spettacolo filmico in Italia, 1945-1965 (Rome: Bulzoni, 1985), p. 290.


Notes on Contributor

Natalie Fullwood is Tutor in Italian at the University of Leeds. She received a PhD in Italian Studies from the University of Cambridge with a thesis focusing on space and gender in commedia all’italiana. She has published in Italian Studies and Modern Italy and her monograph Cinema, Gender and Everyday Space: Comedy, Italian Style is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan. Her research interests include Italian film and popular culture, film comedy, cinematic space, and representations of gender and sexuality in film.



Aprà, Adriano and Patrizia Pistagnesi. Comedy, Italian Style, 1950-1980. Turin: ERI, 1986.

Baltake, Joe. Jack Lemmon: His Films and Career. London: Columbus, 1986.

Bondanella, Peter. Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present. New York: Continuum, 2001.

Brunovska Karnick, edited by Kristine and Henry Jenkin. Classical Hollywood Comedy. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

Drake,Philip. “Low Blows? Theorizing Performance in Post-classical Comedian Comedy”, in Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader, edited by Frank Krutnik, pp. 187-198. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Fournier Lanzoni, Rémi, Comedy, Italian Style: The Golden Age of Italian Film Comedies. London and New York: Continuum, 2008.

Gili, Jean A. Arrivano i mostri: i volti della commedia all’italiana. Bologna: Capelli, 1980.

Grande,Maurizio. La commedia all’italiana. Rome: Bulzoni, 2003.

Jenkins,Henry, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, New York: Columbia University Press, 1992.

King, Geoff. Film Comedy. London: Wallflower, 2002.

Krutnik, Frank. ‘A Spanner in the Works? Genre, Narrative and the Hollywood Comedian’, in Classical Hollywood Comedy, edited by Kristine Brunovksa Karnick and Henry Jenkins, pp. 17-38. New York and London: Routledge, 1995.

—— (ed.). Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Livi,Grazia. “L’eroe negativo” in Goffredo Fofi, pp. 107-112. Alberto Sordi: L’Italia in bianco e nero. Milan: Mondadori, 2004.

Masoni, Tullio and Paolo Vecchi. “Lo schiaffo al commendatore: la commedia di costume e l’ideologia del boom”, Cineforum 179 (1978), 654-66.

Rhodes, John David, “Divorzio all’italiana / Divorce, Italian Style” in The Cinema of Italy edited by Giorgio Bertellini, pp. 113-121. London: Wallflower, 2004.

Seidman, Steve. Comedian Comedy: A Tradition in Hollywood Film. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981.

——. “Performance, Enunciation and Self-reference in Hollywood Comedian Comedy” in Hollywood Comedians: The Film Reader, edited by Frank Krutnik, pp. 21-41. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.

Spinazzola,Vittorio. Cinema e pubblico: lo spettacolo filmico in Italia, 1945-1965. Rome: Bulzoni, 1985.

Wood, Mary, P. Italian Cinema. Oxford and New York: Berg, 2005.



The Apartment (Billy Wilder, 1960).

Aspirante Vedovo (Massimo Venier, 2013).

Il boom (Vittorio De Sica, 1963).

The China Syndrome (James Bridges, 1979).

Il commissario Pepe (Ettore Scola, 1969).

Crimen (Mario Camerini, 1960).

Days of Wine and Roses (Blake Edwards, 1962).

Divorzio all’italiana (Pietro Germi, 1961).

Fumo di Londra (Alberto Sordi, 1966).

Il giudizio universale (Vittorio De Sica, 1961).

How to murder your wife (Richard Quine, 1965).

Irma la Douce (Billy Wilder, 1963).

It Happened to Jane (Richard Quine, 1959).

Il marito (Nanny Loy and Gianni Puccini, 1958).

Il marito di Roberta (Luigi Filippo D’Amico, 1966).

Il medico della mutua (Luigi Zampa, 1968).

Save The Tiger (John G. Avildsen, 1973).

Scusi, lei è favorevole o contrario? (Alberto Sordi, 1966).

Some Like it Hot (Billy Wilder, 1959).

Under the Yum Yum Tree (David Swift, 1963).

Il vedovo (Dino Risi, 1959).

Il vigile (Luigi Zampa, 1960).

La vita agra (Carlo Lizzani, 1964).

Una vita difficile (Dino Risi, 1961).