Telefoni Bianchi (pronounced [teˈlɛːfoni ˈbjaŋki]; white telephones) films, also called deco films, were made by the Italian film industry in the 1930s and the 1940s in imitation of American comedies of the time in a sharp contrast to the other important style of the era, calligrafismo, which was highly artistic. The cinema of Telefoni Bianchi was born from the success of the Italian film comedy of the early 1930s; it was a lighter version, cleansed of any intellectualism or veiled social criticism.
The name derives from the presence of white telephones in the sequences of the first films produced in this period, symptomatic of social well-being, a status symbol capable of marking the difference from the "popular" bakelite telephones, cheaper and therefore more widespread, which instead were black. Another definition given to these films is "deco cinema" due to the strong presence of furnishing objects that recall the international deco style, in vogue in those years.
The roots of the Telefoni Bianchi film genre can be found in Mario Camerini's cinema of the 1920s, in particular in Rails (1929), in which the director photographed — with reverberations of German expressionist cinema or citing the contemporary Soviet cinematographic avant-gardes — the reality of the crisis years, in real time. The cinema of Telefoni Bianchi was then born from the success of the Italian film comedy of the early 1930s; it was a lighter version, cleansed of any intellectualism or veiled social criticism. The first film of the genre Telefoni Bianchi was The Private Secretary (1931) by Goffredo Alessandrini.
In the 1930s and the 1940s, light comedies like those of Telefoni Bianchi were predominant in Italian cinema. These films featured lavish set designs and promoted conservative values and respect for authority, typically avoiding the scrutiny of government censors. Telefoni Bianchi proved to be the testing ground of numerous screenwriters destined to impose themselves in the following decades (including Cesare Zavattini and Sergio Amidei), and above all of numerous set designers such as Guido Fiorini, Gino Carlo Sensani and Antonio Valente, who, by virtue of successful graphic inventions led these productions to become a kind of "summa" of the petite bourgeoisie aesthetics of the time.
Among the authors, Mario Camerini is the most representative director of the genre. After having practiced the most diverse trends in the 1930s, he happily moved into the territory of sentimental comedy with What Scoundrels Men Are! (1932), Il signor Max (1937) and Department Store (1939). In other films he compares himself with the Hollywood-style comedy on the model of Frank Capra (Heartbeat, 1939) and the surreal one of René Clair (I'll Give a Million, 1936). Camerini is interested in the figure of the typical and popular Italian, so much so that he anticipates some elements of the future Italian comedy. His major interpreter, Vittorio De Sica, will continue his lesson in Maddalena, Zero for Conduct (1940) and Teresa Venerdì (1941), emphasizing above all the direction of the actors and the care for the settings.
Other directors include Mario Mattoli (Schoolgirl Diary, 1941), Jean de Limur (Apparition, 1944) and Max Neufeld (The House of Shame, 1938; A Thousand Lire a Month, 1939). The realist comedies of Mario Bonnard (Before the Postman, 1942; The Peddler and the Lady, 1943) are partially different in character, which partially deviate from the imprint of Telefoni Bianchi. Soon the subjects began to become repetitive and more and more predictable and banal; later, with the worsening of World War II, the production of this genre became more and more sparse and discontinuous until it disappeared completely with the fall of the Fascist regime (1943).
The most important symbol in these films are the quite expensive Art Deco sets featuring white telephones, a status symbol of bourgeois wealth generally unavailable to the movie-going public, and children wearing Shirley Temple curls. The films tended to be socially conservative, promoting family values, respect for authority, a rigid class hierarchy and country life. The genre is also referred by modern film critics as "Hungarian style comedies", because the scripts were often adaptations of stage plays written by Hungarian authors (a popular source material also for Hollywood productions of the time).
The functionalism of the Bauhaus also arrived in Italy and, as can be seen in these films, there was a reflection of an Italy that was "rebuilding" its own modern and efficient image and in which the consumerism was timidly beginning to spread. It was represented by the rationalist architectural style and the industrial ferment that the fascist regime was promoting; in these light films there was a fascination that glimpsed hope in the future.
The bourgeois setting aesthetically echoed American film comedies, especially Frank Capra. The hopes of the petty-bourgeois could only become reality. Films like A Thousand Lire a Month, as well as the song of the same name, went down in history for their explicit lightheartedness and equally irreverent evocation. The melodic element often returned to peep out, many of these films contained at least one hit song (just think Parlami d'amore Mariù composed for the film What Scoundrels Men Are! which later became much more famous than the film itself).
However, this representation of well-being and progress was far from the Italian reality of the time; the representation of a wealthy (in some cases even opulent), advanced, emancipated and educated society was enormously contrasting with the real situation of Italy, which, at that time, was instead a substantially poor country, materially and morally backward and with the majority of the illiterate population. As well as the enthusiastic, cheerful and carefree atmosphere of these films, it seemed to clash with the gloomy situation of the nation, subjugated by the fascist dictatorship and which would soon enter World War II.
Among the most relevant directors for this genre are: Mario Camerini, Alessandro Blasetti, Mario Bonnard, Mario Mattoli, Carlo Ludovico Bragaglia, Max Neufeld and Gennaro Righelli. Among the most representative actors and actresses: Caterina Boratto, Assia Noris, Cesco Baseggio, Elsa Merlini, Rossano Brazzi, Clara Calamai, Lilia Silvi, Vera Carmi, Gino Cervi, Valentina Cortese, Vittorio De Sica, Doris Duranti, Luisa Ferida, Fosco Giachetti, Amedeo Nazzari, Alida Valli, Carlo Campanini and Checco Rissone.
To avoid the limitations imposed by the censorship of the authorities, with potentially controversial topics in the plot (for instance divorce, at the time illegal in Italy, or adultery, a punishable offence by the contemporary Italian laws), the action was often set in various foreign – sometimes imaginary – Eastern European countries, but always with Italian protagonists.
The Neorealist filmmakers saw their gritty films as a reaction to the idealized and mainstream quality of the Telefoni Bianchi style. They compared and contrasted the high-and-almighty gimmicks of set and studio production, with the dishevelled beauty of everyday life, the rigorous depiction of human life and its sufferings, and chose instead to work on location and with non-professional actors.
In Federico Fellini's film Amarcord (1973), the popular film movement is satirized in Gradisca's sex dream with the Prince. The era of Telefoni Bianchi films is remembered in the 1976 film The Career of a Chambermaid, directed by Dino Risi.