The Rose of Baghdad

Giannalberfo Bendazzi’s lecture delivered to the Society for Animation Studies at Farnham – A Producer and His Film: Anton Gino Domeneghini and La Rosa Di Bagdad (The Rose of Baghdad). Précis by Ken Clark.

Giannalberto Bendazzi’s self-appointed mission in life is to draw attention to La Rosa Di Bagdad (1949) which, he claimed, had largely been ignored. In addition to having been the first Italian colour cartoon feature film, it predated the first live-action colour film by three years, and suffered a chequered history before finally reaching the screen.

Giannalberto has great affection and respect for the producer entrepreneur Anton Gino Domeneghini responsible for the production. Former journalist, writer, and advertising agent when the Second World War began, this type of work waned and in a desperate effort to keep his artists and collaborators together he embarked on the production of La Rosa Di Bagdad based on his own original concept.

La Rosa Di Bagdad.

Scriptwriters Ernesto D’Angelo and Lucio De Caro joined Domeneghini and helped him to modify and revise his original idea. He engaged two state designers from the Teatro alla Scala, Nicola Benois (who soon retired) and Mario Zampini; the musician Riccardo Pick Mangiagalli, composer, conductor and director of the Conservatory in Milan, who unfortunately died shortly before the film’s release; the animator Gustavo Petronio (one of the few active in Italy at this time. Gustavo was reputed to have been born in 1889 making him 53 years old while preparing the movie. He was heart diseased and later retired due to ill-health); the executive producer Federico Pedrocchi, script-writer and artist was one of the founders of the Italian comic strip industry, he fought for his country 1941-43; and we should not overlook the humorous designer Angelo Bioletti who was to leave the clearest and most distinctive mark on the film. He created almost all of the characters, taught his colleagues the art of animation and was responsible for a number of them achieving true professional status. La Rosa Di Bagdad was the last cartoon film he ever worked on, however that wasn’t his only claim to fame. Prior to joining the unit he had been an accomplished cartoon and caricaturist. For more than seven years he drew humorous cartoons for the daily newspaper La Stampa.

He became a national celebrity as a result of producing 100 picture cards based on characters from a radio programme ‘The Four Musketeers’, which ran on air from October 1934 – March 1937. His cards were part of a competition run by the sponsors Perugina-Buitoni and were enclosed in chocolate and pasta packages. Collecting the cards reached fever-pitch by deliberately withholding card No. 20. This exercise alone ensured Bioleui great fame and his skill soon attracted Domeneghini who engaged him without hesitation.

There was also the painter, artist, illustrator Libico Maraja whose only film experience was to be La Rosa Di Bagdad but whose work for publishers, illustrating top authors such as Shakespeare, Swift, Dumas, Wilde, Dickens, Carroll, Anderson, etc., made his reputation.

There were of course many others engaged to work on the film; at the time of its maximum size there were 47 animators and assistant animators, 25 inbetweeners, 44 inkers and painters, 5 background artists, plus technicians, workers and administrative assistants.

Bombings over Milan forced them all together with their families to move to the little village of Bornato, near Brescia, where until the end of the war, work continued non-stop in two big villas. The group disbanded after peace had been declared. The producer was arrested by partisans because of his Fascist past but released a few months later having been declared innocent.

Although all the art work had been completed – one task remained. It had to go on the rostrum to be filmed. Two cameramen: Mr. Pelizzari and Mr. Manerba came to Great Britain where they were directed to Anson Dyer’s studio at Stratford Abbey, Stroud, Gloucestershire, which had the necessary Technicolor facilities. The final dubbing was accomplished in Rome in 1949 and the film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in the summer of 1949 to win the Grand Prix in the ‘Films for Youth’ category. Coincidentally, on the same occasion in the ‘Fiction Films’ category Nino & Toni Pagot screened I Fratelli Dinarnite (Dynamite Brothers) and it sparked off a controversy which has never been satisfactorily resolved: Which of the two films could be considered to be the first Italian animated feature in colour?

Although the box-office returns for La Rosa Di Bagdad were considered ‘mediocre’ the actual figures prove that to be partially incorrect. In the 1949/50 season it grossed L123,750,000 (1993 exchange rate = US $1,790,000). The best money spinner of the year (1949/50) had been the well-known Catene (Chains) which attracted L735,000,000 (US $10,632,666) but a good result for a popular film like Gina Lollobrigida and Constance Dowling’ s film Miss Italia earned L94,500,000 (US $1,366,666) or Rene Clair’s The Devil’s Beauty L89,100,000 (US $1,288,660).

Nevertheless, the so-called poor returns gave the film a bad reputation even though some blame was laid on bad distribution by United Artists. The ‘Profit & Loss’ calculation was almost certainly wrong. Loans from friends were obtained on a promise of 100% interest, yet Domeneghini returned 200% when he ‘balanced the books’. True, there were problems with foreign editions but the film was successfully presented in London titled The Singing Princess (dubbed by Julie Andrews) but elsewhere there were problems, dishonesty, and broken promises.

Because the film did not make big profits, Domeneghini abandoned plans to make a religious animated feature entitled Ii Presepe (The Crib) or E’nato Gesu (Jesus Is Born). There followed a few animated commercials and a short film La Passeggiata (The Walk) based on a poem by Gabriele D’Annunzio, but in the main his efforts were directed primarily in advertising.

Towards the end of his life he prepared plans for a combined live action/animated film to be titled L’Isola Felice (Happy Island) but they came to naught.

As far as the history of Italian animated cinema, is concerned, Domeneghini was the right man in the wrong time. The film did not attract the critics attention, indeed, highbrow critics ignored it even though an animated feature film was a rarity. One had to wait until 1965 to see West and Soda by Bruno Bozzetto and by then the situation had completely changed.

Printed in Animator Issue 33 (Summer 1995)