La rose de Bagdad est l’oeuvre, fait rare, d’un amateur, passé à l’animation par hasard, Anton Gino Domeneghini… Notre homme a écrit, produit et réalisé son film entre 1941 et 1949 ; ce volontaire de la première guerre mondiale, était « un intellectuel vorace, secrétaire personnel du poète et héros de guerre Gabriele d’Annunzio. » Mais, Domeneghini était aussi un homme à paradoxe, puisque « entrepreneur sans scrupules et philanthrope ».
Il crée la première société publicitaire, la IMA, mais lorsque éclate la Seconde Guerre mondiale, l’interdiction de tout travail publicitaire poussa Domeneghini à employer « son équipe d’illustrateurs, dessinateurs et concepteurs-rédacteurs (…) pour improviser un long métrage d’animation. » Le film, achevé en 1946, souffrit d’un problème de pellicule périmée. « Domeneghini envoya [alors]tous les décors, les cellulos et les feuilles d’exposition en Angleterre, où le film fut tourné à nouveau en Technicolor. »
En 1949, le public italien découvre La rose de Bagdad et I fratelli Dinamite à Venise. Les deux films « se partagèrent les lauriers de premier long métrage d’animation italien et de premier long métrage en couleurs du cinéma italien tout court. » Suite à ce tour de prouesse, Domeneghini retourna pourtant à la publicité et ses animateurs à l’illutration ou encore la bande dessinée. Cette première tentative d’animation en couleur resta donc la seule et unique.
Situé dans l’univers des Mille et une nuits, La rose de Bagdad met en scène Amin, un enfant des rues qui a le bon goût de jouer merveilleusement bien de la musique. Il accompagne souvent la belle princesse Zeila à la guitare, pendant que cette dernière enchante le palais de sa voix. Le sinistre Jafar veut faire sienne la princesse. Son magicien, le terrible Burk, crée une bague destinée à rendre la princesse amoureuse de lui. Amin découvre leur complot et dérobe la bague, mais malheureusement pour lui, Burk le capture…
La première grande force de ce long métrage vient de l’exceptionnel travail accompli sur les décors: d’une précision impressionnante, ils donnent un cachet réaliste à la cité du Calife Oman et enchantent le regard. Quant aux personnages, ils se meuvent avec une fluidité et un naturel confondants. A tel point qu’on serait tenté de croire à l’utilisation de la motion capture !
Toutefois, ces prouesses techniques ne sont malheureusement pas au service d’un scénario bien construit. A la différence des films de Walt Disney, La rose de Bagdad semble avoir été écrit à partir de différents canevas scénaristiques, mais sans choisir une direction bien claire. Le métrage met du temps à démarrer et oscille entre romance (mais Amin et Zeila pourraient tout aussi bien être des amis), fantastique (voir le mage Burk et l’apparition inopinée de la lampe d’Aladin sortie de nulle part) et comique (avec les trois ministres du Calife qui occupent beaucoup de temps à l’écran, sans finalement servir à faire avancer l’histoire). On remarque, en corollaire de cette difficulté à circonscrire l’action, l’absence de tentation moralisatrice : le film n’entends pas donner de réelle leçon d’éducation aux enfants, mais plutôt à le divertir. De plus, une certaine cruauté est à l’oeuvre : les tourments de Amin ou encore les pouvoirs de Burk sont particulièrements sombres et encore aujourd’hui, le film choque par moment.
La rose de Bagdad est avant tout un film ludique. Les séquences de chants occupent une place importante dans le métrage et le but est avant tout de faire voyager les enfants dans un monde exotique, mais aussi le faire rire ou l’effrayer. Si aujourd’hui, ce film a tout de même pas mal vieilli, sa restauration n’en reste pas moins un événement : l’occasion pour le public de redécouvrir un film remarquable dans sa technicité et qui a donné le coup d’envoi au cinéma d’animation italien.
The rose of Bagdad: “In a faraway time, in the land of East, in a blossomed Baghdad that had thousands of minarets and thousand gardens lived a happy and laboring people. It was a time of peace, of prosperity, of order.” by Carlo Ugolotti the mad dream of Anton Gino Domeneghini While the second war world was setting the world on fire, the caliph of Baghdad decided to marry his beautiful daughter Zeila; the little Amin was trying to save his beloved when, in the rest of the globe, the Allied armies fought to prevent the Nazi-fascist project of a New Order. In that stage of horror and violence that was Europe from 1939 until 1945, how anachronistic could have been the sweet fairy tale of The rose of Baghdad, produced by IMA film and directed by Anton Gino Domeneghini? The story of the little music teacher in a faraway kingdom had its origin by a dream of the director who, thanks to his tenacity and to his strong belief in the project, was able to work in the storm of war and through the chaos that led Italy from the fascist dictatorship to the birth of the Republic and into the Cold War. Who was Domeneghini? Born in 1897 in Darfo Boario Terme, near Brescia, after being enlisted as voluntary soldier in the Great War and after having joined the occupation of Fiume alongside the poet-soldier D’Annunzio, he was a manager in the ad company IMA (Immagine Metodo Arte), based in Milan. Staunch fascist, he continued his career in advertisement until History put itself once again between him and his work: during the war, Mussolini’s regime forbade the commercial advertising. In order to keep together his creative team, in 1942 Domeneghini decided to transform IMA into IMA Film and started to produce an ambitious project: a feature animated picture inspired by a collection of short stories published in his youth and called Il libro della primavera . He raised money for his work from private entrepreneurs and through his connections with the fascist Ministero della Cultura Popolare. The production started in Milan which was the center of the Italian industry of the animation both concerning cinema and adverting while Rome, especially after the regime took a special interest in this medium , became the capital of liveaction productions. In an essay on animated cinema published in 1957 Walter Alberti explained the geographical split of the movie industry by an anthropological perspective (sic!): “La causa va ricercata nel tipo di tecnica di realizzazione dei disegni che vogliono soprattutto pazienza e costanza, qualità più milanesi che romane.” The talents recruited by the director were the best available: Libico Maraja and Gildo Gusmaroli as production designer, Riccardo Pick Mangiagalli as author of the original score and the creator of the Perugina stickers, Angelo Bioletto, as character designer.
In October 1942 once again, History crossed the path of Domeneghini and his dreams: after the bombings of the Lombard city, the crew moved the technical equipment to two villas in Bornato looking for a much quieter work environment. The war nonetheless kept interfering with the production since the new laboratories were close to a railway station, a military target of the Allied Forces trying to destroy Nazi communication and transport: animators were forced to stop working, seeking cover from the air attacks. While the magic world of The rose of Baghdad was taking shape, through the villa people from both the sides of the war were passing by: leaders of the Repubblica Sociale Italiana and men like Lucio De Caro, wanted by the Germans and hired as editor by Domeneghini. The director himself, at the end of the conflict, was taken by the partisans since he was a fascist, but he was then freed; he was probably saved by his commitment to an animation movie, probably seen as an “apolitical” work5 . In the aftermath of war Domeneghini went to UK at the Stratford Abbey Studios in Stroud to color the film that was finished by 1949 and then premiered at the Mostra del Cinema di Venezia. The following year the movie was released in the Italian market. The rose of Baghdad had a quite good success at the box office and payed the producers back for their investments; the marketing campaign for the movie was remarkable for the time - remember that Domeneghini was an ad man-: school book and candies and a comic series by Guido Zamperoni inspired by the movie6 . The trailer wrongly presented the movie as the first animated feature film made in Europe. What is left today of that mad project of The rose of Baghdad? How can we judge today a production like that, within its historical context? What role it had in the Italian history of cinema? This movie reveals to us as the fascist cinema never became fully a totalitarian cinema, such as Nazi German or Soviet cinema, that made movies just another tool of propaganda: nonetheless Mussolini’s project was to exploit popular culture to create “a new Italian”, national cinema was never just ideological but overall entertainment with undercurrent regime messages . The fantastic dream of Domeneghini, produced during the last fascist age and bearing some traces of its Zeitgeist (one of the Caliph’s wise is a Minister of the Propaganda and the racial stigmas of some characters) was closer to Disney’s fantasies than to regime films such as Scipione l’Africano (1937, directed by Carmine Gallone, ENIC production). Fascist cinema sometimes used animation to celebrate Italian culture and tradition to underline the continuity between Italian past and the new regime8 , but The rose of Baghdad prefers to seek a shelter from the war in the dreamy settings of the One Thousand and One Nights. Concerning the history of cinema this movie represents an ambitious project, yet without any follow-up, that marks at least two milestones in the Italian film production: the first animated feature movie (together with I Fratelli Dinamite by Nino Pagot, premiered at the same Mostra del Cinema with La Rosa di Bagdad) and the first Italian Technicolor movie, even before Mater dei (1950, directed by Emilio Cordero, Incar and Parva Film production) and the better-known Totò a colori (1952, directed by Steno, produced by Dino De Laurentiis and Carlo Ponti). Domeneghini tried to exploit the closure of Italian market to foreign production during the war to create a new tradition of an Italian animated cinematography, so far basically un-existing for industrial and cultural reasons (only short movies were being produced) .Due to the long time of production, La rosa di Bagdad was released out of time when Disney was about to distribute technically innovative film such as Cinderella and Alice in Wonderland and after the Italian animation failed to find its own way in the international markets, even by combining the neo-realist movies and the animated short (L’ultimo sciuscià, 1948, directed by Gibba, produced by Giannetto Beniscielli). Domeneghini tried to create a an alternative to the American monopoly by thinking to a new animated cinema, away from the slapstick gags and with many references to Italian opera. As the scholar Marco Bellano said:“I Fratelli Dinamite e La rosa di Bagdad vanno interpretati come esiti eroici di attività rimaste a livello pionieristico per oltre tre decenni.” Domenighini, after the adventure of The rose, got back to the world of advertising and so did Italian animation reaching its peaks on the TV with Carosello, but the big screen was still controlled by Disney. Only in the mid-sixties Italian animation found its way when the work of a great artist, inspired by the sweet and mad dream by Domenighini, made his appearance on the national movie theater: Bruno Bozzetto.When in 2009 La Rosa di Bagdad came back from the mists of time in a restored edition for its 60th anniversary – the first Italian animated feature film ever edited in blu-ray - it was clear that the salvage of the creation of Anton Gino Domeneghini guaranteed to the enjoyment of movieenthusiasts a work of great historical and artistic importance. The restoration revealed the creative process that made possible the first Italian Technicolor film, courageous endeavour of a group of artists that would inspire the future generations of animators in Italy. The European lesson in the American classics Behind the achievement of the Rose, there are two milestones of the animated films made in USA: Snow White and the seven dwarves (1937) and Gulliver’s Travels (1939).The esthetic of Snow White is based on various pictorial and illustrational influences with deep roots in the Old World. Disney artists were also inspired by a huge body of classic volumes of fairy tales, art and illustration that Walt Disney had collected in bookshops and markets during his European trip in the summer of 1935, throughout England, Germany, France and Italy: thousands of illustrated pages by Doré, Dulac, Rackham, De Brunhoff, Kley and many others arrived to Los Angeles. There are at least 15 Italian titles recorded by the Accounting Department of the Studio in September 1935. Disney’s narration of his Grand Tour inspired, both in contents and visuals, the fantasy of the artists that worked in the American Factory. “Some of these little books that I brought back with me from Europe have very fascinating illustrations of little peoples, bees, and small insects, who live in mushrooms, pumpkins, etc. This quaint atmosphere fascinates me and I was thinking how we could build some little story that would incorporate all of these cute little characters…”: this sentence, written by Disney in a note in December 1935, identifies the visual source of many of his projects in the years to come (a story told by the scholar Didier Ghez in his precious volume Disney’s Grand Tour, 2013, Theme Park Press).
This cultural background shaped the first animated feature film of the factory: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. The main talents in the production were European: of the 10 artists who contributed to the creative research and the layouts stand out the Hungarian Ferdinand Horvath, who was able to draw sophisticated characters and landscapes, and the Swiss Albert Hurter with his sketches with European atmospheres. Hurter himself was the man responsible for the internal style-coherence of the backgrounds of the whole movie. (91/b) When the production started, a new talent joined the crew: the Swedish illustrator, Gustav Tenggren, author of the well-known original poster of Snow White. The over 700 backgrounds of the movie were painted with watercolors by 25 artists. Among them deserves mention Maurice Noble, who will become famous for his work in Warner Bros. short movies, and Sam Armstrong, who in 5 years will become the co-director of Dumbo. The backgrounds were painted with a Winsor & Newton paint brush on a medium-weight Strathmore cardboard: this technique will be used by the studio until the making Dumbo (1941).The palette of Snow White was the result of an aesthetic choice that accurately avoided loud shades: the colors were laid on the backgrounds with a veiling of watercolor. The forests that appear in the background of the film were cold green and lifeless brown. Even the cel of the character (the transparent papers a character is laid upon) were inked by a palette of tonal shades and painted with “blushers” on the cheek of the main character; it is said that the female artists used their own make-up on Snow White. The coordinator of this great chromatic work, Phil Dike, made sure that every order he gave was accomplished exactly as he said, sometimes even asking to re-make things that were already finished. Many scenes were exposed twice or more times and needed the addiction of shadows; the projections of the characters onto the background were done through a sophisticated technique discovered by the Studio, the Shadowgraph. The attention to color was so strong that, at the first release of the movie at the Carthay Circle, two Technicolor versions of the film, with different lightning and brightness, were used: one for the daily screenings, the other for the evening ones. In the following years – starting from 1944- new negatives and positives were made shifting the palette towards more vivid and bright colors and increasing the contrast until the original version was restored in 1993. It’s reasonable to think that the version that Domeneghini saw in the autumn of 1938 in Venice was the original one with warm colors that inspired him for the Rose. There is another important American film that had a big influence on this production. Two years after the release of Snow White, the Fleischer Brothers challenged Disney by making their own Technicolor movie, Gulliver’s Travel, based on the first part of Swift’s masterpiece, the one about the journey to Lilliput. The making this picture was a race both against Disney and time: exploiting the success of Snow White but also anticipating Pinocchio (1940).678 artists were at work to complete 78 minutes of film (about 665,280 drawing in one year and a half). The attention to aesthetic qualities in Gulliver’s Travels was for sure fueled by the success of Snow White. The movie was not a long seller as its predecessor was, but it was a box-office hit in New York and Miami. This film, made in Florida, was the highest peak of the animation school of the East Coast, well-known for comics and cartoons before it tried the path of success in the movie industry. The backgrounds of the movie were done by artists such as Theron Brown, whose brush strokes show the influence of Gustav Tenggren. The Italian rose And then La Rosa di Bagdad came along. The Italian production wanted to match the results of the oversea productions: but the D’Annunzio-loving spirit of Domeneghini raised the bar of the challenge to a new level with a proud search for originality. The Italian director, who met Disney during his European tour, felt a strong drive to outdo the American producer at the level of artistry. Other than three Disney-like sidekicks, a dark villain similar to the witch of Snow White and a snow-skinned hero, The Rose is a triumph of an exoticism based upon One thousand and one night mixed with influences of the American animation. The original creative part of the movie lies in the musical moments where the film seems to celebrate the Italian opera, by displaying a world full of theatrical sets. It is as if Domeneghini, animating the original music of Riccardo Pick Mangiagalli, wanted to state that Italian imagination is able to match the American one and as if he wanted to summarize in one work the various national cultural traditions. Like Disney, the Italian director, overcoming the difficulties of war time, looked for the best talents, aiming to give to the national school its best achievement. The artists hired by the producer were the best possible: our versions of Horvath, Tenggren and Hurter were Libico Maraja, Gildo Gusmaroli e Angelo Bioletto. These men were capable to display, on the big screen, with the highest level of creativity and artistry, the best Italian tradition: The Rose cites directly the colossal setting of Cabiria (1914), adding the exotic mystery typical of the work of our orientalist painters such as Mariani, Simonetti, Biseo, Cecconi and Cambellotti. Summing up, the tradition the Americans “stole” away from Europe was now taken back and originally mixed with different iconographic sources. Compared to the watercolors as used by the Americans, the Italian artists, desiring to achieve the same level of results, enriched the backgrounds with more consistency and physicality. Analyzing the original materials, one can find a more concrete approach, obtained with the use of acrylic and oil. Most of the production materials, survived at the passing of the time, remember us of the magical illusionism of early cinema, precious relics of an important project realized during wartime that created a movie that was able to match the artistical and business bravery of its predecessors. Frames for a museum All the 120 frames of The Rose of Baghdad represent a charming mosaic of Italian art, cinema and illustration: a wonderful synesthesia of the visual arts of that time. The movie was realized following a traditional mode of production: sketches drawn on pape with a pencil to visualize the ideas, the storyboard and then the layouts. These were then put into detailed backgrounds, while the animators and their assistants created up to 24 drawing per second on paper. The results were then inked on the cel, a kind of paper of transparent material with drawing on the backside with rubber varnish that made them resistant to manipulation and ready to be photographed for the final animation. The collecting of animated art has now reached the mature age, involving a growing number of cultured collectors seeking to perform the ultimate magic: to stop a moving image and be able to grasp the original work, the artistic action who made the final result possible. The rediscovery of the original materials of animation was made possible by the care and respect that producers, artists and archivists had for them for over a hundred years. Very often the sketches, the storyboards and the original layouts of scenes and backgrounds, the handmade paintings, the animation on paper and the cels were not considered worthy of preservation and exhibition. Disney started to value the production materials only after the success of Snow White, when the company gave to the Courvoisier Galleries of San Francisco the license to sell a selection of them: that’s the reason why 150 watercolor backgrounds were sold in an auction at the time, fueling a secondary market with items that now are worthy thousands of dollars. The original materials are carefully preserved in the Animation Research Library, where every sketch is collected straight from the hand of the artists. International auction houses are now aware of the real value of the art of animation and make the collection of the rare items possible.