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Yellow Caesar (1941)
 

Courtesy of STUDIOCANAL

Main image of Yellow Caesar (1941)
 
35mm, 24 min, black & white
 
DirectorAlberto Cavalcanti
Production CompanyEaling Studios
In Charge of ProductionMichael Balcon
Production ManagerJohn Croydon
Additional ScenesAdrian Brunel
DialogueAdrian Brunel
Commentary WriterMichael Frank
EditorCharles Crichton

Commentator: Michael Frank

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The life of Benito Mussolini, from his humble origins via his years as a rabble-rousing trade unionist in Switzerland to his ascendancy as Europe's first fascist demagogue.

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Misleadingly billing itself as an 'assessment' of the life and rise to power of the self-styled Il Duce, Yellow Caesar is an unusually direct piece of agit-prop and probably the most striking of the 30-odd propaganda shorts released by Ealing Studios during WWII.

By 1941 Ealing's most significant new recruit, Alberto Cavalcanti, was steering its new shorts unit away from the fictional scenarios the studio had been turning out at the beginning of the war, and introducing a more recognisably documentary approach of the kind he had overseen at the GPO Film Unit. For Yellow Caesar, however, Cavalcanti threw out the documentary rule book, presenting less a conventional biography than a 24-minute celluloid character assassination.

Cavalcanti built his film largely from archive material (much of it from Italian newsreels), supplemented with photographs, illustrations, reconstructions and short comic sketches and topped with an acerbic commentary, in a restless jumble of styles that more than makes up in punch what it occasionally loses in coherence. The Times' review was typical: "not a well constructed film and certainly not a subtle one, but it hits extremely hard in its own hearty way and there is certainly very little of Mussolini left at the end of its 20 minutes."

But the film is more innovative than some contemporary critics recognised. Its creative play with archival footage (film is run backwards, while real Mussolini speeches are read by actors in cod-Italian and undermined by comic music and sound effects) anticipates the kind of satirical games enjoyed by satirists years later in the likes of That Was the Week that Was (BBC, 1963-64). It wasn't entirely alone in this approach, but its release predates by some nine months the more famous Germany Calling (aka Hitler Assumes Command, d. Charles Ridley, 1941) - in which cunningly-edited ranks of Nazis appear to be goose-stepping to 'The Lambeth Walk'.

The initial idea for Yellow Caesar appears to have come from Adrian Brunel, something of a veteran of satirical film (he's credited here for 'dialogue' and 'additional scenes'). The hard-hitting commentary is credited to 'Michael Frank', apparently a shared alias for journalists Michael Foot and Frank Owen, who as two-thirds of the pseudonymous 'Cato' had written the savage anti-appeasement tract 'Guilty Men' (1940). Foot would become better known as a firebrand left-wing MP, who would lead the Labour Party from 1980 to 1983.

Mark Duguid

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Video Clips
1. Where's Musso? (1:48)
2. The song of the machine gun (3:10)
3. Viva Il Duce (2:35)
GALLERY / SCRIPTS / AUDIO
SEE ALSO
Hell Unltd (1936)
Topical Budget 688-2: Fascists Triumph (1924)
Topical Budget 845-1: Deeds - Not Words (1927)
That Was the Week That Was (1962-63)
Brunel, Adrian (1892-1958)
Cavalcanti, Alberto (1897-1982)
Crichton, Charles (1910-1999)
Ealing Studios (1938-59)
Ealing Propaganda Shorts
 
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