Commentary: How Hollywood Can Beat the Dictators

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In the mid-1930s, Vittorio Mussolini, the second son of Benito Mussolini — aka Il Duce, aka Italy’s fascist dictator, aka the buffoonish megalomaniac who’d held his country in thrall since 1922 — became enamored of the film business, just like the spawn of so many other strongmen, past and present.

Leaving behind his career as a pilot who’d fought in Italy’s Ethiopian campaign (war was “the most beautiful and complete of all sports,” he maintained), he began to dabble as a critic, then tried his hand as an assistant director before overseeing the opening of Rome’s great Cinecitta studio. Suddenly he was hot. He had access to money and movie stars, and Hollywood came calling.

A fan of Laurel and Hardy, Mussolini quickly befriended the comedians’ mentor, Hal Roach, who signed a coproduction deal with the Italian princeling and invited him to America, where Roach told reporters: “He’s going into the picture business and I’m going in with him.”

On a warm Los Angeles evening in September 1937, according to Thomas Doherty’s deeply researched Hollywood and Hitler, 1933-1939, the Roaches toasted Vittorio at their home, celebrating his 21st birthday and their own 21st wedding anniversary as a Hawaiian orchestra serenaded them, while Mussolini Junior schmoozed with the likes of Cary Grant, Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy and Fred Astaire.

It was only later, when word spread and an incensed press, along with Hollywood’s burgeoning anti-Nazi group, took aim at the party-goers, that the production pact came to an end. Roach went “incommunicado at his home,” reported Variety, “nursing Public Headache No. 1,” while young Mussolini made a beeline for the nearest airport, flying out of L.A. under the pseudonym W.J. Willis.

See more at THR.

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