Toto

(1898-1967)
   Actor and writer. Antonio De Curtis, known from his earliest years simply as Toto, was undoubtedly the most popular and prolific comic actor in the history of Italian cinema. As well as performing in innumerable stage shows and theatrical reviews, he appeared in over 100 films and at the time of his death had achieved such popularity as to have become a national legend.
   Born illegitimately in one of the poorer quarters of Naples and baptized under his mother's maiden name of Clemente, he achieved both respectability and nobility when his father, the Marquis Giuseppe De Curtis, finally married his mother in 1921 and, several years later, officially acknowledged paternity. By another quirk of fate, in 1933 he was also legally adopted by the Marquis Francesco Maria Gagliardi Focas, all of which served to invest him with a long series of aristocratic titles that he always displayed with great pride. Ironically, while on the stage or screen he frequently played lower-class characters who were invariably poor and hungry, on the set or in the dressing room he displayed a distinct preference for being addressed as "Principe" ("Highness").
   After serving as a volunteer in the army during World War I, Toto returned to Naples and began performing as an amateur, doing comic sketches and commedia dell'arte in many of the city's smaller theaters. In 1922 he moved to Rome, where, in what would become his trademark stage costume of bowler hat, frock coat, baggy pants, and flat shoes, he made a triumphal acting debut at the prestigious Teatro
   Umberto I. From then on his reputation continued to grow as he appeared with many of the major theatrical companies of the day in prestigious theaters throughout Italy. By 1932 he had formed his own company and achieved a huge popularity touring the country with a variety of vaudeville shows and musical revues. Thus, by the mid-1930s, he had become the most renowned stage comedian in all of Italy when he was recruited to the cinema by veteran film producer Gustavo Lombardo.
   In spite of the reputation he had built up on the stage, however, his first two films, Fermo con le mani (Hands Off Me! 1937) and Animali pazzi (Mad Animals, 1939), failed to impress, both seen by the waiting critics as little more than a stringing together of disparate comic sketches. His third film, San Giovanni decollato (St. John, the Beheaded, 1940), directed by Amleto Palermi from a well-known play by Neapolitan writer and director Nino Martoglio, displayed greater narrative coherence and depth of character and was considerably better received. Nevertheless, it is probably true to say that Toto's film career only really came into its own in the immediate postwar period when the unexpected but overwhelming box office success of Mario Mattoli's I due orfanelli (The Two Orphans, 1947) initiated a frenetic production schedule for the next decade and a half that saw him appear in up to seven films a year, allowing Il comandante (The Commandant), made in 1963, to be billed as the comedian's 100th film.
   It is undeniable that many of these were flimsy farces that, like I due orfanelli itself, utilized a thin narrative thread to hold together what was basically a series of inspired comic sketches, and some were also clearly hastily thrown-together parodies of other films that had achieved their own success, such as Toto le moko (1949), Toto Tarzan (1949), Toto, Peppino e la dolce vita (Toto, Peppino and La dolce vita, 1961), and Che fine ha fatto Toto Baby? (What Ever Happened to Baby Toto? 1964). Yet a number also engaged, albeit always in a comic vein, with some of the most pressing social problems of the day, as with the issue of the shortage of housing that was strongly foregrounded in films such as Toto cerca casa (Toto Looks for an Apartment, 1949) and Arrangiatevi! (You're on Your Own, 1959). But what was present in all the films, especially the ones that featured his name in the title, such as Toto cerca moglie (Toto Looks for a Wife, 1950), Toto a colori (Toto in Color, 1952), Toto all'inferno (Toto in Hell, 1955), Toto, Peppino e la malafemmina (Toto, Peppino, and the Hussy, 1956), was an exceptional comic bravura that united the most extraordinary physical ability to use the body like a marionette with a verbal dexterity and linguistic inventiveness that frequently bordered on performance poetry. Indeed, certain invented phrases from the films entered the language and became common currency.
   Yet in spite of their immense popularity and undeniable box office success, Toto's films continued to be generally dismissed by serious film critics, and the only critical recognition he received for the greater part of his career was the Nastro d'argento for his role in Steno and Mario Monicelli's Guardie e ladri (Cops and Robbers, 1951). Then, only a year before his death, his inspired performance in Pier Paolo Pasolini's Uccellacci e uccellini (Hawks and Sparrows, 1966) was recognized with a special mention at Cannes and a second Nastro d'argento. In 1995, on the occasion of the centenary of the birth of cinema, a postage stamp of Toto was issued to honor his place in Italian popular culture.

Historical dictionary of Italian cinema. . 2010.

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