No place on Earth had more regard for the power of celebrity than Hollywood in the 1920s. As Fascist strongman Benito Mussolini wrested control of Italy, his name frequently popped up in entertainment columns alongside Chaplin and Fairbanks.
Il Duce, as he insisted on being called, stood at the apex of Western popular culture for a time. He was considered as dynamic as Valentino himself, and any American movie star who planned a trip to Europe knew it wouldn’t be complete without a stop in Rome for a chat with the controversial leader.
Among Mussolini’s admirers were the reigning royals of Picfair, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. A news photographer snapped the couple in 1926 on the sands at Malibu, lightheartedly teaching their friends the proper way to do the “Fascisti salute.”
Fairbanks and Pickford are on the right. That’s Doug Junior in the center, ready to throw his hat in the ring. The short girl in the sporty white outfit is New Jersey’s Betty Bronson, hand-picked by author J.M. Barrie to play the lead in the movie version of his “Peter Pan.”
Mussolini, his magnetism and his deadly struggle with power all play into the action of my new novel, “Cast Aside: With Bushman at the Unmaking of ‘Ben-Hur’ in Italy.” It is the only full-length account of MGM’s first run at what would be the most expensive production of the entire silent film era. … Come back to a time when Fascism was truly in fashion.