The Mystery of the Missing Cartoon
by Mario Verger
(Hello Jeep! – 1944 – the first cartoon by Federico Fellini & Kremos. In the picture (l-r): Fellini, Gibba and Ramponi, Zerboni, Coarelli, Panei)
The missing short by the young “Marc’Aurelio” cartoonist, Federico Fellini, Hello Jeep! (1), dates from 1944. Initially the artistic director was Luigi Giobbe who was replaced by the very young Niso Ramponi, at the time known as Kremos, who directed most of the animations. This cartoon has become a sort of chimera for all enthusiasts of the genre, and more specifically of Fellini, who made it before his name became famous throughout the world.
I will present previously unpublished information that I have been able to garner from hints dropped by Fellini, Niso Ramponi and Gibba which reveals how the first and only legendary animated film by Federico Fellini was made.
In 1944, in a Rome that had just been liberated by the V army troops, Fellini opened a caricature shop for American soldiers who could send their pictures home. It was called “The Funny Face Shop”, in via Nazionale near the Banca d’Italia, and it was simply an area inside a shoe shop: but it was an immediate success and considerably profitable. Fellini called on his caricaturists friends such as De Seta, Verdini, Camerini, Scarpelli, Majorana, Guasta, Attalo, Giobbe, Kremos, Migneco, Geleng, who were joined by Gibba, Panei, Coarelli and Zerboni.
Fellini created the “scenes”, whilst Kremos drew them: Roman scenes with the Coliseum, the Trevi Fountain etc. on which a carriage or a girl accompanying an American soldier were painted. The soldier’s face consisted of an empty oval space. The Americans would arrive in the shop, choose a scene and then pose for Fellini to add the soldier’s caricatured features to complete the scene. “…Who knows how many unwitting Americans, had their caricature drawn by the young Fellini on those scenes drawn by Ramponi”, commented an amused Zerboni.
One day Roberto Rossellini went to the shop to ask Fellini to convince Aldo Fabrizi to act in Roma città aperta and, after this successful meeting, Rossellini signed him a contract to collaborate on the film’s script. But the inventiveness of the young cartoonist didn’t end there and as in tribute to the long awaited liberation he proposed a short humorist cartoon in a patriotic and post-war vein, to be added to the real Roma città aperta. The film’s backers agreed and a large room of the enormous Nettunia Film offices was equipped with tables and benches.
Fellini, by working contemporaneously at the shop and on the script and layout for the cartoon, could count on the technical support of his valuable friends from the Funny Face Shop, Giobbe and Kremos, who had just finished working at Macco Film and Incom, just round the corner from via Nazionale and who could in turn call on some animators from these production companies.
Alvaro Zerboni, who subsequently directed publications such as “Playboy” and at the time was a young animator on Hello Jeep!(2) has tried to some shed some light on events that took place over sixty years ago:
«Nettunia Film had their offices in via Francesco Crispi, above a bar-biliards known as the Mocaino(3). Hello Jeep! was being made in one of the rooms, perhaps the largest. Fellini had written a notepad with some sketches about a jeep that came out of the factory and faced a stukas in the war. The “cartoon” was then modified as the graphic production proceeded».
(Original Sketch for Hello Jeep!)
About the production:
«We worked on it for at least three months. I remember a sort of competition amongst us to see who would draw the fish (obviously Niso, who was much better than everyone else, won) that the jeep would meet in crossing a river […] I remember that the soundtrack consisted of battle sounds and background music. As I mentioned already we all became convinced that that music was unlucky. I think that this was also one of the reasons why Fellini avoided talking about this period. Even with me, later on after many years, after we re-established our relationship and friendship».
Zerboni remembered the following about Luigi Giobbe:
«Giobbe shot himself after a love story went wrong. The bullet remained lodged in his heart, without affecting the functioning of this vital organ. Ramponi, Coarelli, Panei and I went to see him at the hospital a few days later. He had recovered and we joked about what had happened. He continued to collaborate on the film but less actively, even though it was Niso who continued to direct the production» (4).
(Niso Ramponi aka Kremos)
Niso Ramponi, one of the veterans of Italian animation and not even eighteen at the time, collaborated on the Travaso covers and various animation films of the war period. In total silence for many years, he was very kind in inviting me to his house one evening to recall the memories of that “distant 1944”. He lived in via dell’Acquedotto Paolo, a little road next to the Gemelli general hospital. Niso had a classical artistic background, having frequented the via Ripetta artistic high school in Rome, where he studied with Walter Lazzaro, the “painter of silence”.
Kremos was tall good-natured man with nice tapering hands and I noticed that even though he was right handed he held his cigarette on the left. Whilst talking about Hallo Jeep!, I noticed that he had Fellinian features and charisma. The curious thing was that his wife, an elegant and refined woman with a friendly manner, also looked a lot like Giulietta Masina. He asked me whether I’d like some whisky and he showed me some original plates that he still had of the film. He wanted to explain that “the name Kremos comes from the fact that when I was in the army, I couldn’t accept any work in my name and so a friend of mine called Cremo accepted it for me. As I started becoming rather successful with that pseudonym, I decided to adopt it by adding the “s” and turning it into Kremos”. ».
(Original sketch for Hello Jeep!)
I have some notes that Gibba wrote at the time:
«Achille Panei tries with cartoons once again; along with Federico Fellini, the “Marc’Aurelio” cartoonist, who is trying to finish a short called Hallo Jeep! […] Nettunia Film, the film’s producers, has a small studio close to the Tritone. Panei, hinting light-heartedly at Fellini, who is sitting next to him, observing him whilst he is animating the jeep, says: “This guy is a pain in the neck who wants to stick his nose into everything; even now!”. Fellini, very thin and with a head full of hair, looks at me, smiles and then with a strong Emiliano accent, and a croaking and mocking voice, replies: “Achille, I don’t know how to draw, that’s why I’m a pain in the neck: I want to learn what you know…”. Whilst Fellini continues pleading that he would love to animate drawings and that this has always been his dream, Panei shrugs and grumbles; then he asks me: “Gi’, why don’t you come and draw with us?”. “I would if someone would guarantee me a minimum amount of continuity in the work”».
(Original sketch for Hello Jeep!)
Gibba’s “continuity” was assured for a short amount of time, seeing as he preferred to return to Alassio to start the Alfa Circus. He returned to Rome at the end of the production for a few finishing touches, whilst Fellini, Kremos, Panei and the others continued working for only a few more months, until Nettunia went bankrupt due to the usual lack of cash flow. Kremos explained:
«Giobbe had started the film; then he shot himself or they shot him, it’s not clear. He went to hospital and Fellini continued with the script, before going to Cinecittà, he would leave us pieces of the script and we continued like this…with bits and pieces. Until the Nettunia Film backer, Countess Politi (5), sold the unfinished Roma città aperta, to a man in the American armed forces (6), leaving the cartoon suspended».
(Original sketch for Hello Jeep!)
Kremos continued telling me, with his colourful Roman accent, that «Fellini didn’t do the drawings, he had simply made some simple vignettes that should have been the storyboard; but they were just outlines, sketches… The film’s plot was essentially a series of gags about the fight between the stukas and the jeep, but there were no other human characters or anything else. We shot the celluloid at the Defence and Air Force Ministry, no less, where there was a stop motion filming section. And so we shot there… on the sly», added Kremos laughing. A typically Italian working method.
«In the end», he continued reminiscing, «I also made the sceneries, that is the backdrops, because we had to finish as soon as possible, as they knew that the money was about to run out! Whoever bought the rights got a great deal, because it was devised to go with Rossellini’s film, whilst the American only bought the feature film. I think that he bought the cartoon for 12 million lire at the time. And whilst in Roma città aperta there were the usual things to finish, and it was finished by the new producer, Hallo Jeep! (7) was shut down».
Between glasses I continued plying Kremos with questions and he continued his story.
«The film was about ten minutes long, in colour and on flammable tri-acetate celluloid; even that was war waste as at the time the cels were difficult to find. We found a deal on these old celluloid and some had been used already. The story was slightly “mangled” because it wasn’t even funny; it consisted mainly in a series of gags about the fight between the jeep, a girl, and the Herrmann tank, a boy with a trunk that was the cannon turned into a nose, as the goodies. The stukas was the enemy but there wasn’t a precise plot; there was no, I don’t know, music. In fact we worked in the “dark”, as we usually do in Italy, without a music track. This, unfortunately, is an Italian habit…».
Kremos at the end of this unforgettable evening, after various glasses of whisky and many cigarettes, wanted to give me the only existing plates of Hallo Jeep!, on which he wrote: «Hallo Jeep! to Mario Verger, the new Italian Disney. Niso». The meeting with Maestro Niso Ramponi was in October 1997. In 2000, following the death of his wife, Niso was taken to Bozzolo, near Mantova, to live with his daughter Anna Maria, where he lived for a few years until the world of animation lost the great and extraordinary Kremos (8).
(Autographed sketch from Hello Jeep!)
But what was the “working” environment at Nettunia film, captained by the extravagant “Countess”, like? Zerboni remembers that there was a telephone at Nettunia and, when Masina gave birth, he called Fellini to tell him. “Is he ugly? Is he ugly?”, asked a happy Federico. The other memories that we have were told by Niso to Alberto Rosa, Gibba’s pupil as well as Ramponi’s assistant, who taught at the Istituto Roberto Rossellini for twenty years at the Vasca Navale under the Besesti.
(Niso Ramponi and Alberto Rosa)
«The funniest memory is tied to an episode immediately after the war, shortly after the Americans had entered Rome. When he told me the story, flavoured with his Roman accent, he would still cry with laughter as would I of course!
Niso was part of a group of people amongst of which there was Roberto Rossellini too, who was soon to shoot Roma città aperta, and Federico Fellini, who at the time made ends meet by drawing caricatures of American soldiers armed with a table and a pair of stools something akin to what happens today with the tourists in piazza Navona.
Niso told me that this group of future cinema Maestri all gravitated around an old countess who for the times and in spite of her age, in a still ferociously male chauvinist period and in an atmosphere of general misery, was an exceptionally entrepreneurial woman, and not only entrepreneurial…
She knew everybody from the world of politics to the nobility, from the industrialists to the Roman Curia, she was a manager ahead of her time who was extremely determined in wanting to produce films.
I don’t remember the name of this countess, who had rented an apartment in one of those roads behind the “Messaggero”, between via Rasella and via degli Avignonesi, (well known brothels could also be found there!) where she had set up a production company which, despite the shortage of financial and technical means, was to produce films.
From the descriptions that Niso made it all sounded like some of those cartoons by Attalo that then inspired some of the Roman scenes in Fellini’s films.
In order to give the impression of great activity a stage telephone had been placed in the office. As it wasn’t connected – it would cost too much! – it was used to stage telephone calls with unspecified – rigorously American – producers whenever anyone knocked at the door.
Life must have been rather strange inside this apartment… the countess was the central hub around which characters, that at time seemed highly plausible but that seen from today’s view point seem incredible, bustled. The first was a mysterious character – perhaps a defector from some ex-Salò Republic brigade – that acted as butler/chef/driver and who was granted a room for himself and all his family in exchange of his services.
Due to the shortages he still walked around with the trousers and boots of the Italian Social Republic, his only pair of shoes, probably saved from his escape from the north.
The rest of his family was relegated to the room which contained everything: from the cooking stove to the rope hung from the walls to dry the laundry, the bed and God knows what else.
When this ex-soldiers cooked – what delicacies, roared Niso – the smell would permeate throughout the offices of the picaresque production company.
Then there was the – extremely important – country lad, Achille (9), a quite attractive character according to the preferences of the period and of a handsome constitution. At least 35 years younger than the countess he had been hired (“for free” as Niso told me), with the grandiose promise of acting, in an improbable future, “in some films”.
Whilst he waited for this bright future he, for the time being, fulfilled other duties, that were strictly prohibited to the countess’ daughter who – in Niso’s story – was about the same age as the lad.
In the meantime this young man was presented to bystanders as the “personal secretary” of the lively countess.
Niso told me that often the countess would stay behind after office hours for unavoidable “work commitments” – and here Niso would wink at me – and so she had prepared a room-office for herself where she could rest whenever she felt the need.
According to Niso it seems that she often felt the need… and also to ensure that no other errand would be offered to her secretary by other, perhaps younger, production companies.
Everybody knew what was going on but seeing as they weren’t born yesterday and that their possible future work depended on her they all acted accordingly.
(Original sketch for Hello Jeep!)
But Achille also stood out for his strange behaviour: he was ferociously jealous not so much of the countess, but of an old suitcase from which he never parted, wherever he went.
This had raised everybody’s curiosity because nobody knew what was inside it and whenever it was moved it “made a strange noise”, so Niso told me.
Everybody asked themselves what could be in that suitcase and bets were placed as to the contents: someone said that they were important papers, others coins or perhaps jewels, given the noise, others didn’t know what to think but seeing as they were all honest and given Achille’s strange behaviour, they all wanted to know! Until one day Achille forgot his suitcase and they managed to open it.
With great surprise the contents turned out to be two sacks of broad beans and dried peas preserved with great care: probably a bit of food brought along from the home village! This gives you an idea of the hunger that there was in that post war and black market period.
The suitcase was carefully closed and the young man never knew that his secret was out.
The countess was extremely jealous of her personal secretary and wanted him always at her side especially as a young woman had recently arrived at the apartment. She worked as a typist and she too was hired with the promise of one day being an actress (remember that this was the immediate post war period, with films such as Roma ore 11…), and she made eyes at the beautiful Armando too.
One day the countess announced that she was going to Milan to visit some industrial and aristocratic acquaintances to look for some backing in order to produce what was to become Rossellini’s masterpiece or some other film; as soon as the dynamic countess arrived at the Milan station she slipped on an icy pavement and broke her leg!
So she couldn’t meet the backers and as soon as she could she returned to Rome with her leg in plaster and – against her daughter’s wishes who wanted her at home to look after her – she set herself up in her room at the office, saying that she couldn’t possibly neglect her work and she could only get everything done there.
And so she could keep an eye on Achille.
The ex Italian Social Republic chef was kept very busy in preparing the bedroom and in cooking for the countess; and also the handsome Achille, who officially slept in a small room in the apartment could no lounger shirk his duties as secretary and practically spent the whole day in the countess’ room-headquarters.
The countess was extremely happy with the situation, Achille much less so… Except that, during an afternoon rest, the woman woke up and finding that Achille was missing, called him alarmed with the classic excuse of the glass of water. But as he answered from his room that he would soon arrive and worried by the muffled sounds that she could hear, she repeated her request, whilst the secretary’s bewildered voice implored her to wait and that he would soon… come: “Wait! Don’t move! Just a moment and I’ll be there!”.
Suspicious and jealous, with a surge of energy, she decided to go and check for herself. She managed to get up with her leg in plaster and for lack of a better support used the chair that was beside the bed to rest her leg on whilst pushing it forward and calling “Achille! where are you?! Achille!”; she noisily inched her way across the corridor as the poor Achille was trying to finish his extras with the secretary… but just as the chair was about two metres from the door the unexpected occurred: an out of place tile caused the chair, and the countess, to fall!
There was a great scream: the countess had broken her other leg!» (10).»
(Gibba and Niso Ramponi)
But let’s get back to our film. It therefore seems that Hello Jeep! was not finished, even if my masters Gibba and Kremos – and now Zerboni too – assure me that there was – and this is certain – at least sixty metres of 35 mm film that was shot by Grassetti, which had been often viewed by the Nettunia crew. These first shots show the beginning of the film when the jeep comes out of the factory and the stukas that it fought against appears in the sky.
Years ago Marco Giusti, one of the two authors of Blob, revealed to me that Tatti Sanguineti should have an interview in which Fellini talked (for about half an hour) about Hello Jeep!; an interview that is still lost today.
(Original sketch for Hello Jeep!)
(Original sketch for Hello Jeep!)
And now we can use the word “finis” – paraphrasing another performance by Aldo Fabrizi prior to Roma città aperta – about Hallo Jeep!. Gibba, in his loft in Alassio, has found amongst old papers, a letter and a telegram both from 1945. They seem to remove any doubts:
«Dear Gibba […] after you left Incom went bankrupt (after 8 September) and we found ourselves in terrible waters, so we had to look for work and escape the German roundups […] in the meantime I met a mutual friend, Attanasi (11), and we starter making toys […] we set up a large factory and business went well; but then, for reasons I’ll explain to you, the factory went bankrupt whilst Toni continued to make toys […] I went to Giobbe (that you may know) and along with Ramponi, Panei and the unfailing Ceccotti we made a cartoon called Hallo Jeep!: terrible story but we animated fairly well, I think it is the only successful cartoon, but it wasn’t finished with polishing and colouring because the backers didn’t want to give us any more money (as usual after all); so Ramponi and I started working in the papers, for the “L’ometto Pic” and “Giramondo” where we still work […]. Achille sends his regards and will write as soon as he can. Signed Franco Coarelli».
«Roma, 18/3/1945 — Dear Gibba, at Nettunia they need your work. It is an addition to the film Hallo Jeep, that you know already. You should prepare a number of backdrops that will be paid separately (about 800 lire each)…
P.S.: the addition to the film Hallo Jeep! would consist of about a month’s work… Signed Achille Panei».
And Gibba, with regard to the many mysteries, the whispered words, the denials and the half truths and the contradictions spoken by those that “don’t remember” and those “that don’t want to remember” only to maintain for themselves simply…a nice childhood dream between some friends, one of which became famous throughout the world, accompanied the two valuable letters by concluding: «…Rooting around I’ve found these two basic memories. Now it’s up to you to draw your conclusions about the ‘unfinished’ film. Ciao, Gibba».
And you, dear readers, what conclusions do you draw?
The Hallo Jeep! crew consisted of: director and story: Federico Fellini; idea of: Federico Fellini, Achille Panei; artistic director: Luigi Giobbe; animators: Niso Ramponi, Achille Panei, Franco (?) Coarelli, Alvaro Zerboni and the assistant animator Ferrara; breakdown men: Vittorio Scotti and Gigi Biscardi (both ex Macco Film), Bice (?) a.k.a. Bicetta (Achille Panei’s ex-girlfriend at the Hallo Jeep! period), Ida Ceccotti (ex Incom); inking: Aldo De Sanctis (head of polishes and colours department at Macco Film); colouring: Giovanna Lombardo, Xenia Ceccotti (sister of Ida), De Angelis; scenery: Niso Ramponi; camera operator: Eugenio Fontana with the assistant camera operator Orlando Grassetti.
Initially the film was called Hello Jeep!, and not Hallo Jeep!, as it was then named; see also Piero Zanotto, Fiorello Zangrando, L’Italia di cartone, Liviana Editrice, Padova, 1973, p. 110.
Mocaino, bar-biliards in via F. Crispi 19, now the restaurant Giulio all’Osteria del Crispi.
Letter by Alvaro Zerboni to Mario Verger dated 25 April 2006.
Countess Chiara Politi, the morganatic wife of Egypt’s King Fuad.
The American in question was Rod Geiger.
Started in the autumn of 1944 and concluded in the spring of 1945.
Niso Ramponi, Roma 6 January 1924 – Bozzolo (Mantova) 14 March 2002.
Knowing quarters said that the subject was Achille Panei.10 Letter by Alberto Rosa to Mario Verger dated 23 April 2006.
Letter by Alberto Rosa to Mario Verger dated 23 April 2006.
He is referring to Antonio Attanasi, another pioneer of Italian cartoons.
See: Mario Verger: Il mistero del cartone scomparso: la vera storia di Hallo Jeep!/Hallo Jeep! The Mystery of the Missing Cartoon, on «Fellini-Amarcord». Rivista di studi felliniani, n.3-4, December 2005, pp. 12-24 – See also Mario Verger: Sulle tracce di “Hallo Jeep!” un cartoon di Fellini e Kremos, Mario Verger interviews Niso Ramponi, on “ASIFAItalia Notizie”, n. 150, May 2001, pages 7-8
Giuseppe Ricci / Federico Fellini Foundation
Maria Grazia and Bill Maio