Argentina Brunetti

Actress cast in mother roles

Monday 02 January 2006 01:00

Argentina Ferrau, actress: born Buenos Aires 31 August 1907; married Miro Brunetti (died 1967; one son); died Rome 20 December 2005.

The character actress Argentina Brunetti appeared in over 150 films and television shows, but is probably best known for her role in the perennial favourite Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), in which she plays the Italian immigrant Mrs Martini. With the help of the Building and Loan Company run by George Bailey (James Stewart), the Martinis and their children are able to move out of the slums run by the mean banker Potter (Lionel Barrymore) and buy a home of their own.

Brunetti was often cast in mother roles - such as Ma Romano, mother of a young delinquent (John Derek) in Nicholas Ray's powerful drama Knock on Any Door, and the mother of the gangster and actor George Raft (Ray Danton) in The George Raft Story. In The Caddy, the Martin and Lewis comedy, she was the mother of Dean Martin, who sang the film's hit song, "That's Amore", in her dining room, waltzing her around as he sang.

She was born in Buenos Aires in 1907, the daughter of Mimi Aguglia, an actress who eloped from Sicily aged 18 with Vincenzo Ferrau, who became her producer. Argentina made her stage début at the age of three with a walk-on part in a production of Cavalleria Rusticana. She had an active career as a supporting player in Europe and South America before going to the United States in 1937, where she was given a contract by MGM to dub the voices of such stars as Norma Shearer and Jeanette MacDonald for the Italian prints of their films.

She made her screen début with a fleeting part as a casino customer in Gilda (1946), a classic film noir, but later the same year she was given her first speaking role in It's a Wonderful Life. Subsequent parts included that of chaperone to Barbara Stanwyck in John Farrow's epic western California (1946) and mother roles in John Huston's We Were Strangers (1949) and Jean Yarborough's Holiday in Havana (1949). She was the wife of Cochise (Jeff Chandler) in Delmer Daves's liberal western Broken Arrow (1950), an appreciative neighbour of the titular tenor in The Great Caruso (1951) and a dressmaker in The Tall Men (1955) with Clark Gable and Jane Russell. In the 1956 version of the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes, she was Zizi Jeanmaire's French maid, advising Bing Crosby on how best to court her employer.

From the mid-Fifties, she concentrated more on television, in which field she was remarkably prolific, her work ranging from soap operas to dramatic series including Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Wagon Train, The Untouchables, Quincy, Rawhide and Kojak. Her final film was The 4th Tenor (2002), a comedy starring Rodney Dangerfield.

Brunetti was also a writer, and the co-founder of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association - her late husband, Miro, was a foreign correspondent in Hollywood. During the Forties, she interviewed film stars for weekly Voice of America broadcasts in Italy. Later, she wrote a weekly column for Italian-language journals in Canada and Italy, and in October 2005 her biographical novel In Sicilian Company, based on her family's show-business history, was published. She arranged that any future proceeds from the book, or any film made from it, should go to the Argentina Brunetti Foundation, to help needy children throughout the world.

At the age of 98, she was still hosting a weekly weblog, "Argentina Brunetti's Hollywood Stories". Last year she moved to Rome to live with her son, Mario, who will carry on her website.

Tom Vallance

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments