Updated, 8/29/21 with an earlier sighting
I’m a big fan of old movies — film noir, musicals, the epics of the 1950s and 60s. I recently watched The Band Wagon, a 1953 musical directed by Vincente Minnelli1, one of the last huge and lavish MGM musicals. In a scene that follows the out of town premiere of the “show within a show” that stars Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) and Gabrielle Gerard (Cyd Charisse), the cast and crew are having a party to reduce their sorrow after the out-of-town premiere did not go well. Soon after Hunter arrives, one of the cast members offers him “some pizza pie.”2
That “Want some pizza pie?” line made me wonder: in which Hollywood movie was pizza first mentioned? Could The Band Wagon be the first one?
It is not an easy question to answer. My web searches result in recent books on pizza in the movies; searching Google Books is not practical; I don’t know of searchable screenplay databases that cover the pre-1953 era; a search of the JSTOR database of academic papers came up empty. (Of course, the answer might have been a page or two away on any of these sites.)
“When was pizza first mentioned?” might be a question that cannot be definitively answered. Many of the films from the era are not on DVD or in streaming libraries, but instead sit in vaults somewhere, or are lost entirely. And this is not a question that scholars are rushing to answer.
My personal experience is not much help, because although I watch a relatively large number of movies from the 1940s and 1950s, the majority are film noir, which aren’t the kind of movies where people sit around eating pizzas. In these gritty films, you’re much more likely to see the characters smoking and drinking whiskey than eating, and when they do eat, it’s usually at a crummy diner (e.g., Detour, Angel Face, Fallen Angel)3.
If I had to guess, the first mention of pizza was in a movie from the early 1950s that was made for the younger crowd, perhaps a teen romance, a musical, or horror film where a group of teens face danger. It’s probably an obscure movie, as the most well-known teenage films were made after 1953, like the Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello “beach party” series (starting in 1960), Elvis’s films (the first was 1956), and the classic teen angst film Rebel Without a Cause (1955).
A Glimpse of a Sign in On The Town (Update, 8/29/21)
I recently watched the documentary Scott’s Pizza Tours, which looks at Scott Weiner’s love of pizza and how it led to his founding of a successful pizza tour company in New York City (Scott’s Pizza Tours), building the largest known collection of pizza boxes, and launching the hunger-relief project Slice Out Hunger. I’m glad I watched it, and it also led to a new bit of information about pizza in film.
After watching the film, I went to Scott’s website and sent an inquiry to the team, hoping that Scott and his team of “the planet’s biggest pizza nerds” might know of other films that mention pizza. I got an interesting response: the opening song in the 1949 MGM musical On The Town includes a brief shot of a sign in Little Italy that says “Pizzeria Napoletana”. Since the word pizza isn’t said or sung, so I’ll give this an Honorary Mention.
Where was this pizzeria, and what was its full name? Fortunately, the internet has the answer, via an extremely detailed look at the locations in “New York, New York” from PopSpots by Bob Egan. A photo from an outtake is a wider shot of the location, and we can see that the awning says “A. Saulino’s Italian Specialties” and the sign says “KING OF PIES PIZZERIA NAPOLETANA”. Egan identifies the location as 85 Mulberry Street, with the pizzeria located at 87 Mulberry. Via the NYPL Reverse Phone Book, he determines that the “King of Pies” is Calate Pizzeria. Alas, my internet searches today come up with nothing on Calate Pizzeria. Perhaps there are some 1940s guidebooks on New York that mention it? (see also: a 1936 photo from the NYPL showing Lion Spaghetti House, Niagara Bakery at 87-91 Mulberry St.)
My interaction with Scott Weiner brought up some additional questions about pizza in film. In neither The Band Wagon, nor On The Town, was a pizza shown on screen, nor did anyone eat any pizza. So I wonder:
- What is the first Hollywood movie that shows a pizza on screen?
- What is the first Hollywood movie that shows someone eating pizza?
- What is the first Hollywood movie that shows someone cooking pizza?
If you have any guesses, please leave a comment. (And we might ask the same questions about television….)
Some Relevant Pizza History
Perhaps the book Pizza: A Global History by Carol Helstosky (2008, Reaktion Books) would have the answer, so I took a look. It did not answer my questions, but provides some useful information about pizza in 1950s America.
Before The Band Wagon’s 1953 release, pizza had been in the U.S. for a while — initially brought by immigrants from Italy — but its rise to mass popularity started after WWII, when soldiers came back from wartime and peacetime tours of Europe and the middle class was growing. Helstosky reports that the first home pizza kit was released in 1948 and the first frozen pizzas started appearing in grocery stores in early 1950s (with one frozen pizza maker selling five million pizzas in 1953 and 1954). And “[b]y the early 1950s, food critics worried that pizza might replace the hot dog as America’s favourite food.” So it is clear that pizza had a strong presence in the U.S. well before The Band Wagon was produced.
In the section about pizza in popular culture, Helstosky refers to only two creations from the 1950s, both of which were released after The Band Wagon (August 7, 1953):
- “That’s Amore,” a hit song by Dean Martin that includes this famous line: “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie.” It was recorded on August 13, 1953 and released on November 7, 1953 (dates from Wikipedia).
- An 1954 Italian film called L’oro di Napoli (The Gold of Naples), which includes Sophia Loren playing a pizza maker in Naples. Unfortunately, I have not seen this film — it is quite hard to find, not showing any streaming opportunities at Just Watch and not in the Netflix DVD library.
Another 1950s Pizza Sighting
During my run through MGM movie musicals, I spotted a pizza reference in It’s Always Fair Weather (1955), which stars Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and was co-directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Early in the film, three recently demobilized soldiers finish a wild night on the town at Tim’s Place. One of the soldiers is a painter. He presents a painting of a battle scene to Tim, and the cook says it “Look like a pizza pie.”
It’s Always Fair Weather is so-so film, redeemed by two superb dance numbers: first, Cyd Charisse dancing with a group of boxers in a gym, and second, Gene Kelly dancing while wearing roller skates on the streets (i.e., the MGM back lot city set). The film’s biggest disappointment is no dance duet for Cyd and Gene (one was filmed, but didn’t make the final cut. An incomplete version is one of the DVD extras.)4
Pizza versus Pizza Pie
Another noteworthy feature of The Band Wagon and It’s Always Fair Weather pizza references is “pizza pie.” It’s not often I see or hear those two words together these days, so I fired up Google Books Ngram Viewer to look at the evolution of “pizza” and “pizza pie” in books in the Google Books library. The charts below show the results — note that the upper line in the first chart is the calculation of “pizza” minus “pizza pie” so I could remove the second term5. Click the links in the captions to go to the interactive version.
The results are clear: the term pizza pie was never very popular (in books, anyway). Even in the 1940s and 1950s, pizza alone (or combined with a word that is not pie) was about 100 times more popular than the combination of “pizza pie.”
Screenshots from The Band Wagon and It’s Always Fair Weather are from the DVD releases, the On The Town screenshot is from a YouTube clip, and the Pizza: A Global History book cover are used under the Fair Use doctrine. Charts of pizza versus pizza pie from Google Books Ngram Viewer. Links: (pizza – pizza pie) and pizza pie, pizza pie only.
- Minnelli was married to Judy Garland for a while, and together they had one daughter: Liza Minnelli. So a fun bonus on The Band Wagon DVD is that one of the commentators is Liza Minnelli (the other is singer, pianist, and music historian Michael Feinstein). Liza says The Band Wagon is her favorite movie musical, and it shows — she is delightfully enthusiastic about it, often anticipating a moment of greatness in the film, with a “OK, here we go” just before a new number starts. She was a kid during filming (7-8 years old) and would visit the set after school. Her father had the MGM costume team make kid-size reproductions of some of the gowns and other costumes for her (unfortunately, all are gone).
- The out-of-town premiere was in New Haven, Connecticut, so perhaps they were eating pizza from Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, which was founded in 1925.
- Two exceptions I can think of are The Big Heat and Mildred Pierce. The Big Heat has a few food scenes at the detective’s home that set up his domestic bliss, soon to be overturned by the criminals in his city (fun Big Heat trivia: Joyce Bannion, who’s married to the lead character Sgt. Bannion, is played by Jocelyn Brando, older sister of Marlon). In Mildred Pierce the title character launches a chain of mid-range restaurants, with fried chicken the specialty.
- Apparently the working relationship for co-directors Kelly and Donen was strained and they both wanted to finish the project as quickly as possible so they could get back to working solo.
- There might be a better way to handle this in the Ngram Viewer, i.e., “word 1 only when not followed by word 2”, but I haven’t learned it yet.