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Alida Valli

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Fact vs. Fiction in the Discovery of a Star: Press Agent Hyperbole Misses Dramatic Story of the Finding of Alida Valli

By Howard Taubman

New York Times, January 11, 1948 page X5

Why is it that press agents -- some press agents, in Hollywood and out -- try to invent pretty stories when the truth is the better yarn?  Take the "official biography" of Alida Valli, as a Selznick Studio handout recalls it.  The fact that her first name is never mentioned may be indulged as harmless pretension.  But what is harder to grasp is why a story that would make good publicity is passed over completely.

Film fans know by now, of course, that Alida Valli is the new star from Italy whose first American film is THE PARADINE CASE.  If you have not heard yet that David O. Selznick discovered and brought her here, let us quote from the studio handout:

"It was late in 1945 that David O. Selznick, after seeing several of her pictures, began negotiations to sign her to a contract. *** His decision came swiftly; if Valli could be brought to America, he would bring her.  But the execution of that decision, its breaking down into probabilities and practicalities, required just short of one year, during many months of which the Italian actress was not even aware she was under consideration.  She did once, in Rome, hear that an unidentified film maker had her under consideration, but she dismissed the rumor as improbably while quite candidly admitting that she would not be reluctant to go to Hollywood."

Let us see how this account squares with the facts, some of which I know because I was in Rome during a good part of 1945 and had a small, anonymous part in breaking down the producer's decision "into probabilities and practicalities."  I claim no credit, but the man who deserves a great deal and who gets none in the handout is David Golding, then managing editor of the Mediterranean edition of The Stars and Stripes and now working in London for Sir Alexander Korda.

The handout speaks of "late in 1945."  Well, the first approach to Miss Valli occurred in June, 1945.  On a visit to Paris early that month, Golding had encountered his friend, Walter Gould, foreign manager for United Artists.  Gould had recently accompanied Neil Agnew, Selznick executive, to see Miss Valli in an Italian movie showing in Paris.  Agnew had liked her work and had wondered how she could be reached.  Gould thought of Golding, who was asked to do what he could.

Star Hunt

Back in Rome, Golding told me about the assignment to snare a movie actress named Alida Valli for Selznick and asked me to help, partly because I was his friend, but chiefly because my Italian was not quite so bad as his.

The first task was to find Miss Valli and this was done by a resourceful Italian secretary employed by The Stars and Stripes.  In a few days Miss Valli and her husband, Oscar de Mejo, pianist and composer, called at our office on Via del Tritone.  The Italian girl had told Miss Valli that Golding wanted to discuss a Hollywood contract, but if the actress had a notion that this might be just a GI gag, who could blame her?

First Impression

Whatever Miss Valli thought of us at that first meeting, we doubted that she was, indeed, a film star.  She was good-looking, all right, and her eyes had that photogenic something, but she was dressed simply, almost plainly, and she had none of the gaudy, glamorizing patina that an American comes to associate with a movie star.

At that first meeting Golding mentioned Selznick to Miss Valli.  He even had Grayson Tewksbury, Stars and Stripes photographer, make some portraits of her, and told her that they would be forwarded to the Selznick office in the United States, which was done.

At The Stars and Stripes billet, there were frequent showings of the latest American-made movies on 16 mm. film, and Golding invited Miss Valli and her husband to them.  Miss Valli accepted eagerly; it would give her a chance to become au courant with our movies and help her to learn English.

I remember vividly Miss Valli's first visit to our billet for a movie.  It was a muggy June night and, with rain threatening, the movies were shown in a wide, fourth-floor corridor instead of on the roof.  Her arrival was the occasion for whistling and wisecracking; to our buddies she was just an attractive gal.  But the Italian help recognized her and buzzed with excitement; it was our first intimation that she was some pumpkins in Italy.

The first picture was a play-by-play filming of a football game -- the 1944 Army-Navy game, I think -- and it went on interminably.  It bored most of the Americans; Miss Valli must have wondered about American ways.  The feature was a musical, an abomination whose name I have mercifully forgotten, but Miss Valli thanked us as though she had seen the ten best pictures of the year.

Thereafter she rarely missed a movie, although getting her and her husband to our billet from her home at the other end of town proved, on occasions, to be a task that tested our ingenuity.  Transportation was one of the grave problems for civilians in Rome, and Miss Valli was able to obtain a car only at odd intervals.

Jeep Service

Transporting an Italian actress and her husband could be palmed of as business only a couple of times.  After that we had to plead and cajole officers for the use of a jeep, and at times we were not above borrowing one, when the authorities were not looking, for the run to and from Miss Valli's home.

The actress and her husband were grateful, though they were not aware of the problems of jeep borrowing.  They also came to our dances, and since she did not put on airs, she and her husband were accepted as friends of most of the men of our Army unit.

Miss Valli did not talk much about her career.  If you questioned her she told you she had been born in Pola, the port on the Istrian peninsula, but she was more likely to linger on memories of Como, where her family moved in 1928 and where she grew up and was educated.  She went to Rome in 1936 and started her moving-picture career in lead roles in 1937.  She did not talk much about those pictures, except to observe that she had made about thirty.

Some of us asked her one day whether we might not see one of her Italian films, and she arranged for a special showing in a tiny preview studio.  The movie was a thing called NOI VIVI (WE, THE LIVING). It was a miserable job mechanically, and the little studio was stifling.  We got out of there after one reel, willing to concede that Miss Valli's eyes had that come-hither look and her voice a subtle resonance, but we wondered whether her reputation had been built on these things alone.

Golding and I discovered how big a star she was one night when we went with Miss Valli and her husband to a street carnival; she was besieged by autograph hounds and we never did get around to the rides and trials of skill.

During the entire summer we talked constantly with Miss Valli about Selznick and Hollywood.  Shortly after he met her, Golding induced Miss Valli to sign a three-month option giving Selznick first call on her services in America.  When that was about to expire, Golding got her to extend it, even though another American filmmaker was showing signs of interest.  She had a two-year contract with an Italian company, and we spent hours discussing ways to obtain a release, with Golding in frequent correspondence with Selznick officials about terms and procedure.  If Alida "was not even aware she was under consideration," someone has had a fearful lapse of memory.

In September, 1945, Golding started home and was mustered out of the Army early in October.  He kept his finger on the Valli negotiations through his former Italian secretary.  I know he conferred with Agnew, because I was in Agnew's office with him once when he did.  On that occasion he told Agnew that Miss Valli would be another Ingrid Bergman.

In any event, negotiations were carried on and completed by Selznick representatives in the following months.  When Miss Valli stopped in England in December, 1946, on her way to the United States, Golding was at the airport to meet her, with Jenia Reissar of the Selznick staff.  Golding, who was working then in London for Samuel Goldwyn, introduced Miss Valli to Goldwyn's son, and he recalls that Miss Reissar was worried that the Goldwyns would try to nab her before she got to Hollywood.

Alida Valli is being hailed as the latest Selznick star.  For my part, I would not -- and could not -- diminish Selznick's glory.  The studio handout, however, might have acknowledged the part an ex-GI played in helping add another star to Mr. Selznick's lustrous crown, if only because it may be a story.  As for the ex-GI, maybe it was payment enough to be a momentary power behind the scenes.

© 1948 The New York Times.

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