10 April 2011

Valeria Belletti In Hollywoodland


If not for the zealousness of the Edison Motion Picture Patents Company, this would be a story of  the outer boroughs of New York City.  Few people remember now that the movie industry began in Essex County, New Jersey where Thomas Edison’s lab produced the Vitascope movie projector.. In 1910, movie production companies, looking to avoid paying the high fees charged by Edison , began searching for a new home.  They tried Florida and Cuba, and finally settled on southern California where the sun always shines and the land was cheap.  By 1915 the exodus was complete and Hollywood was the winner.

Scene I:
As they say in the movies: cut to New Jersey, 1924. On a lark with a girlfriend and a hundred dollars in her pocket, our heroine, the daughter of Italian immigrants, is eager to see the world.  Twenty-six years old, Valeria Belletti was bright, plucky, and attractive, and possessed of that contradictory mixture of innocence and sophistication that moviegoers loved.  It was the death of Valeria's mother in 1923 that prompted Valeria and Irma to set off on the cross country railroad to see the capitol of the movies for themselves.  One hundred thousand other emigres did the same thing that year. Valeria's desire to see Hollywood had been kindled when she worked in Manhattan for Lawrence Langer, founder of the American Theater Guild. 
Scene II:

Irma returned home and Valeria stayed, living at the YWCA until she found a job at MGM as secretary to the irascible studio head Sam Goldwyn. By another stroke of luck, Goldwyn was in Europe, giving her three months  to adjust before the boss reappeared. When Goldwyn returned, he had the Hungarian actress Vilma Banky in tow. Even the canny Goldwyn wasn't thinking of talking pictures in 1925, so the fact that his discovery spoke no English did not stop him from immediately casting Banky in a starring role opposite Ronald Coleman in Dark Angel.  "Ronald is certainly good looking and so modest about it that one can't help liking him," Valeria wrote home about her favorite new acquaintance.

Scene III:
The job duties of a movie mogul's Girl Friday went beyond typing and filing. Valeria was charged with looking for books that could be turned into movies.  To that end, she read constantly, including  Nietzsche, Turgenev, and George Bernard Shaw.  Always eager to learn, she shared what she discovered in letters to Irma.  Valeria was also the courier who arranged for the liquor that flowed freely at Goldwyn's parties. Even in the 1920s the sprawling of Los Angeles affected daily habits.  Speakeasies were few and inconvenient so people  who drank at home during Prohibition required the services of  bootleg couriers.
Scene IV:
Valeria, a petite brunette enjoyed a dazzling array of diversions  horseback lessons at the exclusive Los Angeles Riding Academy,  a ride in a Rolls Royce, and countless parties.  She took up smoking, a daring thing for a young woman, and received a gold cigarette holder.
"You know of course the marriage bond is quite flexible among theatrical people," Valeria confided to Irma in one  letter. Matinee idol Rudolph Valentino was the talk of the movie colony when he left his wife for his co-star Vilma Banky. Banky still hadn't learned English but had managed nevertheless to communicate with the handsome actor. Valeria, though not a prude, reveals a fan-magazine naivete when she writes," I know their relations are not at all intimate, they are just friends."

Scene V: 

The famous are just like everyone else when you see them everyday.  Valeria confided to Irma that she realized that, by persuading Sam Goldwyn to give a screen test to her handsome new boyfriend, she had spelled the end of her romance with Gary Cooper.   By this time Valeria had received several proposals but had turned them all down
The wanderlust that brought Valeria to Hollywood also took her to Europe, where she hoped to see her father,  who had the left the family to return to Italy.   From a weekly salary of $40, she managed to save $1,700 in less than two years. "I'm going to have one more glorious year and then become a dignified woman of uncertain age and live on my memories," she announced grandly.   Valeria sailed for Cherbourg on the Cunard Berengaria in September 1926, but by the time she reached Ventimiglia a telegram waited, with news that her father had died  two months earlier.

Scene VI:
The early months  of 1928 were a precarious time on the  back lots, idled  for  retooling to produce the new 'talkies.'  For once Thomas Edison  got it wrong when he said, "I don't think the talking picture will ever be successful in the United States."
Hollywood, as Valeria Belletti found it, was a frontier city, a place where it seemed that anyone could make their fortune.  Even with encouragement from the successful screen writer Frances Marion (a close friend of Mary Pickford), Valeria lacked the daring to leap from script consultant to screenwriter.  In the days of the silents, women had written half the screenplays produced in Hollywood.  By the time Valeria joined the script department of MGM, working for Cecil B. de Mille, women were no longer promoted.

Scene VII:
Valeria wrote wistfully of her career prospects to Irma but then accepted a proposal of marriage from the boy back home. Tony Baragona agreed to move to Los Angeles and, in August of 1928, the two were married. Valeria became a housewife, an amateur painter, and something of a hypochondriac, doted on by her husband, and the mother of a son. She died in 1959.  Her daughter-in-law Margaret Baragona was the first to realize the treasure of Hollywood history in Valeria's letters.  Published for the first time in 2006, they have been edited by Cari Beauchamp, a film historian and author of the biography of Frances Marion, Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Power of Women in Hollywood

About that sign.  
Harry Chandler, publisher of the Los Angeles Times and a powerful real estate tycoon, whose various syndicates controlled the development of the San Fernando Valley, had the sign erected in 1923 to publicize a new housing development. 

Adventures of A Hollywood Secretary: Letters from a Life at the Studios of the 1920s
by Valeria Belletti, edited by Cari Beauchamp is published by University of California Press, Berkeley: 2006


Sally Tharpe Rowles said...

So interesting, Jane. Thanks!

Jane said...

Just imagine how excited Valeria's daughter-in-law must have been when she first read these letters.

The Clever Pup said...

Sooper Dooper!

Jane said...

By the way, Yale University Press just published a book by Leo Braudy - "Hollywood Sign." Can't wait to read it.