Lilia del Valle and Lilian Welker: Two names, one talented beauty.
Lilia del Valle (née Lilian Welker) is the daughter of German immigrants to Mexico. She was a celebrated beauty and an accomplished actress during the Golden Age of Mexican cinema. After marrying and having a son, she retired and has devoted her time to painting.
By Rogelio Agrasánchez Jr.
Anyone familiar with classic Mexican cinema surely remembers a dazzling beauty with a poetic name, Lilia del Valle. Her career spanned thirty-three films, several plays and other stage presentations. To this day, connoisseurs look upon her as one of the sexy icons of the 1950s. Yet very few people know her real name: Lilian Welker Gundlach. I first talked to Mrs. Welker in 2001, when my book on the Beauties of Mexican Cinema was in preparation. Because I insisted a lot, she sent me a lengthy letter explaining her family background, education, and sudden rise to stardom. Lilia’s German parents came to Mexico on their honeymoon. Their actual destination was the United States but his father got an offer for a good-paying job and decided to remain in Mexico. Four years later, in 1931, Lilia was born. She and her younger sister went to elementary school at the Colegio Alemán of Mexico City. Subsequently the family spent two years in Berlin, where the girls learned to speak German fluently. Upon their return, Lilia continued studying at the Colegio Alemán and got a High School diploma. Since she was good at drawing, her parents encouraged her to take painting lessons at the academy of renowned Spanish artist José Bardasano.
Lilia was only 15 years old at the time. On her first day of painting lessons, she went to buy some pastries across the street. Unexpectedly, a man running out of a house bumped into her. The tray of pastries went up in the air and the gentleman had to apologize. His name was Alejandro Salkind and he said he was a film producer. Lilia got a compliment for her beauty and also an invitation to come to the studios for an acting test. Of course, her parents refused the offer. But after some persistence on the part of Salkind, she was allowed to go with her mother as a chaperone. The test took only a few moments. Lilia posed in front of the camera and briefly said: ”I want to be a film actress.“
This experience was quickly forgotten by Lilia del Valle. In fact, she never realized that the ”test“ she did was included in an obscure movie, Hijos de la mala vida (1946). Naturally she wasn’t paid any money for her acting. Therefore, she always thought that her first film appearance had been in Allá en el Rancho Grande, the second version directed by Fernando de Fuentes in 1948. Shortly before starring in this film, Lilia had been taking drama lessons at the prestigious school of Gustavo Villatoro. He personally instructed her for a few months until director De Fuentes showed up and asked Lilia if she wanted to be in a movie. He offered her the principal female role in Allá en el Rancho Grande, a film made in color. When she found out that the famous Jorge Negrete would be her partner, she almost fainted. A big fan of Negrete, Lilia was thrilled to shake hands with him. During the introduction, the aspiring actress was so anxious that could hardly speak a word.
Next, Lilia implored her father to let her work in this movie. She conviced him at last, but only if her mother guarded the young actress throughout the shooting. Her role as the naïve peasant girl for whom three men fall in love, required that she kissed Negrete on the lips. A big crowd on the set witnessed this crucial scene, the first one to be filmed. When the camera was rolling, Lilia del Valle couldn’t help being embarrassed and instinctively pushed Negrete away from her. She thought he was going to get angry. But they gave it another try and finally succeeded. Thanks to the understanding and support of Jorge Negrete she was applauded and her career took off, Lilia declared recently.
It is amazing how rapidly Lilia del Valle rose to become a film star. Her name was made famous instantly. Even more facinating is her capability to come through naturally in all of her roles. Her straightforwardness is obvious in several comedies: Las tres alegres comadres, Las interesadas, Mis tres viudas alegres, and Las cariñosas. It is certainly a treat to see Lilia del Valle performing in these stories of ”saucy, congenial girls who were forever perky, good dancers and singers, and who had plenty of curves.“ In Las tres alegres comadres, for example, she is the very seductive Perla, an ambitious girl that is always chewing gum or eating snacks, and whose pretender is the unfortunate wrestler Tranquilino (played by Wolf Ruvinskis). These films are some of the best antidotes for boredom. Anyone attracted to beautiful girls and desiring to be amused for an hour and a half would surely appreciate them.
In addition to the comedies, Lilia del Valle enjoyed performing in dramas. There were plenty of those in her career: Médico de guardia, Te sigo esperando, Un príncipe de la iglesia, El gran autor, Kid Tabaco, etc. One of her favorite movies was Peregrina (1950), a period melodrama directed by Chano Urueta. She played Mariana O’Neill, an Irish blond that incites the sexual passions of her followers. The actress tinted her hair for the role and had to ride a horse in a scene, something she had never done before. The animal got a little nervous and ran away with her on top. Quickly, another rider went after the horse and brought it to a halt. Lilia also remembers liking the romantic music and the gorgeous costumes included in the movie. Unfortunately, though, Peregrina cannot be found for viewing.
Not just the cinema kept Lilia del Valle occupied; she also performed in a number of stage dramas. Her debut was in Llega un inspector, a play that featured José Elías Moreno, Beatriz Jimeno, Adalberto Ramírez, and Joaquín Cordero. This drama opened at the Teatro Latino, one of the largest theaters in Mexico City; it had a capacity for 500 people and was located in Avenida Reforma. Lilia later took part in El gran cardenal, a commercial hit presented at the same theater. This drama was based on Jan van Leyden’s stage play of the same title. The excellent actor, Julio Villarreal, characterized Cardinal Mindzenty, a controversial Hungarian Catholic leader. The play was made into a movie in 1951, with Villarreal and Del Valle repeating their roles. Another play that the actress considers ”very original and very good“ is Los Fernández de Peralvillo. In this ”comedy of real life,“ she shared the stage with Víctor Parra, Maricruz Olivier, and Prudencia Griffel. When adapted to the big screen in 1953, only Víctor Parra got to be in the movie. At this moment, Lilia joined the cast of Las cariñosas, a film in which her good humor and excellent looks were fully exploited.
The Teatro Lírico, one of the most important of Mexico City, opened its doors to Lilia del Valle. In two different occasions, she took the stage as a dancer accompanied by a chorus line of male performers. She also toured several cities in Mexico and the United States singing romantic hits with her trio. Shortly before retiring from acting, Lilia appeared in the play La carroza del rey. This stage production was presented in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua; it featured only two performers, Lilia del Valle and the Spanish actor José Baviera. Remembering the play, the actress added: ”It was a very pleasant comedy and also quite funny.“ When asked if she ever recorded a song, Lilia answered: ”Unfortunately no, but I would have liked it very much. The technology was not advanced sufficiently back then. Today almost anybody’s voice can be made to sound great, eventhough when they are singing live it can be disappointing.“
When my book Beauties of Mexican Cinema was finally presented at the Guadalajara Film Festival in 2002, Lilia del Valle enthusiastically showed up. She sat in the auditorium of the Museo Regional with her sister Marion and her niece Diana. Even at seventy, doña Lilia still looked wonderful. Following the reception, we sat down to talk about her movies. She said that one of the most difficult to do was La bruja (1954), an atmospheric horror film that required special makeup for her role of a witch. Every day, she would spend long hours with the makeup artist changing her features. Not only was her face completely altered but also her hands and one side of her chest were made grotesque. The film’s story is about a mad doctor that experiments on a deformed female drifter. The scientist is able to transform this wretched creature into a woman of great beauty. But he has a vicious plan and throws her on a mission to seduce and kill several men. One after another, they fall prey to her irresistible charms.
Fame sometimes attracts unpleasant incidents, Lilia del Valle explained. Frequently, she was invited to be the guest of honor at public events. However, a number of these presentations turned out to be very scary. For example, when actor Antonio Badú accompanied her to Tijuana to inaugurate a movie theater, they met a big crowd at the airport. Inisde the gate, uncontrolled movie fans surrounded and cornered her in a menacing way. Badú quickly ran to offer help and was able to get her out of there. He was robbed of a costly gold fountain pen that he carried in his pocket, though. As a recognized actress, Lilia del Valle couldn’t go out casually. Even when buying groceries at the store, she was obliged to dress up and wear makeup. Maintaining that flawless image of the movies demanded a lot of effort.
In 1960, after filming Secuestro en Acapulco, Lilia del Valle decided it was time to marry and have a family. Sometime later, though, a producer pleaded the actress to come back to the studios for one more movie. Thus her cameo role in La recta final (1965) was her last screen performance. Directed by Carlos Enrique Taboada, the film recounts the lives of seven jockeys who fiercely compete to win a very important race. Del Valle plays a cabaret singer connected with an unscrupulous gambler. Unfortunately, her character is not fully developed and her lines are kept to a minimum. Accounting for this are the many stories put in the picture. Elsa Cárdenas, Carmen Montejo, and Emilio Indio Fernández also appeared in the film.
Like many retired actors and actresses of Mexican cinema, Lilia del Valle has pursued painting as a means to express herself. Maintaining an active schedule, she had plans to exhibit her work in the Dominican Republic, where her son and grandchildren live. In addition to having the honor of meeting Lilia del Valle, I was fortunate to receive a gift from her. She graciously presented me and my wife with a self-portrait painted by gouache. It is a very telling image of the actress, whose head appears wrapped up with a "rebozo," or shawl. Her beautiful eyes glance directly at us while innocently holding a rose in her hands. The portrait adorns one of the walls in my office, across from my desk. Everyday when I sit down to write, Crucita, the young and fragile heroine of Allá en el Rancho Grande, seems to greet me with an indecipherable smile.
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