The reputation of Robert Velaise may have been limited to his immediate profession, the international film industry through which he cut a swathe for more than 50 years, but its resonance approached that of legend. Velaise lived, worked, and indeed played in a manner befitting the moguls and stars of the golden age of Hollywood while maintaining a rigorous business ethic and an utter disinterest in the celebrity in which he traded.
Perhaps best known as a producer of The Go-Between, for which he won the 1971 Grand Prix at Cannes, Velaise was highly regarded in the international movie world for decades before that and for decades after. His death at the age of 96 at his fabled penthouse in Paris's most prestigious 7ème arrondissement closes a certain chapter of cinematic lore; the pan-transatlantic jet set of post-war prosperity, when the entertainment business and the "high-life" still had a genuine glamour not yet degraded by their mass-banalisation.
And like all the mythic characters in that milieu – we are talking the era of Alexander Korda, Welles, Mamoulian and Pressburger – a certain mittel-European mystery lingered around Velaise; not only was he able to shave a couple of decades off his age, his athletic figure, Huntsmen suits and trademark quiff resisting the ravages of time, but he also, like any proper film producer, was born under a different name.
Velaise was born in Zurich in 1914 to Louis and Lucie Weil Bloch, and having completed his gymnasium schooling decided to indulge his lifelong wanderlust and moved to Milan, where he worked briefly in an art gallery, followed by London and Paris. It was here, so the story went, that Velaise planned to go into the clothing, tie or schmatta business, but a family friend explained that the future was now in the movies. He was aided by Robert and Raymond Hakim, family acquaintances making their way as producers. Indeed, one of the films Velaise became involved with, Le Jour se Lève, by Marcel Carné and financed by the Hakim brothers, proved to be an enduring classic, as were an impressive number of his subsequent acquisitions. Velaise had a sixth sense about which films would be successful.
He returned to Zurich and persuaded MGM to employ him without pay, and was soon appointed the youngest national sales manager for Switzerland. In 1936 he was asked by MGM to move to the European head office in Paris and he became deputy manager for Europe. For winning Europe MGM's salesman of the year award he was sent to Los Angeles, and with that came a much-coveted visa for America.
When war broke out Velaise was living in Paris; being of Jewish origin he changed his family name to Velaise. Because he spoke perfect German (on top of his mother tongue, Swiss-German), and carried a Swiss passport, he was asked by the French government to travel across the border to spy on the German soldiers gathering there. He brought back valuable information, not the least of his many rumoured clandestine connections.
He stayed in Paris until it fell, then took charge of his parents in Zurich and, expecting Switzerland to fall, persuaded them to leave for America. After the war he continued to travel regularly but now for his own business, having left MGM to operate theatres in midtown Manhattan and the deep South, notably Kentucky, eventually assembling a small chain of cinemas. Back in Paris he launched Vauban Productions, which produced such films as the 1957 comedy Les Oeufs de l'Autruche (The Ostrich Has Two Eggs), and the boulevard-drama Nina (1959) and began to distribute the rights to classic French and Italian films. He was often seen in the company of such legends as Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Velaise also maintained his ability to spot talent, not least in a young British actor named Peter Sellers, who became a close friend and the star of The Wrong Arm of the Law, a 1963 comedy produced by Velaise. There were other planned projects with Sellers, Velaise buying the rights to the book The Memoirs of a Cross-Eyed Man as a vehicle for the actor, but both of them proved too busy for further collaboration.
Velaise had by then moved to London, partly to be closer to Sellers but mainly because of his marriage to a young heiress. Isobel Craig Mitchell was the only child of a Boston industrialist and the Melville Edinburgh clan. When Mitchell and Velaise first met in Cap Ferrat she was 18 to his 43, a finishing-school debutante. But rather than being chased by the older man it was she who rammed his convertible Alfa Romeo with her family Rolls Royce in order to further their acquaintance.
Though blessed with three children the marriage did not prove happy. After the divorce Velaise moved back to Paris, while also establishing his summer residence in Tuscany, shuttling between Switzerland, the Americas and England, not least to look after his children.
Along with the success of The Go-Between the real business of Vauban Productions was distributing film rights to classic films. In the 1960s and '70s, producers were always going bankrupt and were happy to accept offers for their rights. So Velaise became an expert in rescuing companies and scooping up legal tender to their properties at bargain prices. His impressive roster included such classics as À Bout de Souffle, La Notte and Senso. In 2003 he was awarded the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for services to the French film industry, especially for saving films which would probably otherwise have disappeared.
He also found marital happiness, settling down into a long relationship with Diana Krsnik, who true to tradition was much younger and who granted that domestic contentment he had always sought. He was able to maintain his routine of long summers water-skiing in Italy and longer winters in the Alps, remaining a master skier on all surfaces up until the age of 84.
Robert Jules Weil Bloch (Robert Velaise), film producer and distributor: born Zurich 1 November 1914; married firstly Isobel Craig Mitchell (marriage dissolved; three children), secondly Diana Krsnik; died Paris 5 March 2011.
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