Of the many foreign actresses to earn international success, most -- Brigitte Bardot, Sophia Loren, Gina Lollabrigida, to name a few -- were bombshells, sex symbols in the classic mold. Anna Magnani was the exception; earthy and unkempt, she was neither glamorous nor statuesque, yet radiated such fierce intelligence and sensuality that she became a major star, and along with Guilietta Masina she reigned as the most celebrated Italian actress of the postwar era. Born March 7, 1908, in Alexandria, Egypt, Magnani was raised by her grandmother in the slums of Rome. She studied acting at Santa Cecilia's Corso Eleanora Duse but began her performing career as a nightclub singer before moving on to variety theaters and stock. While singing in San Remo, she married filmmaker Goffredo Alessandri in 1933 and through him Magnani met director Nunzio Malasomma, who cast her in a lead role in his 1934 effort La Cieca di Sorrento. Under Alessandri, she next appeared in 1936's Cavalleria, followed in 1938 by Mario Soldati's Tarakanova.
Magnani also continued pursuing a theatrical career, starring in productions of The Petrified Forest and Anna Christie. Despite her stage success, however, she struggled in film, landing only small roles in pictures including 1940's Una Lampada alla Finestra and 1941's Finalmente Soli. A lead role in Vittorio de Sica's Teresa Venerdi earned good notices, but Magnani then returned to supporting turns, appearing opposite Roberto Villa in 1942's La Fortuna Viene de Cielo. After giving birth to a son by actor Massimo Serato, Magnani was absent for performing for over a year. Upon returning to work in 1943, her options were extremely limited -- the escalation of the war had resulted in a ban on all foreign plays -- so she appeared in a revue, Cantachiaro No. 2. She also appeared with Aldo Fabrizi in a pair of films, the Mario Mattoli thriller L'Ultima Carrozzella and the comedy Campo di Fiori, and in 1944 she accepted a small role in Il Fiore sotto gli Occhi.