Anton Artefact #6

It’s a delight to have my Anton blog back up and running again after a long hiatus, beginning with the next in the Artefact series, a programme for a screening of Michael Strogoff at the Stoll Picture Theatre in London.

 

Opened as the London Opera House in 1911, it was taken over by Oscar Stoll and converted to use as a cinema in 1917. As befitted a grand opera house, it had a spectacular design and lavish interior, replete with pillared galleries, carved facades and groups of sculpted figures depicting Melody, Harmony, Inspiration, Composition, Comedy, Tragedy, Dance and Song. Although Michael Strogoff is not a hugely popular film among Anton fans, watching the movie in such a setting must have been quite an experience.

We tend to forget sometimes that the 1930s moviegoers’ experience was quite different from our modern Odeons and multiplexes. This programme is for the week beginning Monday 9th August 1937, when Michael Strogoff was shown four times a day. As the page detail below illustrates, the film was not watched in isolation, but was an integral part of a twelve-hour continuous programme that included a live organ recital, orchestral music with comic performances and skaters, news bulletins and trailers, concluding with the National Anthem. (It was common for most people to make a dash for the exits during the end credits so they wouldn’t have to stand to attention for the anthem.)

 

Royal affairs were much on AW’s mind at the time, as filming of Victoria the Great had finished in May and everyone was getting ready for the premiere in September, which was held in Leicester Square. The Stoll Picture Theatre closed in 1940 and despite some postwar use as a theatre, was demolished in the late 1950s.

It was fifty years ago today…

AW in 1961

…that AW died at the home of his old friend, actress Hansi Burg, in Garatshausen, Bavaria, where he had been convalescing from a heart attack he had suffered on stage at the Kleine-Komödie in Munich at the end of March. I have written about this in more detail on previous anniversaries (see here and here.)

It had been my intention to mark this year’s special anniversary with the publication of my biography of the actor, but for various reasons this has not been possible. Hopefully it won’t be too long before the text is complete – watch this space for further news!

The website has been undergoing some behind-the-scenes transformations which have prevented me from uploading any new material in recent weeks, and again, I hope normal service will be resumed very soon. Thank you for continuing to visit the blog.

Birthday Note: Anton and his directors

Today marks the 120th anniversary of the birth of Anton Walbrook, and to celebrate the occasion I am posting a selection of photographs that show the actor at work. During his long career, AW was privileged to collaborate with some of the most distinguished film-makers of the time, and so here are some photographs showing them together.

Director Karl Hartl with some of his extras in the countryside near Potsdam, filming ‘Zigeunerbaron’ – FIlmwelt 18 November 1934

With Willi Forst on the set of ‘Allotria’ – from ‘Filmwelt’ 5 April 1936
This photo shows AW, Hilde Hildebrand and Heinz Ruhmann being directed by Willi Forst, with whom AW had previously worked in Maskerade (1934.)

With Thorold Dickinson on the set of ‘The Queen of Spades’ – from The Picturegoer 8 May 1948
AW worked twice with Dickinson, who drew brilliant performances from him in both Gaslight (1940) and The Queen of Spades (1949). This photo also shows cinematographer Otto Heller (1896-1970) who filmed AW no less than four times. Born in Prague, he worked with fellow Czech Carl Lamac on Baby (1932) and Die vertauschte Braut (1934), in both of which AW co-starred with Lamac’s wife Anny Ondra. Port Arthur (Farkas, 1936) was filmed in Prague and was AW’s last film before leaving Nazi Germany. Heller followed him to the UK in 1940.

A photo taken in 1951 during the filming of ‘Vienna Walzes’, with director Emil Reinert on the right

With Michael Powell during the filming of ‘Oh, Rosalinda!!’
Oh, Rosalinda!! was the fourth and final of AW’s films with Powell and Pressburger, after 49th Parallel (1941), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948). Many of these films shared the same cast and crew members – a reflection of the close-knit collaborative nature of Powell and Pressburger’s own ​creative partnership.

With Emeric Pressburger during the filming of ‘Oh, Rosalinda!!’

Shakespeare 400

AW as Edmund in Shakespeare’s ‘König Lear’ (1926.) Photographed by Ursula Richter.
As today is the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, it seemed appropriate to mark it with a photograph of AW in the role of Edmund in Shakespeare’s King Lear. This play was staged at the Schauspielhaus in Dresden in November 1926, coinciding with the actor’s thirtieth birthday.  Edmund – the dark and brooding bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester, who conspires to betray his father and anyone else who stands in his way – is one of the Bard’s most despised villains.

AW as Andrew Aguecheek in ‘Twelfth Night’ (1930). Photograph by Genja Jonas.
Dresden was the location for a great many of AW’s Shakespearean performances, especially in the early summer of 1930 when his roles included Octavius Caesar in Julius Caesar, Lysander in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night, or What You Will [photo above] and Gratiano in A Merchant of Venice. He had a deep admiration for Shakespeare and it is a matter of some irony (and no little sadness for the actor) that his emigration to the playwright’s native country meant renouncing such roles: there was little likelihood of a German actor who spoke limited and heavily-accented English being offered Shakespearean roles on the stage in wartime Britain. He would have to wait until he returned to German soil in the 1950s before he could once again speak the bard’s immortal words on stage.

Bear essentials

With barely 24 hours to go before the 88th Academy Awards ceremony, there’s a buzz of anticipation this year over whether or not Leonardo DiCaprio will win his long-awaited Oscar for The Revenant (Iñárritu, 2015.) Much of the discussion about this film has concentrated on the infamous bear scene, during which DiCaprio’s character is badly – and graphically – mauled by a grizzly bear. But haven’t we seen something like this before…?

The cover of ‘Michael Strogoff’ (London: Readers Library, 1927), a tie-in to the silent movie ‘Michel Strogoff’ (Tourjansky, 1926)

Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff: the Courier of the Csar was first published in 1876 and is regarded as one of his finest works. It is a stirring tale, concerning the adventures of Michael Strogoff, who acts as courier for Tsar Alexander II and has to dash across Siberia to warn the Tsar’s brother – governor of Irkutsk – of planned treachery by a local Tartar warlord named Ivan Ogareff. Strogoff encounters various characters on his journey – Nadia, daughter of a political exile, two journalists reporting the war – as well as his mother in Omsk, where he is captured while visiting. Nadia and Strogoff’s mother are forced to watch as Michael is (apparently) blinded with a hot blade by the cruel Tartars, but he later escapes and reaches Irkutsk where Nadia’s father helps defeat the rebellion, before giving Strogoff his daughter’s hand in marriage.

The novel was adapted for the silent screen in 1926, with Ivan Mozzhukhin in the title role – the same actor also played Hermann in an early silent version of The Queen of Spades (Protazanov, 1916), endowing him with the rare distinction of prefiguring AW’s roles in two films.  In 1935, although less than ten years had passed since Tourjansky’s movie, it was decided that the time was ripe for a remake (as I said above, nothing is new in the movies!), taking advantage of the advent of sound and improved technology.

I’ve written elsewhere about certain scenes in the film where AW’s posture evokes the iconography of Saint Sebastian but here I want to focus on his fight with the bear. As readers of this blog are probably aware, the actor was actually a great animal lover, and I’ve collected together a number of postcards and images celebrating this here. The scene perhaps jars less with the actor’s personal attitude when it is understood that Strogoff kills the animal while defending a helpless woman who has fainted in fright at the bear’s feet.

In the novel, the incident occurs in Part I, Chapter XI (pp.76-77 in my copy of the film tie-in shown above) and differs considerably from the screen versions. Here, Strogoff and Nadia are travelling through the forest in the company of the two journalists when ‘a monstrous bears’ bursts out the trees and attacks their horses. Nadia tries to defend the horses with her gun, but Strogoff leaps between her and the animal, knife in hand, and swiftly despatches the bear, executing ‘in splendid style the famous blow of the Siberian hunters.’

​In the film Der Kurier des Zaren (Eichberg, 1935), the bear attack takes place on board a ship. Strogoff and Nadia (Maria Andergast) are among many passengers watching a group of gypsies on deck, one of whom is goading a ‘tame’ bear to perform tricks for their entertainment. The animal is startled by the magnesium flash on the journalists’ camera, attacks its trainer and breaks free. Strogoff runs forward to save an elegantly-dressed lady (Hilde Hildebrand) who has collapsed in fright, little knowing that she is in fact Zangara, the lover of Ogareff, who will later betray him.

The bear approaches

Out with the knife

No caption required

All over
Der Kurier des Zaren was released on 7 February 1936, with a French language version, Michel Strogoff, following a few days later.  As most readers of this blog will know, AW left Germany in the autumn to travel to Hollywood where he had been contracted to film an English language version, incorporating additional scenes directed by George Nicholls. The resultant concoction was released under the name The Soldier and the Lady as well as The Adventures of Michael Strogoff. Both leading ladies were English actresses then based in Hollywood: Zangarra was played by Margot Grahame (with whom he would work again twenty years later in Saint Joan), with the role of Nadia taken by Elizabeth Allan. They both appear in the re-edited bear sequence, which incorporates additional shots of AW’s combat inserted into the original sequence.
It’s all over in a few moments, thankfully, and – unlike The Revenant scenes – is unlikely to cause audiences to shudder in horror: in several frames, the fact that we’re watching a man in a bear suit is blatantly obvious. Our hero displays his Herculean courage and strength, while the damsel in distress lives to swoon another day (and also to betray her saviour, although he wasn’t to know this at the time.) It’s far from being Anton’s finest moment, nor could the film ever have been in the running for an Oscar – but the Academy’s failure to grant Walbrook any award for his acting during his long career is a staggering oversight that – in my opinion – overshadows their treatment of DiCaprio.