The Rat (1937)

This is a promotional still for The Rat, a romantic melodrama set in the Paris underworld and starring Walbrook as jewel thief Pierre Boucheron. The character contrasted starkly with the role of Prince Albert, whom he had just played in Victoria the Great – a deliberate decision, no doubt, to demonstrate his versatility. The photograph emphasizes Walbrook’s muscular masculinity, which – juxtaposed with Ruth Chatterton’s curves and moon-eyed gaze – underscores his new image as a male pin-up. 

In the film he is portrayed as irresistible to women. Chatterton’s character, Zelia de Chaumont, is a Parisian socialite who gets a thrill from mixing with the criminal low-life who frequent the White Coffin Club, ‘the worst place in Montmartre.’ She grows intrigued about Boucheron after watching him in a fight and the two of them enjoy a series of romantic trysts around Paris; her aim is to turn him away from crime, while his interest is really in her pearls.  Their two worlds collide when Zelie’s wealthy, middle-aged fiance develops an unhealthy interest in Boucheron’s innocent young ward, Odile (played by René Ray.) Murder ensues and the film climaxes with a dramatic courtroom scene.

The story was based on a play co-written by Constance Collier and Ivor Novello, who starred together in both the stage version and the 1925 silent film. Herbert Wilcox, who had directed Walbrook in Victoria the Great (1937) and would do so again in Sixty Glorious Years (1938), delegated direction of the film to Jack Raymond, but the film retained the hallmarks of a Wilcox production: it was made under the auspices of his Imperator company, for RKO distribution, with dialogue provided again by Miles Malleson. Filming took place in the summer of 1937 while Victoria the Great was in post-production; actors such as Felix Aylmer, Gordon McLeod and Hugh Miller appeared in both films. Shooting finished at the end of September 1937, allowing Walbrook to take his mother over to France to see Paris. Although most of it was shot at Denham Studios or in nearby countryside (e.g. the village of Harefield),  the film also used some real Parisian locations such as the Luxembourg Gardens.

Shortly after filming of The Rat was completed, Walbrook’s former co-star at UFA, Renate Müller, was killed in a mysterious fall from a hospital window. They had starred in four films together: Walzerkrieg (1933),  Viktor und Viktoria (1933), Die englische Heirat (1934) and Allotria (1936.) The Nazis had tried to make her an Aryan pin-up girl, urging her to make anti-Semitic propaganda films and even attempting to force a romantic match with Hitler. Instead, she had continued her relationship with her Jewish lover, ending her life hounded by the Gestapo and addicted to morphine. Her death on the 7th October provided a dark reminder of the fate that might have awaited Walbrook had he remained in Nazi Germany. The Rat was released on the 11th November 1937.

‘Anton Walbrook – Star and Enigma’ exhibition

Well, it’s almost time now to close down the exhibition, ‘Anton Walbrook – Star and Enigma’, which has been running at the Bill Douglas Centre for the History of Cinema and Popular Culture, University of Exeter , since 5 March 2013.

For this exhibition, artist Matt McLaren produced a remarkable series of over thirty pictures illustrating scenes from some of Walbrook’s best known films, including Gaslight (1940), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and The Red Shoes (1948.)  The pictures were created by an unusual technique involving paper cut outs and miniature sets, which are then photographed. Matt recently graduated from the MA illustration programme at Camberwell Art College .

Anton Walbrook (1896-1967) – whose biography I am currently writing – was an appealing, enigmatic star, popular in two warring countries under two different names. Born Adolf Wohlbrück in Vienna , he trained under theatrical impresario Max Reinhardt and achieved great success on both stage and screen in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, appearing in hit films such asWalzerkrieg (1933), The Student of Prague (1934) and Michael Strogoff (1935.) Leaving Germany in 1936 to escape the Nazis, he became Anton Walbrook and arrived in Britain via Hollywood in early 1937. Walbrook quickly won the hearts of British film goers with his portrayal of Prince Albert in two lavish biopics of Queen Victoria and his role in the hugely popular Dangerous Moonlight, but perhaps his best work was done in partnership with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, with whom he made four films between 1941 and 1955. His postwar career involved work for the theatre, film and television in France , Germany and Britain , including two films with director Max Ophuls. He died in Germany following a heart attack on stage in Münich but – in accordance with his wishes – his body was returned to England and he was buried near his home in Hampstead.

The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum holds a wealth of material relating to Walbrook’s life and career, including early German cinema magazines, postcards, films stills, theatre programmes and presscuttings. A selection of this material was on display alongside Matt’s artwork. As well as curating the exhibition, I provided the accompanying text. Some of my personal collection of Walbrook memorabilia will also be on display, including an original costume worn for his role as Prince Albert . Now that the exhibition has ended, I plan to use this blog to share some more of my memorabilia collection and also provide updates on my progress with the biography.