Anton’s Animals

British cinemagoers, familiar with Walbrook’s intense performances in films such as 49th Parallel and The Red Shoes, or the dark villainy of Gaslight, tend to forget that his prewar reputation was for musical comedies and light romances. This is reflected in promotional material from 1930s Germany, which portray AW in a range of contexts so as to widen his popular appeal: we see him as musician, action hero, suave man about town – and animal lover.

Here are a few cards from my collection, showing Anton with animals.

The actor with his two dogs, Anton – the white poodle – and Bobby, a black Scottish terrier.


This portrait of Adolf and Anton was taken by Genja Jonas (1895-1938), a highly sought-after portrait photographer in Dresden. The daughter of Jewish parents who later died in a concentration camp, she was introduced to Wohlbrück through her younger sister Erna.


A colour image of the actor with Bobby, published as No.71 in a series of tobacco cards produced by Haus Bergmann. This card also featured in the lavish 200-card album, Die bunte Welt des Films, published in 1934.


This portrait by Walther Jaeger is clearly the source of the image above. Judging by the stubbly growth on the actor’s upper lip, this was taken while he was growing his moustache for Walzerkrieg, filming of which began on 6 June 1933.


Putting the car before the horse? This portrait was the work of a Berlin photographic firm run by Alexander Bender and Lotte Jacobi (1896-1990.) Lotte was Jewish and emigrated to America in 1935 to escape the Nazis. The photograph was taken before then, for it was used by Dr Werner Holl as the frontispiece for Das Buch von Adolf Wohlbrück (Berlin, 1935.)


Another Bender & Jacobi portrait, probably from 1933.


Horses (and pigs) feature prominently in Zigeunerbaron, filmed in early 1935. As with Der Kurier des Zaren, there are some impressive feats of horse-riding and horsemanship.


A tobacco card from the Dresden cigarette makers, Salem, adapted from the Bender & Jacobi portrait below.


Although there is no doubting the charm of this image of Wohlbrück with a horse, it’s not the sort of image that one immediately associates with Christmas greetings. Nonetheless, my copy of the postcard has a Christmas message written on the back and was posted to a girl in Essen on 14 December 1934.

Anton Walbrook as Saint Sebastian

Today the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the feast of Saint Sebastian, an early Christian martyr who became the patron saint of athletes, soldiers, pin-makers and plague-sufferers. (The Eastern Orthodox Church keeps his feast on 18 December.) Today’s blog post therefore features an image of Anton Walbrook as Saint Sebastian.

This image appeared in a German newspaper in 1936, responding to a scene in the film Der Kurier des Zaren which was released in Germany on 7 February. Adapted from Jules Verne’s 1876 novel Michael Strogoff, the film tells the tale of a Russian courier named Michael Strogoff who has to dash across Russia with a vital message for the tsar’s brother, wrestling with bears and fighting off ferocious Tatar rebels along the way. Captured by the Tatars, he is brought before their leader and blinded with a red hot sword by the executioner. It is this scene, depicting the actor in torn clothes and bared torso, lashed to a wooden pole, that evoked the comparison with ‘Captain Sebastian.’                   

So who was this saint?

According to legend, he was born in Narbonne in Gaul but brought up in Milan before travelling to Rome where he joined the army of the emperor Carinus. Sebastian was later promoted to captain of the Praetorian Guard under Diocletian, but the emperor condemned him to death because of his success in making Christian converts. He was taken out to a field where, according to the 14th century Golden Legend, ‘archers shot at him till he was as full of arrows as an urchin.’ Left for dead, he was found to be alive by a pious widow who came to bury him; she nursed him back to health, whereupon he returned to confront Diocletian and was promptly martyred a second time, being clubbed to death before his body was thrown into a sewer. This was around 288 AD.  His remains were retrieved and reburied near the catacombs; the Basilica of San Sebastiano on the Appian Way became a site of medieval pilgrimage. 

Sebastian’s story may seem to have little connection with the life of Walbrook, but the cartoon’s caption makes more sense if we unravel a little about the development of the saint’s iconography.

Shortly before facing the executioner, Michael Strogoff raises his eyes heavenwards, imitating the traditional pose of Christian martyrs.
Representations of the saint appeared as early as the sixth century, but these portraits followed the formal conventions of Byzantine art and made little effort at natural realism. In the early middle ages, paintings of the saint began to adopt more distinctive features; he was shown as youthful, clean-shaven rather than bearded, and the emphasis moved almost exclusively to his ‘first’ martyrdom – the shooting by arrows.  Renaissance artists could not resist the opportunity to paint a beautiful youth, nearly naked, in a contorted pose of alluring vulnerability, and over the next few centuries depictions of Saint Sebastian were undertaken by, among others, Hans Memling, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Piero della Francesca, Sandro Botticelli, Andrea Mantegna (three times), Pietro Perugino, Giuseppi Cesari, Carlo Saraceni, Giovanni Bazzi (known as ‘Il Sodoma’ for reasons mentioned in my book A Carnal Medium), Tintoretto, Titian, Guido Reni (seven times), El Greco, Gerrit van Honthorst and Peter Paul Rubens. These paintings celebrate the saint’s physical perfection and thus succeeded in recasting the image of Saint Sebastian in popular culture, from a middle-aged martyr to an icon of Apollonian beauty, imbuing him with a particular appeal for 19th century aesthetes who already idolised Hellenic youth.

Examples can be found in John Addington Symonds’ Sketches in Italy (1883), Walter Pater’s short story Sebastian von Storck (1886), Anatole France’s satirical novel The Red Lily (1894), John Gray’s poem Saint Sebastian (1897) and Montague Summers’ Antinous and Other Poems (1907.) Oscar Wilde viewed Reni’s Saint Sebastian in Genoa in 1877 on his way to Rome, where he visited Keats’ grave and made a strong association between the two dead youths: in his poem The Grave of Keats he calls the poet ‘Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.’ The title character of Wilde’s novella The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) wore a cloak studded with ‘medallions of many saints and martyrs, among whom was St. Sebastian’ and after Wilde’s release from prison he moved to France under the pseudonym of Sebastian Melmoth. Another of Reni’s Sebastian paintings inspired Frederick Rolfe to write ‘Two Sonnets for a Picture of Saint Sebastian the Martyr in the Capitoline Gallery, Rome’ which was published in The Artist magazine in June 1891. The same portrait had a profound effect on Japanese novelist Yukio Mishima, who – shortly before his death – had himself photographed as Saint Sebastian by Kishin Shinoyama. This was nothing new – Jean Reutlinger did the same in 1913 and models posing as Sebastian had been captured by the cameras of Victorian and Edwardian photographers from Oskar Rejlander (1867) to Frederick Holland Day (1905-7.) Even a cursory perusal of these writings and images reveals the extent to which Sebastian had become a homoerotic icon by the beginning of the century. Audiences – including tuned-in newspaper readers – knew what was being hinted at when an actor or artist was presented as another Saint Sebastian. 


Although the examples I’ve cited above are drawn from English and French language sources, there were plenty of ‘Sebastian’ references in German literature, including the works of Walbrook’s favourite authors. In January 1912 Franz Kafka wrote in his diary ‘I am supposed to pose in the nude for the artist [Ernst] Ascher, as a model for a St. Sebastian.’ Alas, no record remains of this painting, if it was ever made. Egon Schiele, who went to the same school as Wohlbrück, Klosterneuberg, painted a self-portrait as Saint Sebastian in 1915. Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem Sankt Sebastian was written between 1905 and 1906 when he was working at Meudon as secretary to sculptor Auguste Rodin. It was published in his Neue Gedichte in 1907:


PictureLike one lying down he stands there, all
target-proffered by his mighty will.Far-removed, like mothers when they still,
Self-inwoven like a coronal.And the arrows come, and, as if straight out of his own loins originating, cluster with their feathered ends vibrating.But he darkly smiles, inviolate.Only once his eyes show deep distress, Gazing in a painful nakedness; Then, as though ashamed of noticing, seem to let go with disdainfulness those destroyers of a lovely thing.
[J.D. Leishman’s translation]


Picture‘I have a favourite saint. I will tell you his name. It is Saint Sebastian, that youth at the stake, who, pierced by swords and arrows from all sides, smiles amidst his agony. Grace in suffering: that is the heroism symbolized by St. Sebastian. The image may be bold, but I am tempted to claim this heroism for the German mind and for German art, and to suppose that the international honour fallen to Germany’s literary achievement was given with this sublime heroism in mind. Through her poetry Germany has exhibited grace in suffering.’

These words are from Thomas Mann’s speech in Stockholm on 10 December 1929, given at his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in Literature. The prize had been granted in recognition of novels such as Buddenbrooks (1901) and The Magic Mountain (1924) rather than the novella Death in Venice (1912), to which Mann appeared to allude in his acceptance speech. The following passage occurs in the second chapter of Death in Venice: 

‘a keen essayist had remarked once: that he was the conception of “an intellectual and ephebe-like masculinity that stands silent in proud shame, clenching its teeth while it is pierced by swords and spears.” That was beautiful, intelligent, and correct, despite its somewhat exaggerated accentuation of passivity. Because grace under pressure is more than just suffering; it is an active achievement, a positive triumph and the figure of St Sebastian is its best symbol…’

The novella recounts the final days of a middle-aged writer, Gustav von Aschenbach, who has become obsessed with a beautiful young boy he has seen while on holiday in Venice. A year before Wohlbrück began filming Der Kurier des Zaren, his name arose in discussions about a film adaptation of Death in Venice.  Mann had his doubts, however, feeling that Wohlbrück was zu schön (too handsome) for the lead role of Aschenbach.  The character is actually in his early fifties and clearly past his prime; towards the end of the story, he resorts to make up to disguise his age. Wohlbrück at this time was only 37. The film was never made, and audiences had to wait until 1971 when Dirk Bogarde played the part at the more appropriate age of 49. The German newspaper’s suggestion [above] that Wohlbrück should appear in a  film about Saint Sebastian, ‘made in the style of Cecil B De Mille,’ was not taken up either. The first, to my knowledge, was Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane (1976.)


Thomas Mann’s family were intimately involved in the theatrical and cinematic circles frequented by Adolf Wohlbrück. The film that made Marlene Dietrich a star, Der Blau Engel (1930), was based on the novel Professor Unrat by his brother Heinrich Mann. Thomas’s son Klaus Mann was engaged to actress Pamela Wedekind, while his daughter Erika was married to Gustaf Grundgens for three years. Klaus portrayed his brother-in-law in his 1936 novel Mephisto, criticising him for compromising with the Nazis. Grundgens’ marriage to Erika Mann was thought to have been a lavender marriage, as was his later marriage to Marianne Hopper. After they separated in 1929, Erika embarked on a series of lesbian affairs, beginning with Pamela Wedekind. She opened a cabaret in Munich, Die Pfeffermühle, where anti-Nazi sketches were performed. Pamela Wedekind later married Charles Regnier; their son Anatole referred to Wohlbrück in his memoirs.

The writings of Thomas and Heinrich Mann had been publicly burned by the Nazis in May 1933, and both authors had left the country before Wohlbrück’s name was suggested for Death in Venice. Although the Manns were joined in exile by a great many other writers, actors, directors and leading figures from the arts, for the time being  Wohlbrück, Gründgens, Schünzel and others continued to work in Germany. The choice was not simply one of staying or leaving: remaining in Germany raised questions about how to live with the Nazi regime. One could endure for a while, emulate Saint Sebastian’s ‘grace under pressure’, but it was impossible to sustain the act for long. By the time Der Kurier des Zaren was released, Wohlbrück was looking for ways to leave Nazi Germany.


‘Grace in suffering: that is the heroism symbolized by St. Sebastian.’ – Thomas Mann

Vivien Leigh and Anton Walbrook

Today’s post celebrates the opening  of the exhibition ‘Vivien Leigh: a Century of Fame’ at Topsham Museum, which runs from the 3 August to 31 October 2013.

The actress, best known for her role as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1938) was born Vivian Hartley in India on 5 November 1913. Like Walbrook, she was educated in a Catholic religious school; he was taught by the Augustinian canons at Klosterneuberg, she by the Sacred Heart runs at Roehampton and elsewhere. She showed a talent for drama from an early age and took a leading part in several school productions. The last two years of her education (1929-31) were spent at a finishing school at Bad Reichenhall in the Bavarian Alps, run by Baron and Baroness von Roederer. From here she regularly crossed the border into Austria to attend operas in Vienna and Salzburg. She also spent ten days in Munich at the end of March 1931 and sat through eight hours of Parsifal. Walbrook was at this time in Berlin, appearing in Eine königliche Familie, Victor Barnowsky’s production of the Broadway hit poking fun at the Barrymore acting family. By this time Vivian spoke both French and German, but she returned home too soon to see Walbrook’s first sound film: Salto Mortale was released in August 1931.

Back in England, the Hartleys settled in Devon for the winter, staying at a bungalow called Troy near Polzeath. Vivian went to stay with her friend Mills Martin at Teignmouth, and it was thanks to him that she met her husband, Herbert Leigh Holman. Martin took Vivian to the Hunt Ball at the Two Bridges Inn on Dartmoor-  this was in February 1932 – where she was introduced to Holman, a well-established barrister whose family lived at nearby Holcombe Down. (There is another version of this story that claims they met at the South Devon Hunt Ball on Torquay Pier, although this seems less credible.) Holman’s family had a long connection with Topsham, the port town on the edge of Exeter.

After a short courtship Vivian and Leigh were married on 20 December 1932.  Her new husband requested that she drop her studies at RADA and abandon thoughts of an acting career, but even after the birth of their daughter Suzanne the following October, her desire to return to the stage persisted. Leigh finally relented, and as her theatrical agent did not like ‘Vivian Holman’ as a stage name, she took her husband’s first name instead and altered the spelling of her own. She appeared in four minor films in 1935: Gentlemen’s Agreement, Look Up and Laugh, Things are Looking Up and The Village Squire.

Vivien’s rising career was watched with interest by her sister-in-law Dorothy Holman, who carefully collected press-cuttings and photographs. Over the next two decades Vivien visited Dorothy many times at her house in Topsham, at No.25 The Strand. This lovely building, which dates back to the late 17th century, became the Topsham Museum after Dorothy Holman’s death. The memorabilia collected by Dorothy is on display in a special room. It is rather remarkable that Dorothy and Vivien remained on such friendly terms, given that the Holman’s marriage broke down following her affair with Laurence Olivier.

Vivien first met  Olivier in 1935 and they grew closer during the filming of the historical drama Fire Over England in which she played Cynthia, lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth I (Flora Robson) and lover of  brave sailor Michael Ingolby (Olivier.)  The film was a typical blend of patriotism and propaganda by Alexander Korda, with Spain standing in for Nazi Germany and the Spanish Inquisition representing the Gestapo. While they were filming Fire Over England, Walbrook had left Germany and was on his way to Hollywood, which he would dislike almost as much as Vivien. In the meantime she was acting alongside another anti-Nazi emigre, Conrad Veidt, in the spy drama Dark Journey. Here she played Madeleine Goddard, a Parisian costumier working as an undercover agent in Sweden during WWI, who falls for German spy Baron von Marwitz. Watching the film is rather a dark journey itself, due to the various murky plot twists that can leave viewers confused about what’s going on, but it’s worth watching for the performances of the two stars. I find Vivien more beautiful here than in Gone with the Wind and the chemistry between her and Veidt more compelling than that with Clark Gable.  Although Veidt hated the Nazis with the same fervour as Walbrook, the two actors undertook opposing methods of fighting fascism: Veidt specialised in playing sinister German officers such as Baron von Marwitz, Captain Hardt and Major Heinrich Strasser, while Walbrook played ‘good Germans’ such as peace-loving Hutterite Peter, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff and Kurt Muller, all of whom deliver eloquent and impassioned condemnations of Nazi ideology. Both actors were effective in teaching British filmgoers to hate the Nazis – although the wartime experience must have done a great deal to achieve that anyway. The cameraman was Georges Perinal, who would later film Walbrook in Dangerous Moonlight, Colonel Blimp and Saint Joan.

Fire over England had its London premiere in February 1937 and six months later Vivien left her husband and moved in with Olivier at his Chelsea home. In the autumn she was in Hollywood for the filming of  A Yank at Oxford co-starring Robert Taylor and Lionel Barrymore, while Olivier worked on The Divorce of Lady X with Korda’s wife Merle Oberon (for whom the early version of The Red Shoes was originally written.) Olivier then accepted the role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights – starring opposite Merle Oberon, and joined Vivien in America. Leigh Holman filed for divorce in January 1940; this was granted on 26 August, allowing Vivien and Olivier to marry in California on 31 August 1940. The next two months saw them acting together as Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton in Korda’s That Hamilton Woman (1941) –  rather ironic, given that it depicted a semi-public and scandalous relationship similar to the one they had just formalised by getting married. Korda’s main aim with the film, however, was to encourage America to support Britain’s war against Nazi Germany. This was also the intention of Powell and Pressburger’s 49th Parallel which starred Olivier and Walbrook as – respectively – a French Canadian trapper and a Hutterite leader, who come face to face with Nazi submariners in Canada. Also in the film was Leslie Howard, who had played Ashley in Gone with the Wind and with whom Vivien did not get on. Olivier by this time was serving as a pilot in the Fleet Air Arm, having joined in April 1941. He would have taken the starring role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp had it not been for Churchill’s opposition to the film – as a consequence, the Fleet Air Arm refused to release him, and we got Roger Livesey instead (D.G.)

Olivier was not the only one from theatrical circles who joined the forces. Ralph Richardson served alongside Olivier in the Fleet Air Arm, while Vivien’s co-star from Gone with the Wind, Clark Gable, became a captain in the US Air Corps and flew on bombing missions over Europe. Rex Harrison, with whom she starred in Storm in a Teacup (1937) also joined the Royal Air Force. He had appeared with Walbrook and Diana Wynyard in Noel Coward’s play Design for Living, first in the west end and then – after the outbreak of the war – travelling around the provinces. At this time Walbrook was in a relationship with Norwegian artist Ferdinand Finne, who had joined the Norwegian Air Force after the invasion of Norway in April 1940. He had been working as a costume designer for the Norwegian National Theatre when he first met Walbrook on a train in France in 1938.  They returned there in 1939, travelling together through Brittany and the South of France, as well as staying in Paris where Finne’s circle of acquaintances included Coco Chanel and Somerset Maugham. After the German attack on his home country, Finne reported immediately to the Norwegian Embassy in London (where the above photograph was taken) which became the organizational base for Norwegian resistance. King Haakon and his son, Crown Prince Olav, resided at the Norwegian Legation in Kensington. Finne helped set up ‘Little Norway’, a training base in Canada for exiled Norwegian Air Force personnel. He was posted there while Walbrook was filming Dangerous Moonlight. The photograph shows Leigh, Walbrook and Admiral Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen, founder of the Norwegian Air Force and the first commander of Little Norway.

PictureAfter the war, Walbrook joined Finne in Norway, spending time at the actor’s home and visiting places such as Lillesand, Langoya and Fornebu (west Oslo.) After Finne was asked to design the sets for a west end production of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen’s dark family drama, The Wild Duck, he suggested that his friend audition for the lead role of Hjalmar Ekdal. Walbrook got the part, and appeared in The Wild Duck at St Martin’s Theatre from 3 November 1948 to 26 March 1949.  Their relationship ended that same year, which also saw Walbrook’s disastrous and short-lived return to Germany. In the meantime, Vivien had appeared in a series of critically-acclaimed stage plays – many of them with Olivier – culminating in her brilliant performance as the tragic Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, directed by Olivier at the Aldywch Theatre (where Walbrook had starred in Watch on the Rhine in 1943.)   She went on to win an Oscar in the 1951  film version, having already won the same award in 1940 for playing another, very different, Southern belle. She died on 8 July 1967, one month before Walbrook.

Topsham Museum is open from 2pm to 5pm on Mondays, (Tuesdays this month only), Wednesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays. Admission is free, and a new booklet about Vivien has been produced to mark this centenary exhibition. 

The Red Shoes premiere 22 July 1948

On this day, sixty five years ago, The Red Shoes received its world premiere at the Gaumont Haymarket and Marble Arch Pavilion. Both cinemas were part of the Gaumont chain, which was then owned by Rank – the decision to hold the premiere here, rather than at the prestigious Odeon in Leicester Square, was a mark of Arthur Rank’s lack of appreciation for the film. It nonetheless proved highly popular with British audiences – and international ones too, as these Spanish posters indicate.  To celebrate today’s anniversary, I’m posting a series of film stills – in black and white, alas, rather than glorious Technicolour.

In this scene Lermontov’s jealousy impels him to criticise Julian’s score for La Belle Meuniere as ‘childish, vulgar and completely insignificant’ – a rare lapse in his professionalism, revealing the intensity of his feelings about Vicky’s career. For him, there can be no compromise. Julian, however, dismisses ballet as ‘a second rate means of expression,’ perhaps recognising that he lacks the same dedication to art that Lermontov and Vicky possess.




Vicky confronting Lermontov at the station in Monte Carlo in a vain effort to prevent him returning to Paris. He tells her he can make her ‘one of the greatest dancers the world has ever known.’ She knows this, but his cruelty towards her only serves to drive Vicky into Julian’s arms.

After learning of Vicky and Julian’s marriage, Lermontov consults his lawyer, Boisson, about taking out an injunction to prevent them from presenting an independent production of The Red Shoes. Boisson was played by Scottish actor Hay Petrie, who died just a few days after the premiere. He gave memorable performances in several Powell & Pressburger films, including The Spy in Black (1939), Contraband (1940),  The Thief of Baghdad (1940), One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) and A Canterbury Tale (1944.) After The Red Shoes he played the part of Walbrook’s servant in The Queen of Spades – his last role, before his untimely death in London on 30th July 1948.

Danger of death…indeed.

An advert for the Columbia record of the score from The Red Shoes. Mathieson was musical director for many of Walbrook’s British films, including Victoria the Great (1937), The Rat (1937), Sixty Glorious Years (1938), Gaslight (1940), Dangerous Moonlight (1941) and 49th Parallel (1941). In 1935 he  married an up-and-coming ballet dancer, Hermione Danborough, who was familiar with the world portrayed in The Red Shoes – she had worked with Robert Helpmann, who plays Ivan Boleslawsky, and in 1929 auditioned before ballet impresario Serge Diaghilev, founder of the Ballets Russes and an obvious inspiration for the Lermontov character.  After marrying the composer, Hermione retired from ballet, even though she had only just turned twenty: the very ‘fate’ from which Lermontov was determined to save Vicky.