Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors – the archival quest for Anton Walbrook

The first ‘archival encounter’ discussed in my paper: the ephemera I was asked to catalogue in 2009 that fired my interest in Walbrook.

As most readers of this blog will know, for over a decade I have been working on a biography of the émigré actor Adolf Wohlbrück /Anton Walbrook (1896-1967), but this weekend provided a wonderful opportunity to talk about this work as part of the Stardom and the Archive conference held at the University of Exeter, 8-9 February 2020. The conference was organised as part of the Reframing Vivien Leigh research project – I have written about the relationship between Walbrook and Leigh elsewhere on these pages – and its aims are summarised here:

Conventional critical discourse focuses overwhelmingly on the findings of archival research rather than the process with scholarship telling ‘a story about what you found, but not about how you found it.’ (Kaplan 1990: 103) The Stardom and the Archive symposium seeks to challenge this convention by centralising archival process and curatorial histories in researching stardom.

The conference has seen film scholars from all over the UK and beyond, including Australia and Turkey, come together to discuss diverse aspects of archival research, curatorial practice and fan collecting in relation to stardom. The range and quality of the papers so far has been fantastic, with an imaginative scope that includes gravesites and multi-media artefacts as well as the more traditional paper-based archives.

It was a great delight, as ever, to talk about Walbrook in the presence of such distinguished and appreciative company. My presentation was entitled Paper Trails, Masks and Mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject and discussed the different phases of archival engagement involved in writing my biography, including the challenges of dealing with gaps in the archive, the complex relationship between Walbrook’s onscreen persona, his life as a private individual and the archival record of both his life and career. It was also an opportunity to discuss the creation of my own Walbrook collection – an archive of my research as much as a fan collection – and share some of its treasures.

My collection includes original letters, postcards, film posters, vinyl, glass slides, lobby cards, cinema magazines, theatre programmes from the 1920s to the 1960s, copies of documentation from state archives and theatre museums, photographs, film stills, presscutting files and 16mm film reels, as well as some of the original costumes worn by Walbrook in his films, and I raised the issue of how the agenda of the collector relates to that of the biographer or researcher.

This offered a chance to revist the exhibition Anton Walbrook: Star and Enigma, which I curated at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum back in 2013. Anyone wishing to know more about this should watch the excellent short film made by Olivia Luder and available to watch here. As another aspect of archival engagement, I also discussed the brilliant artwork by Matt Horan (Matt Mclaren), which he created by painting scenes from Walbrook’s films, cutting out the images and then reassembling them in 3-D scenarios which were then photographed and turned into prints. My paper ended with a call for more collaborations like these, in which scholars, archivists, curators, artists and fans can learn from one another through sharing their different passions and fields of expertise.

Now it’s time to return for Day Two of the conference, which will close with the launch of the new Reframing Vivien Leigh exhibition!

Janus: looking forward, looking back

AW was born in Vienna on this day 123 years ago. It is my sincere hope that by the time this anniversary comes around again next year, his biography Anton Walbrook: a life of masks and mirrors – will have been published. As this decade-long project nears its end, there is a sense of impending closure: there will come a point when the draft chapters and back-up files can be discarded, when the envelopes stuffed full of handwritten notes can be sealed up and sent for recycling, and the computer files of drafts, plans and synopses can safely be deleted. Perhaps this is why I have chosen to illustrate this post with the latest photograph of AW that I have in my collection. This was taken in 1967, during the production of A Song at Twilight, and therefore just a few weeks or months before his death.

Nonetheless, the appearance of the biography should not mean the end of my blogging about AW, his life and films – quite the reverse in fact: few biographers would consider their work to be the final word on their subject, and I see A LIfe of Masks and Mirrors as the beginning of a conversation, not the end of one. There will no doubt be feedback, amendments, revisions and corrections, and hopefully the publication of the biography will encourage others to start talking about, and looking into, those areas in AW’s story that need to be further explored. A new phase of my Walbrook research will start, so this year marks a beginning as well as an end, a time for looking forward as much as looking back.

As part of this process of retrospective reflection, I will be giving a talk at the University of Exeter next February entitled Paper trails, masks and mirrors: the archival quest for an elusive biographical subject – Anton Walbrook which will look at the role played by archives in my research: from the first archival encounter that started me off on AW’s trail, through the time spent searching through various archives while writing the biography, to the cumulative creation of my own personal archive of AW papers and memorabilia. This talk will be part of the Stardom on the Archive symposium, being held to mark the end of the 20-month Reframing Vivien Leigh project that has been exploring how how the legacies of Vivien Leigh are archived and curated by different archival institutions. Readers of this blog may remember that AW and Leigh met on many occasions, both at theatrical events and at the actor’s home in Hampstead. Those familiar with Leigh will know that she was more widely known for her screen roles but really saw herself primarily as a stage actress. One of the topics I look at in the biography is the relationship between AW’s stage and screen work, tracing his approach to acting back to his childhood and the significance of his theatrical ancestry – and of course the importance of Vienna, where he was born on 19 November 1896: and not 1900, which was the year erroneously circulated by the media for much of his career – although that’s a story for another day….

Anton Walbrook and the Courtney Affair

Birdie Courtney, the mother of AW’s fiancee, in 1915

On Sunday 23 October 1938 an ‘eighteen-year-old girl’ named Maude Courtney announced to the press that she and Walbrook – whom she had known for three months – were engaged to be married. She then withdrew the statement, issuing a denial of their engagement, before announcing it again a few hours later. It was stated that official notice of their intention to marry had been submitted to St Pancras Registry Office, but within 48 hours the engagement was called off again, this time for good. What on earth was going on? And why did Maude’s mother take such a prominent role in the story? As both mother and daughter belonged to Charles B Cochran’s famous company of ‘Young Ladies’, some background may help.

Fannie Barbara Birdie Coplans was born in Canterbury in 1891, the daughter of Russian emigres from Poland named Koplanski. No occupation was given in the 1911 census and she seems to have made her debut under the stage name of Birdie Courtney in Charles B. Cochran’s revue More at the Ambassadors Theatre in June 1915, from which the photograph at the top was taken. She caught the eye of both critics and audiences, and was soon featuring prominently in the press, as well as having her portrait taken by notable society photographers such as E.O. Hoppé

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Tatler (16 February 1916), taken while she was performing in More.
Another photograph of Birdie, this time by Bertrand Park, from The Tatler (19 April 1916)

Having been singled out from a large line-up of chorus girls for attention, it was natural that Birdie would be offered a more prominent role, and she moved from the Ambassador to the Comedy Theatre to play a number of colourful parts in Half Past Eight.

Photograph of ‘Birdie Courtney’ by E.O. Hoppé from The Sketch (31 May 1916), showing her in the butterfly costume worn in Half Past Eight.

Evidently the press were interested in Birdie in more ways than one, for on 22 July 1916 she married Mr Randal Charlton, a novelist member of the Daily Mirror‘s editorial staff, at the church of Our Lady and St Edward, Chiswick. His best man was Horatio Bottomley MP and it was quite a society wedding, with MPs and show-business personalities among the guests. Charlton (whose real name was Lister) was the author of novels such as Mave (1906) and The Virgin Widow (1908) and had been a devoted fan of music hall star Marie Lloyd. Their daughter Maude was born eight months later, on 24 March 1917. Two sons followed, Warwick in 1918 and Frederick in 1928. The latter was only three years old when Randal Charlton died in 1931, by which time Birdie had established a reputation as a writer of short stories.

Birdie in 1920, photographed by Malcolm Arbuthnot, from The Bystander (5 May 1920)

At some point Maude followed her mother onto the stage: although newspapers described her as a ‘London dancer’ and ‘one of Charles B. Cochran’s “Young Ladies”’, she seems to have worked under a stage name, doubtless to avoid confusion with the well-known American vaudeville performer Maude Courtney (1884-1959), who was a regular feature in London music halls during this period, often appearing alongside her husband ‘Mr. C’ – Finlay Currie, who later co-starred with AW in 49th Parallel and Saint Joan. It is therefore not easy to trace details of any of her stage appearance, or work out where she might have met AW. He was, however, just about to launch his theatrical career in Britain with Design for Living and had been meeting with actors, producers, theatre managers and performers since his arrival in the UK the previous January. Although Cochran’s association with dancing girls and variety shows might be taken as implying a certain frivolity, he was a brilliant showman and took his work seriously. He had gone to see Max Reinhardt’s Oedipus Rex at the Circus Schumann in Berlin, and – impressed by his imaginative use of the vast space – persuaded Reinhardt to collaborate in a staging of The Miracle in London in 1912, at which the huge Olympia hall was transformed into a medieval cathedral. Cochran had a shrewd eye for picking out stars, and worked with the likes of Evelyn Laye, Jessie Matthews, Diana Manners, Gertrude Lawrence, Noel Coward and Leonard Massine during the interwar period, as well as collaborating with Diaghilev and Oliver Messel while producing the Ballet Russes. Making no distinction between high culture and popular entertainment, Cochran staged everything from Faust to Houdini, wild west rodeos to Eugene O’Neill.

Looking rather un-Victorian, Anna Neagle wearing a striking dress by Doris Zinkeisen in The Little Damozel (Wilcox, 1933) – a film that is now sadly lost

Anna Neagle, with whom AW had co-starred in Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), started her theatrical career as one of Cochran’s chorus girls. Known then as Marjorie Robertson, she had worked her way up from being a dancer and understudy for Jessie Matthews to a leading role in Stand Up and Sing (1931). Perhaps AW’s meeting with Cochran’s company came through Neagle?

Reporters seeking a statement from Walbrook about the surprise engagement were to be disappointed, as inquirers who called at his house in Holne Chase were turned away at the door by one of the servants, who told them he was ‘out of town’. Another member of the Courtney family was willing to talk, however, and told reporters that the couple were going into the country until their marriage, later this month, after which a friend was lending them a yacht on which to take a four-week honeymoon. Maude regarded Walbrook as ‘quite the most romantic person in the world and quite the shyest.’

AW in 1938. Promotional postcard around the time of ‘Design for Living’

Walbrook: ‘A Man without a Country’

Two days later, the story had taken a dramatic twist, as a large article appeared in the same newspaper headed ‘Film Star’s Wedding Vetoed. Girl’s Mother Objects. Miss Maude Courtney as ‘subject of Hitler.’ Nationality bar. Mr Anton Walbrook ‘a man without a country.’ The story went on to explain that as of yesterday, (Wednesday 26 October) the wedding was officially ‘off’. Legal advice had been taken and a formal statement issued by Messrs Henry Solomon & Co., solicitors, dated Tuesday, following a meeting between Walbrook and Maude’s family. Although aware of their close relationship, Mrs Charlton had been ignorant of their intent to marry, and made her views clear: ‘In the present state of European turmoil, I dare not think of my daughter becoming an alien, being married to a man without a country, and a subject of Herr Hitler. Maudie is of course terribly disappointed – broken-hearted. They are still friends, and if there is anyway of surmounting the barrier, the wedding will take place as soon as ever the difficulties can be straightened out. Mr Walbrook is a refugee – he had a Jewish grandmother – and Maudie is a Catholic. Her family is descended from the Plantagenets and is mentioned in the Domesday Book. It is one of the oldest families in England. How could she sacrifice this heritage to become an outcast?’ Mrs Charlton made it clear that Walbrook’s nationality was her sole objection to his marriage to her daughter, and told reporters ‘Personally, I think he is a very charming man.’

Much of this whole affair makes little sense, and carries with it more than a hint of a publicity stunt. Many of Birdie Courtney’s statements about Maude’s age and ancestry do not tally with public records: Maude’s birth certificate makes clear that she was already twenty one – not eighteen – at the time of the engagement, rendering the entire legal issue about consent a nonsense. Were the solicitors really unaware of her real age? However, given Walbrook’s longstanding dislike of media attention, the idea of a fake publicity stunt sounds almost as implausible as that of an engagement to a young chorus girl whom he had only just met. Little did he know that within a matter of days he would begin a relationship that – in contrast to the Cochran affair – would last for almost a decade. Maude eventually found a husband in 1948, while her mother remarried in 1941, but neither mother or daughter seem to have made further progress with their theatrical careers. One wonders if they retained an interest in Walbrook: did Maude ever go to see the actor on stage and feel tempted to nudge her neighbour and whisper, ‘We were once engaged to be married?’