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Friday, 25 May 2012


Ross Verlag glamour portraits of men

“What is fame? The advantage of being known by people of whom you yourself know nothing, and for whom you care as little.”
Lord Byron

When Rudolph Valentino died in August 1926 Hollywood film producers threw tizzy fits trying to find a replacement, unaware that in death Valentino would create a whole new marketing sideline for them. Ivan Mozzhukhin (his name gets numerous spellings) was just one actor promoted as the heir apparent. He had everything the producers were looking for, an exotic European background – born in Russia, he had left in 1918 – dark, good looks and a vibrant presence in front of the camera. For unknown reasons, possibly personal, he was passed over and he barely made an impression in America. Probably for the best so far as the film studios were concerned. Sound was coming in and Hollywood was no place for an actor with a thick Russian accent. And just as well for Mozzhukhin too. When the studios wanted another Valentino they wanted another cardboard cut out, someone who knew how to smoulder and bat his eyelids in the right scenes. Mozzhukhin was better than that. In Russia and France he was a character actor, adept at playing admirals, peasants and insane monks with equal vividness. Hollywood would have wasted his talent.
One of his most famous roles was as the model for Lev Kuleshov’s eponymous effect, which was supposed to demonstrate how editing could invoke a response in the audience. In the demonstrations Mozzhukhin stared blankly at the camera as the scene suddenly cut to a bowl of soup, a coffin and then a beautiful girl. Each time the film returned to his face (it was exactly the same piece of footage) the audience read hunger, lust or tragedy in his face. It may have worked then, it doesn’t now.

This portrait of Nils Asther meets certain impressions we have of Scandinavian cinema; slow and quiet with lots of scenes involving healthy outdoor living. If you have watched the 1922 Danish/Swedish film, Haxan, witchcraft through the ages, (or part of it. Sitting through a full length silent feature is a test of inner strength these days.) you will know the Scandinavians had another side. This, after all, was the land of Munch, Hans Christian Andersen and Ibsen; people were familiar with the darkness.
Asther only acted in a few films in Denmark before moving to Hollywood. That may have been a mistake. For sure, in the 1920s no one considered Denmark the centre of anything much but in Hollywood he was just another face. Nothing stands out in his filmography though a few titles give an idea of his status: Laugh Clown Laugh, Abdul the Damned, Sweater Girl, Night Monster. Seven years after he died in 1981 his autobiography was published in Swedish. The critics were mostly kind to Narrens väg - The Road of the Jester – but in the way they might be to an injured street cat hanging around a rubbish bin. Asther spared no details, or names, in retelling his sexual history with men and women. He was evidently bitter about his lack of recognition yet anyone could see he had been master of his own destiny in that regard. One critic wondered if he was not a little mad.


 You tend to assume that any Austrian man who died in mid life in 1941 met a sticky end and since Rolf Randolf has now slipped into near total obscurity the question hangs without much hope of an answer. He began working in cinema during the First World War, when it was still expected that a man should write, direct, produce and act in his own films. That notion passed in the 1920s with the rise of studios around the world yet Randolf appears to have carried on regardless. He was still an independent moving between job descriptions in the 1930s. Though none of his films have memorable titles, the clips that survive on YouTube remind us that he came from the same world as Fritz Lang and Billy Wilder. He was at least competent at melodramatic thrillers. If that sounds patronizing it’s only because information is so scarce we can’t say much more.
This portrait was taken in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Something about his poise suggests he has already moved from in front of the camera to behind it, where the real power and influence lay in film-making. So how did he go out? Gunned down in an apartment courtyard by a gang of Gestapo operatives? Hacking his lungs out in a sanatorium? Mysteriously, his name does not appear in any cemetery records, even under his birth name, Rudolf Zanbauer.

 Speaking of Fritz Lang, he directed three of the five great films of German expressionist cinema; Metropolis, Dr Mabuse and Die Nibelungen. Paul Richter starred in the last two. That ought to have been enough to secure him some kind of lasting fame, after all, Valentino won a certain immortality with a handful of lesser films, but Richter, it appears, had little interest in stardom. Born in Austria, he was quite happy wandering through the Alps with a rucksack on his back and a yodel in his throat. He was also quite happy taking roles in small films that involved mountaineering and turned down others that would have secured his place in the firmament. The massive Die Nibelungen is his most famous role. It was also – no surprises here – one of Hitler’s favourite films, but Richter can’t be blamed for that. In this portrait Richter looks like a gay man who has made love to hundreds of women, not a huge contradiction in America, where it was assumed any well dressed European was obviously a touch low in the red blood cells but still a threat to the ladies. The portrait is by Mario von Bucovich, well known in the 1920s and 30s as a witness to Berlin’s less pedestrian areas.  

 In the mid 1930s Willy Fritsch joined the Nazi Party. No doubt he thought this a wise move guaranteeing he could still make movies, but plenty of others, including his frequent co-star Lilian Harvey, continued to work while showing no affiliation with the party, indeed quietly but actively resisting it. The odd thing is that after the war Fritsch’s past appears to have had no effect on his career. Others broke down and confessed that their mothers made them join or one had no choice or (best of all) they had no idea what was going on. Some paid the price for collaboration and never dared appear before a camera again. Not Fritsch, who went on working into the 1960s. It was said of Fritsch that he could do two things well. One was dance and the other was smile. Perhaps that was the secret. People didn’t take him seriously enough to consider him a danger during and after the Nazi era. In the same way he could have owed his incredible popularity before the war to his offering light entertainment with nothing intellectually threatening behind it. The silent films he appeared in during the 1920s and the musicals in the 1930s tended to have lavish sets, spectacular choreography and wafer thin plots, often based on the idea that a young woman is tempted to sin, sees the error in her ways and everybody celebrates when she marries her true love. Besides dancing skills and a winning smile, Fritsch also possessed keen survival instincts.

 So, did Gustav Fröhlich slap Josef Goebbels after his girlfriend, Lida Baarova, ran off with the Minister for Propaganda? You’d think no one could do that and live; then again Goebbels could have smugly employed a little eastern philosophy and allowed the actor to demonstrate his loss, hence his inferiority. You have to wonder though; how could Fröhlich get that close to Goebbels in private? After all, if there were witnesses, today we would remember him as the man who slapped Goebbels and lived rather than the leading actor in one great film, Metropolis, and numerous Fritsch type light comedies. There is something faintly convenient about this tale. So far as we know, Fröhlich didn’t do a Fritsch and join the party but he would have had to explain how he did quite well during the Nazi era without some level of patronage. The story that he once slapped Goebbels would have been enough to override a lot of difficult questions.
After a devastating war people tend to concentrate on the future and new beginnings but they also hold a candle for the world as it was before. With so many artists dead, disgraced or living abroad, Fröhlich (Fritsch too) was a link to a glorious past when German cinema was like no other, and so he would go on to a long yet strangely inconsequential career as an actor. 

 Put yourself in Max Schmeling’s shoes, if you can. It is June 22, 1938 and you are standing in a boxing ring in New York’s Yankee Stadium. There are 70 000 spectators on hand, most, by which I mean practically every single one of them, is screaming for your blood. When your opponent, Joe Louis, enters the ring the roar of the crowd is ear splitting. The handful of people who want you to win do so for the wrong reasons; to see a black man get his comeuppance or a demonstration of Nazi superiority. You are naked except for a pair of shorts, boots and gloves. The robe you wore into the ring is still flecked with spit and rubbish. You go to the centre to touch gloves with Louis, return and wait for the first bell. What can you do? Emotionally and psychologically you are already beaten.
The Americans never loved Schmeling. A couple of years earlier he had not only beaten Louis but knocked him out yet worse, in 1930 he won the Heavyweight Championship on a foul, when Jack Sharkey low-blowed him. Legally Schmeling was in the right though the Americans hardly thought it a manly or noble way to become champion. In Germany however he represented a ray of hope. With a broken empire and a ruined economy, the nation had few people to look up to, except Max Schmeling. Artists and intellectuals turned him into a folk hero, the struggle of national pride epitomised in physical power. Ross Verlag published this photo in 1935 or 36, when Schmeling was no longer champion but still a contender. He has been given the film star treatment, you wouldn’t know he was a fighter by trade, but then he was moving in social circles that generally disdained boxing. Around this time he married the actress Anny Ondra and they remained together for more than fifty years. After the war he bought into the German Coca Cola franchise and became a wealthy businessman, dying in 2005 at 99 years old. He once pointed out that losing to Louis by a first round knockout was the best thing that could have happened. If he had won he would have returned to a hero’s welcome from Hitler. Instead the Nazis decided he was washed up and left him alone.

 “Every man has two countries; his own and France.” It was a French playwright, Henri de Bornier, who came up with that line so you can hardly consider it profound, balanced or even logical, but you probably get its idea. For a long time any English or American who wanted culture or sophistication looked to France for advice. It was naturally assumed that the French ate the best food, drank the best wine, wore the best clothes and lived in the best buildings. Georges Carpentier, Light heavyweight Champion from 1920 to 1922, understood the value in Bornier’s words. While the popular image of a prizefighter was as a sullen, barely literate denizen of the streets, Carpentier exuded gentlemanly charm and style. To the Americans he was as French as foie gras on a baguette, which was reason enough to love him, though before his celebrated fight with Jack Dempsey Hemingway correctly predicted that steely pragmatism would outpunch good living.
In this portrait published by Ross Verlag in 1925 and credited to the Atlantic Photo Agency in Berlin, Carpentier is given more worshipful attention than most film stars could ask for. Shooting from just below the eye line, the photographer puts Carpentier on a pedestal, seduced more by his glamour than his prowess as a boxer.



  1. Very nice piece but I think you are a little unfair to Max Schmeling. He was vehemently opposed to the Nazis and, even during the fight, he was a great friend of Joe Louis, even helping Louis out financially when the great champ fell on hard times in the 50s and 60s. Schmeling covered a part of the costs of Louis' funeral, at which he was a pallbearer.

  2. You're right about him helping Louis, and I didn't mention the Jewish family he helped either but that was because of space.


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