Some forgotten European actresses from Ross Verlag and others
“Glamour is what I sell. It’s my stock in trade.”
The proliferation of cheap Ross Verlag photos won’t last forever. Soon enough they will rise in value because these things do and even if they will never make you rich, you can pick up an actual Alex Binder or Emil Hoppé photo for next to nothing so you’re doing better than the people prepared to pay thousands for them. The best thing about these photos is that they do their bit to keep alive the names of people who don’t deserve to be forgotten. I hadn’t heard of most of these actresses before I bought the cards but a bit of background research revealed stories sometimes bigger than the films they made.
Take Marcella Albani, who was a star in early Italian cinema, appearing in some 50 German, French and Czech films before retreating, rather than retiring, from acting to become a producer and novelist. Her last film was Der Kaiser von Kalifornien in 1936. It was a western in so far as it was set in the American west, about Johann Sutter, who discovered gold in California in 1848. Like a lot of films from the early sound era of 1930s it owed a lot to silent cinema, with minimal dialogue and melodramatic facial expressions but the opening scenes when Sutter leaves Switzerland and arrives in America are exceptional examples of early special effects and montage. By the time she died in 1959 aged 60 Albani could reflect on a successful career in several fields yet today it seems her name means nothing except to passionate devotees of silent film.
In the episode of the 2001 BBC documentary on the human face, Fame and Infamy, we met three men desperate for fame, and Mali Finn, a Hollywood casting agent. In assessing the three actors Finn couldn’t care less about their CVs, making her assessments on such small details as the shape of the nose, the jawline and the distance between the eyes, all from the head shots they'd submitted. If there was a science to her work (she died in 2007) it was phrenology and if the three actors weren’t so self-aggrandizing you could feel pity as their illusions about talent were shattered.
Playing the role of Finn, what could we say about Xenia Desni from this Alex Binder portrait? It goes without saying she is beautiful and glamorous but also she looks more childhood sweetheart than hard hearted vamp. During the 1920s Ukrainian born Desni appeared in a number of films that gave more licence to women than cinema would again for a few decades. Sappho for one, which wasn’t about lesbianism but how a woman (Pola Negri) literally drove weak men insane with her beauty. This portrait is tame compared to some of the others Ross Verlag published of her.
The point here being to cast some light on long forgotten cinema stars it soon becomes obvious that ‘forgotten’ means there isn’t a lot of information about them. A lot of the information on this post comes from another: european film star postcards, a comprehensive site that proudly reminds us “there is more than Hollywood”. Swedish born Mona Mårtenson was a friend and fellow student of Greta Garbo’s and they appeared in several films together including The Saga of Gosta Berling, about a priest falling for a married woman, a motif more popular than shocking in Scandinavian literature. Garbo left Sweden for Hollywood and Mårtenson stayed behind, leading some commentators to suggest she missed a boat. Did that bother her? Her career in Sweden didn’t suffer as she continued acting into the 1940s. In 1949, just before her untimely death, she appeared in Pippi Longstocking, based on the hugely popular Swedish children’s books.
Asta Neilsen is not forgotten. To be precise here, if her dozens of films including her version of Hamlet where she played the hapless prince aren’t watched that much anymore, her erotically charged dance lasting all of a minute in the 1910 film Afgrunden has kept her memory alive. What is less remembered are her subsequent careers as a collage artist, art critic and author. When she was 86 she viewed a documentary on her life in pre-production and was so put out she took over the project and made it herself. Two years later she married for the third time (or fifth, but does it matter?). While not a great portrait of Nielsen, this photo does show her at work on one of her collages.
On October 1 1937 Renate Müller, Germany’s most popular comiedienne, exited a third floor window in a Berlin hospital and was killed. Whether Germans believed it was suicide or murder depended on their politics though it’s telling that immediately the news broke, Goebbels’ ministry of propaganda issued press releases depicting her as a drug addict and mentally unstable sexual misfit. Taught acting by G W Pabst, whose Joyless Street starred Asta Nielsen and Greta Garbo, she had become as popular as Marlene Dietrich in 1920s Berlin. Her refusal to participate in several Nazi propaganda films and her rumoured affair with a Jewish man had her marked by the Gestapo but at the time of her death she had become so fed up with the situation in Germany that she had all but given up acting. Mostly she played in light musicals and comedies though she had the lead role in the original version of Victor and Victoria, playing a singer who helps out a female impersonator in a cabaret and is consequently mistaken for a man. It was the set up for a joke that Billy Wilder would take to Hollywood.
Ah, Berlin in the 1920s: leather, whips and gender ambiguity. Even if most of the documents show a world of stolid middle-class conservatism, these are the images that stick in our minds and here Eva Speyer plays the archetype, but who was she? The titles of some of her films – Die Morphenstin (Morphine Addict, 1920) Unter der Lanterne (Under the Lantern, 1928) Verirrte Jugend (Misled Youth 1929) lead you to think she specialized in the dark, socially concerned but highly melodramatic film of the New Objectivity movement. Speyer was a common Jewish name and she died in 1932 aged 49. Though it is tempting to draw a conclusion from those two pieces of information we can’t be certain of anything since biographical information is thin on the ground.
We know something more about the circumstances of Ossi Oswalda’s death in Prague in 1947 where, caught up in shattered post war economy and the Soviet takeover, she was reduced to living on the streets in dire poverty. Just twenty years earlier she had been one of the darlings of Weimar cinema; “Germany’s Mary Pickford”, we are told. Trained as a ballerina, she had been one of Ernst Lubitsch’s favourite actors. At one point she was involved with Crown Prince Wilhelm, who turned out to be something of a political imbecile and the caricatures of the two of them in the press did nothing for her career.
It may not be fair to call Margarete Schön forgotten simply because I haven’t heard of her. Of all the actors here she had the longest career, beginning in 1918 and lasting into the mid 50s but it appears that, outside Germany at least, she is best remembered as Kriemhold in Fritz Lang’s 290 minute version of Die Nibelungen. Though her role as the scheming princess made her internationally famous, later she’d be typecast as the perfect, ever faithful and servile wife. Speaking of typecasting, as fashion went, fur lined leather was as German as a pork sausage with sauerkraut and you know at once where Ms Schön comes from.
Michael Curtiz directed Elvis’s best film, King Creole, and Casablanca, so his work will be remembered for a while but back when he was Mihaly Kertesz his wife, Lucy Doraine, got all the attention. She was born Ilonka Perenyi in Budapest and began appearing in Kertesz’ films soon after World War 1. In Vienna they made Sodom and Gomorrah, a tale of lust, greed and revenge taking place in biblical Syria and contemporary London, that involved sets as elaborate as those Griffith used for Intolerance. Appearing in her husband’s films with film titles like The Scourge of God, Labyrinth of Horror and Good and Evil, in Austria and Germany Ms Doraine had a reputation as one of the most provocative and erotic actresses in Europe. Soon after making Sodom and Gomorrah the two divorced though they moved to Hollywood about the same time, where Kertesz prospered and Doraine went nowhere rapidly.
Back to Fame and Infamy and the three men anxiously pursuing fame know what they need; a break, and they believe they deserve it. Meanwhile, William Goldman, who has been around the scene a while longer than they have thinks it’s all a matter of luck. “Almost every movie star that we could mention got famous because they had a good part in a hot movie that someone else turned down,” he says. “And that insecurity goes with them forever.” In the late 1920s and early 30s head shots were no big deal. A portrait by Binder or one of the other glamour studios mattered more and if Ross Verlag published it and it became one of their more sought after cards, well, you were in, even if the customers weren’t too sure about your films. But what Goldman said was pertinent. Luck was a bigger player than talent. In the same episode he described how Chaplin came up with his idea for the tramp in a dressing room and was at a loss thereafter to explain why it resonated across the world. But desire has to mean something too, How is it that Thea Steinbrecher has all but vanished so that even information on her birth and death dates is difficult to find? Maybe she quickly tired of the idea of fame and gave it up for more balanced values. As Goldman hinted, fame is a kind of compensation for something more substantial but as elusive.