Saturday, June 7, 2014

CASABLANCA Star Out Loud in Silent Film

Two men from German cinema went to Hollywood and had a common link to Ingrid Bergman.

June is Gay Pride Month.  Here's a little information about a breakthrough film, a silent foreign film, and two of its actors who both went on to work in classic Hollywood movies.  The breakthrough German film, available on DVD, is perfect viewing for Pride Month.

Actor Conrad Veidt had a long, interesting face with structure and intelligent eyes that the camera loved.  He was a versatile and brave actor.  He embraced cultural diversity.
Before films learned how to talk, he starred in silent films that went on to become highly influential classics -- such as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), The Last Performance (1927) and The Man Who Laughs (1928).  In that 1928 film based in a Victor Hugo novel, he's a man who becomes a circus act after being surgically disfigured.  Veidt's look as the performer inspired the look created for The Joker in Bob Kane's Batman comic books.

In 1919, Conrad Veidt played probably cinema's first openly gay lead character. Germany's 1919 silent film is called Different from the Others (original German title: Anders als die Andern).  Veidt starred as a renowned musician.

Veidt's musician (seated) falls in love with his young protegé.  In the film, we see an establishment for gay clientele and we see same-sex dancing.  While the two popular male musicians are having a relationship, they are threatened with blackmail.

The blackmailer himself may be a closeted homosexual.
1919's Different from the Others was a plea for tolerance and a cinematic statement against anti-homosexuality laws in Germany.  In his German film career, Conrad Veidt played a gay man, he'd played a proud Jew, he worked with gay artists, he worked with Jews and he married a Jew.  That put him on Hitler's shit list.  He eventually fled to Britain and gave money to the British war effort.  In Hollywood, he had a memorable role in the Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1943.  He was Gestapo Major Strasser in Casablanca, the Nazi jeopardizing the freedom of the former lovers played by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and the woman's heroic husband played by Paul Henreid.

The blackmailer in Different from the Others was played by Reinhold Schünzel.
You may not recognize his name but you have seen his work.  Like Conrad Veidt, he acted opposite Ingrid Bergman in one of her finest Hollywood films.

In Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946), she played the fast-living woman recruited by the government to infiltrate a house of Nazis in Rio.  Her dangerous assignment involves romancing one of them to gain access to the household and foil their Nazi plot.  Cary Grant played the often caustic American agent who trains her and falls in love with her as she goes to bed with a Nazi and literally does undercover work for Uncle Sam.

Reinhold Schünzel played Dr. Anderson.  Remember Hitchcock's famous coffee cup scene in Notorious?  He's the Nazi scientist who almost drinks the poisoned coffee.

Schünzel was an actor, a film director and a screenwriter.  He directed a 1933 German comedy that inspired entertaining and positive gay images in a hit 1980s musical comedy.  Reinhold Schünzel directed and wrote the 1933 German musical comedy film, Viktor und Viktoria.

A young out-of-work soprano becomes friends with a middle-aged out-of-work actor who convinces her to pull a sexual identity switch for the sake of employment.  She pretends to be a man who, onstage, pretends to be a woman.  Comic complications ensue, including a romantic attraction.  Actor Adolf Wohlbrück, seen smoking a pipe in the photo below, played the object of her secret romantic attraction.

Blake Edwards gave us a witty musical comedy remake starring his wife, Julie Andrews.  I consider 1982's Victor/Victoria to be one of Hollywood's last truly great screwball comedies.  It's amazing how many basic elements of the 1933 original that Edwards carried over and expanded upon for his clever remake.  For instance, there's the Spanish-flavored dance number that "Victoria" does onstage.

The Spanish number is later reprised by her middle-aged mentor and confidant.

In Schünzel's Viktor und Viktoria, the middle-aged male confidant to "Viktor" is heterosexual.  He's seen in the mirror in the photo below.  In the Blake Edwards remake, the friend is a gay male in the gender bender and the change works well.
The songs written for Julie Andrews were some of the best and jazziest of her film career.

Julie Andrews was nominated for Best Actress.  Hollywood veteran Robert Preston, a beefcake Paramount Pictures star in the 1940s who went on to bigger success as Broadway's The Music Man, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor as the gay male pal who comes up with the female impersonator idea.  Another inspired  change for the remake was former NFL star Alex Karras as the bodyguard to the movie's leading man, the man who will win Victoria's heart.  Karras gave us one of the most welcomed and refreshing gay male characters in American cinema.  Karras was wonderful.
He's the loyal and lovable bodyguard to the tough Chicago nightclub owner played by James Garner.  King Marchand (Garner) needs him around.  And "Squash" Bernstein is not just the protector.  He's a gay guy who's also the best friend to the straight man.
He wasn't a victim.  He wasn't a deviant.  He wasn't a hustler who'd done jail time.  He was the guy who kept you safe.  That sweet bear of a character was a breath of working class fresh air for gay images in Hollywood movies.  That straight/gay male friendship was a breakthrough from Blake Edwards.  Major Hollywood studio releases had not explored that kind of male bonding.  Blake Edwards' 1982 Victor/Victoria put a fresh and timely spin on that an screenplay.  The fake female impersonator role brought out the best in Julie Andrews.

In the original 1933 version, Reinhold Schünzel directed Adolf Wohlbrück in the role that would later be played by James Garner.  Wohlbrück would soon change his name to Anton Walbrook.  He was born in Austria, his mother  was Jewish and he was gay.  Like Conrad Veidt, he was also on Hitler's shit list.  He moved to England and acted in films that are now classics.  Among them are The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Lola Montes.  Walbrook should have been a Best Actor Oscar nominee for his stunning work as Boris Lermontov, the suave and obsessed ballet impresario in 1948's innovative and visually dazzling drama, The Red Shoes.  It's one of the classics in his credits.

Anton Walbrook never starred opposite Ingrid Bergman onscreen but they did have a connection.  He played the sinister husband plotting against his wife in the 1940 British thriller, Gaslight.  A Hollywood remake was directed by George Cukor for MGM.

Cukor directed Ingrid Bergman as the wife in danger.  Charles Boyer starred as the husband and Angela Lansbury made her film debut as a maid who services the master with more than housework.  A 3-time Oscar winner, Ingrid Bergman won her first Best Actress Academy Award for 1944's Gaslight.

There you are.  A Casablanca star played a groundbreaking character in the history of gay images on film and his co-star made it possible for Mary Poppins to become a drag queen and give us "Le Jazz Hot."  That's some German cinema history for your Pride Month.  Have a good one.

1 comment:

  1. Veidt fan chiming in here--great post! And speaking of gay angles and Casablanca, there's also this. So not one but two of the Nazis were queer refugees from the real ones. Also, it's refreshing to see a post that mentions these connections without automatically assuming Strasser is some stereotype of an evil homosexual--that seems to happen a lot these days, because what came across as a suave playboy in the 40s can come across as camp today. It'd be a shame considering he was played by an actual bisexual so big on LGBT rights that he probably wouldn't ever have agreed to play that type. So thanks for reminding people of what kind of an awesome guy he was.


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