Posted by medusamorlock on March 27, 2009
When my husband was cleaning out his parents’ apartment in Santiago, Chile, after their deaths last year, one of the things he found was a well-worn leather satchel, crammed full of postcards and dinner menus from his mother’s 1938 ocean journey on the Hamburg-Amerika steamer Rhakotis when she and her family fled Germany for a new life in Chile. She was a teenager then, and among the cards and mementos of the trip were a selection of movie star postcards which she had obviously collected, faces and autographs of personalities probably unfamiliar to most of us, but the stuff of a young fraulein’s dreams. There were several photos of stars we would recognize — a couple of Shirley Temples, a Greer Garson, a Gary Cooper — but it was those other stars who caught my eye. Who were these intriguing unknown celebrities? John Boles I know, but who was, for instance, Lilian Harvey?
Lilian Harvey, I found out, was a beautiful and talented actress/singer who was born in London but achieved her fame as an audience favorite in German films. Fluent in several languages, Lilian was able to work in different versions of her movies for various markets, and in the early 1930s was under contract to 20th Century Fox, where she made the film My Lips Betray in 1933, the one with John Boles. Lilian’s heart belonged in Berlin, however, and she continued to work there even as the Nazis came to power. She was no fan of Hitler; her loyalty to her friends, some of whom were targeted by the Nazi government, kept her under the Gestapo’s scrutiny. Despite the unwanted attention she was still able to aid friends in their escape from Germany to freedom, but it was not without a toll on Harvey’s life. Her real estate holdings were confiscated, and she fled to France, eventually ending up in Hollywood where she joined many of her German friends and spent the rest of WWII as a volunteer nurse. Despite her heroism and selfless acts, the taint of working under the Nazis kept her from reigniting a film career. Lilian did continue her singing career in various tour throughout Europe. She died in France in 1968 at the age of 62.
There was another postcard, of the classy beauty Camilla Horn. Aficionados of silent film may know her name from her starring role in Murnau’s 1926 masterpiece Faust, a part she inherited from Lillian Gish after Murnau wouldn’t hire Gish’s preferred cinematographer. Camilla came to Hollywood and made several films at the time when movies were making the transition to sound, and she could have made that transition with them — she had a good speaking voice and was a talented singer — but she wanted to return to Germany where she had a husband waiting for her. Even though she’d starred with John Barrymore in America, it was back to Berlin for her, where she resumed her career. She was a great favorite and like many artists was in defiance of the Nazis, but continued to work under and around their auspices. Despite being harassed and prosecuted by the Gestapo for a financial misdeed, she was a favorite of Goerring and obtained a personal pardon from him (while skillfully evading having to engage in an affair with him for it.) Camilla actually spent several months in prison after being convicted by the British post-War tribunals, but it did not hurt her standing as a favorite European movie actress. Much-married, rumored to be the mistress of producer Joseph Schenck, the victim of several financial frauds, and immensely talented, Camilla Horn was a survivor. At the age of 84 she made a movie comeback and died at the age of 93 in 1996.
And then there is the photo of the pert and luscious Anny Ondra. A beautful actress with a strong Czech accent (and born in Poland), Anny was a favorite of European silent movie audiences and also worked in English films, including the early sound movie Blackmail with director Alfred Hitchcock from 1929. Her accent kept her from going forward in English-language films after sound was established, but it didn’t stop her from making nearly 100 films over her long and successful career, and from branching out into acting as producer for over a dozen of her films. In the early 1930s she set up residence in Germany, and quickly became beloved for her comedic roles as well as her dramatic prowess. In 1933 she married the personable World Heavyweight Champion Max Schmeling who famously knocked out U.S. boxer Joe Louis in 1936. (The situation was reversed in 1938 when Louis even more famously defeated Schmeling. The two became fast friends, in fact, and Schmeling paid for Louis’ funeral in 1981 as well as giving other financial support when Louis fell on hard times). Anny and Max starred in a movie together in 1935 called Knockout, a showcase for his fisticuffs and her comedy cuteness, but Max soon went back into the ring to do what he did best and Anny continued her successful career. Despite being touted as a Nazi superman and used as a propaganda symbol for Germany, Schmeling was not a Nazi and worked privately against them. After WWII service (where the rebuffed Hitler put him into extra-hazardous service), he kept fighting and ultimately ended up as the Coca Cola king of Europe once he left boxing. Anny Ondra and Max Schmeling were happily married until her death in 1987, and Max died in 2005.
I’ll have more photos and stories next time. Until then, here’s a menu from February 6, 1938, on the Rhakotis:
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