Posted by Susan Doll on October 12, 2009
Of all the films in the original Universal horror cycle, Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy feature the most memorable female characters. Elsa Lanchester’s turn as the title character in Bride is now a history-making performance in an iconic film. But, more interesting to me is Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnation of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon in The Mummy. Johann’s raven hair, huge eyes, and underlying eroticism set her apart from the dull, virginal leading ladies of the other Universal films from this time frame. With their blonde bobs, tasteful hats, and tailored clothing, the Helen Chandlers, Mae Clarks, and Julie Bishops kind of all run together for me into one Anglo-looking archetype.]
Surprisingly, Johann’s film career never surpassed The Mummy. Interested only in the process of acting, the dedicated stage actress thought the trappings of movie stardom—the publicity and promotion, the catering to fans, and even the necessity of making lighter fare, like genre films—were silly and superficial. She disliked those movie stars who were more interested in the trappings than the work, once remarking that she had more respect for the whores on 42nd Street than for the stars in Hollywood.
Born in 1904 in Temesvar, Hungary (now Timisoara, Romania), Johann grew up in New York City and never enjoyed being far from the culture and lifestyle of her adopted city and state. She appeared in school productions when she was in high school and then at a very young age applied to be an understudy with the Theater Guild. She earned roles in touring productions of the classics Peer Gynt, The Devil’s Disciple, and He Who Gets Slapped. She made her Broadway debut at age 20 in Man and the Masses. By the late 1920s, she was recognized as a powerful dramatic actress, playing the female lead in Machinal, Uncle Vanya, and Tomorrow and Tomorrow. In reading about her theatrical career, I was struck by how often her path crossed that of actors, writers, or directors destined for stardom or fame in Hollywood. A very young Clark Gable appeared opposite Johann in Machinal at the Booth Theatre, while Edward G. Robinson played alongside her in various Theater Guild productions. Osgood Perkins, Tony Perkins’s father and later a character actor in Hollywood, costarred with Johann in Uncle Vanya. One of her biggest stage hits was Tomorrow and Tomorrow, written by a young Philip Barry. It reminded me of how much the studios raided the East Coast stages for actors and writers after the coming of sound.
Johann used a technique for getting into character that reminded me of method acting in its intensity and depth but was based on an almost spiritual approach to her roles. She called it “theater of the spirit.” Before a performance, she sat alone in her dressing room, said a few prayers to tap into her spirituality, pulled herself into the part, and then walked onstage. In an interview, she remarked, “Most of the time, I live in the mood of the character I am portraying. If I play a role for a long time, it is difficult for me to get out of that mood when the engagement is over.” Her acting methods served her well, giving her performances a burning intensity that earned her the nickname the “White Flame of the American Theater.” She took her acting talent very seriously and considered her performances to be expressions of art. It is not hard to see why she had difficulties in Hollywood, where even the best of actors at the time looked upon it as a job.
Few knew until after her death that Johann had a keen interest in spiritualism, the occult, and reincarnation. According to the actress, her forays into the latter helped her tap into the emotions and spirits of the characters she played. She was so interested in the occult that during the 1920s while working as a stage actress, she went on a spiritualist retreat where during one of her group’s exercises, she supposedly levitated. Spiritualism, in which devotees attempted to communicate with worlds outside our own, was trendy during the Jazz Age, and a number of celebrities dabbled in it. Apparently, Johann never lost interest once the trend ran its course. In her later years, when she taught acting, she encouraged students to call on the spirit of the character they were playing—particularly if it was based on an actual historical person—in order to give depth of emotion to the performance.
By 1929, the major studios came courting, but Johann was not that eager to jump on the Hollywood bandwagon. In 1929, she signed a short-term contract with MGM, who unbelievably gave her the last word in terms of selecting her film roles. This was certainly not the norm; typically, actors under contract played the roles they were assigned by producers. Unfortunately, she did not find one role or one director to her liking. According to film historian David Del Valle, she marched into legendary producer Irving Thalberg’s office one day and exclaimed, “Irving, why do you make such rubbish?” Johann managed to collect $27,000 while under contract to MGM but did little acting.
RKO also courted the selective actress for a while, and according to the entertainment columns, David O. Selznick himself signed her to “Radio,” as the studio was called in the trades at the time. As with her theatrical career, Johann managed to interact with some of the biggest names in the industry—Thalberg, Selznick, Griffith—while pursuing a movie career. Selznick acknowledged that he had no property in mind for her because “she needs a special kind of role,” and he feared miscasting her. He was hoping that a book by Tiffany Thayer titled Thirteen Women would make a good debut for Johann, but apparently that did not work out.
After two years, Johann finally made her screen debut for D.W. Griffith in his last film, The Struggle (1931)—an impressive start for anyone. Cowritten by Anita Loos and financed by Griffith himself, The Struggle featured Johann as the wife of a hopeless alcoholic. It was a part with serious dramatic potential, and the actress was eager to work with “the Father of American Film.” But the critics were not kind to Griffith’s last effort, claiming it to be sentimental and old-fashioned. I’ve never seen the film, and perhaps it does pale in comparison to the director’s major works Broken Blossoms and Way Down East, but I don’t think Johann was ever sorry for selecting a Griffith film to make her entrance on to the big screen. In interviews, she lauded Griffith’s close connection to actors, gushing, “Mr. Griffith has such a boundless serenity that he gives you confidence and assurance. One slides into a scene without knowing it. He has a hypnotic influence on the cast, and you are flexible under his direction. That is the trouble with most film directors. They are quite inflexible in their ideas.”
“Inflexible” was just the right word to describe her relationship with Karl Freund, who directed her in The Mummy. Freund, the great German Expressionist cinematographer-turned-director, used actors as though they were elements of his mise-en-scene to become one with the shadows of his masterful chiaroscuro lighting. The film is a mood piece heavy in the stimmung that German Expressionist filmmakers sought to create, and the mood is designed to carry viewers to an exotic land so we can contemplate the consequences of desire and greed. Boris Karloff as the title character and Johann as his reincarnated princess offer stellar performances despite Freund’s focus on visual style. Freund was particularly hard on Johann, reportedly selecting her as a scapegoat. The story goes that in case the film failed, he could claim that he was distracted by a temperamental star. He bullied her on the set, forced both Johann and Karloff to work 12 to 16-hour days, and sometimes did not let the actress sit down. Not only did he fail to provide her with a director’s chair with her name on it as was the custom, he often made her lean back on a standing board for hours so as not to wrinkle her costume. Shortly after they met, he told her she would have to play many scenes nude from the waist up, hoping to upset her. But, she surprised him by agreeing to do it. Of course, those scenes never came about, because he was only trying to intimidate her.
On the last day of shooting, when she was exhausted and underweight from the stress, Freund shot several flashback scenes of the reincarnated Helen Grosvenor. In one scene, Johann played Grosvenor as a Christian offered to the lions. A real lion was used for the scene, and when Johann walked on the set, she was surprised that Freund and the crew were in cages to protect themselves from the lion, but there was no cage for her. She was expected to act her scene with no barrier between her and the big cat. And, so she did.
Most of these flashback scenes were cut from the film to hasten along the end of the story, much to Johann’s disappointment. She maintained that these scenes added depth and interest to her character, but her judgment may have been affected by her own interests in reincarnation and the occult. Yet, it may have been those very beliefs that grounded her performance, giving depth and validity to a role that others might not have taken seriously. She actually feinted while filming the shot in which Karloff as Armen Bey shows her the reflecting pool that reveals Helen’s past lives. Years later, Johann claimed that she was so exhausted and undernourished at the time that she had an out-of-body experience and may have been near death. Only the prayers and good wishes of the cast and crew brought her back. Johann did not watch The Mummy until the late 1950s when it began turning up on television. She held a get-together with friends so they could watch the movie together because she didn’t want to see it alone.
The experience with Freund combined with the carefree lifestyle of Hollywood disgusted Johann, and she made only five more films before returning to the New York stage. In addition to The Mummy, Tiger Shark, costarring her old friend from the Theater Guild, Edward G. Robinson, was released that year. According to Johann, “Eddie” had let Hollywood go to his head and was more interested in having his best side to the camera than in his performance. She was disappointed in him. Another bad experience included an evening out with the young John Huston, then an up-and-coming screenwriter. Rip-roaring drunk, Huston got behind the wheel of a car with the beautiful actress in tow. He wrecked the car, seriously injuring Johann. While she recuperated, the industry pulled strings with authorities to cover up the seriousness of the accident, mostly to protect the high profile of Huston’s father, character actor Walter Huston, a highly respected figure in Hollywood. John was whisked out of the country until all was smoothed over. “I hated Hollywood,” Johann told the New York Post in an interview. “It was no more than a personality and sex factory. They weren’t interested in acting.” Back in New York, she starred in several major stage dramas of the day, including Panic (1935), Flight into China (1939), The Burning Deck (1940), and The Broken Journey (1942).
Johann was married to John Houseman while in Hollywood, and the couple lived near Malibu. According to interviews near the end of her life, she was the one who introduced Houseman—later a prominent stage and film producer—to show business circles in Hollywood and New York. She also claimed that she was the sole breadwinner for the household, which included Mama Houseman and a young man named Eric whom her husband moved into their bedroom. None of those claims can be substantiated, and perhaps like all of us who have been disappointed by loved ones, she exaggerated aspects of their less-than-perfect marriage. They divorced in 1934, the same year she returned to New York City. Not long thereafter, she married silent star Colleen Moore’s ex-husband, agent John E. McCormick, after a whirlwind seven-day courtship. Later, she married economist and publisher Bernard E. Shedd, which also ended in divorce. It was interesting to read the list of wedding guests in a news article; they included theater director Arthur Hopkins, documentary filmmaker Pare Lorentz (The River; The Plow That Broke the Plains), and playwright Maxwell Anderson. Zita definitely traveled in artistic circles.
While married to Shedd, she went into semi-retirement. When World War II began, Shedd joined the military, and Johann jumped into supporting the war effort. She arranged entertainment for soldiers on leave in New York and New Jersey, and she briefly became a fight promoter to organize a 16-bout boxing match for the benefit of the troops stationed at Orangeburg, New York.
After retiring from the stage and her divorce from Shedd, Zita Johann purchased a pre-Revolutionary War house in West Nyack, New York, where she lived out the rest of her days. On occasion, she attended various cinephile conventions, where film buffs sought out her autograph and photos. Inexplicably, at age 82, Johann came out of retirement to play a tiny part in a perfectly awful horror film called Raiders of the Living Dead by exploitation director Samuel M. Sherman. After a respectable if brief film career, and a stellar stage reputation, why she decided to return to films after 52 years to appear in something so unworthy remains a mystery.
Del Valle, David. “Queen of the Nyack,” Films in Review. February 2007.
Grimes, William. Obituary. The New York Times, September 30, 1993.
“Intellectualism No Foe to Emotionalism,” Sunday Globe, November 8, 1931.
“Mummy Dearest: A Horror Tradition Unearthed,” DVD extra, The Mummy DVD.
Musetto, V.A. Obituary, New York Post. October 8, 1993.
“Who’s Who in the Cast,” Playbill, date unknown.
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