Saturday, April 13, 2013

May You Live In Interesting Times, Lilian Harvey

I'm sure most people have heard the old Chinese curse about living in interesting times.  Well, I'm not sure such a curse ever existed or if it's the invention of some B-movie writer, or if it's all that bad to live in such eras.  In any case, Lilian Harvey lived in interesting times.

Lilian Harvey was born Helene Lilian Muriel Pape in 1906, in London.  Her mother was English, her father was a German businessman.  Not a good combination for the twentieth century. At the beginning of World War 1, Lilian and her parents were living in Magdeburg, Germany.  Unable, or perhaps unwilling to leave, Lilian's parents stayed in Germany, but fearing for their daughter's safety, they sent young Lilian to live with relatives in Switzerland, where she learned to speak French, along with the German and English she already knew.

After the war, she returned to Germany to be with her parents.  After graduating form the German version of high school, she began studying voice and dance at the Berlin State Opera, while also pursuing theatrical work.  She also changed her name to Lilian Harvey.  She danced in revues, sang on stage, acted in plays, and also began working in silent movies.

One of the things about silent movies was that they were an international art form.  A silent movie made in Germany, with translated inter-titles, could play anywhere in the world.  When sound came along, suddenly, there were national cinemas.  Movies made in the large market of the United States, with an audience in other English language markets, continued apace, but  a country like Germany, with a much smaller population, had to adapt.  What the German, as well as other European film industries did, was to film the same movie, in multiple languages, all at the same time.  A situation made for Lilian Harvey.  Thanks to her training, she could sing and dance, her stage experience had given her a  good voice for talkies, and she could speak fluent, unaccented, German, English, and French.  And while these were all advantages, she was also a charming performer, with a gift for light comedy, as well as enough range to handle a dramatic role.  Far more important for a movie actor.

So, with the advent of sound movies, Lilian Harvey became an international star.  Not all of the German actors could work in multiple languages, so Lilian often found herself filming a scene with a German costar, then doing the same scene again with an English, or French actor.  Laurence Olivier's first film role was opposite Lilian in an English version of Hokuspokus.  In the mid thirties, Lilian Harvey accepted an invitation to work at Fox Studios in Hollywood.  She made a few films, none as popular as her European films, so she walked away from George White's Scandals.  The film was a major hit, and her replacement, Alice Faye became a big star.

While Harvey was still popular with German audiences, she had fallen out of favor with the German, Nazi government.  Despite the Nuremberg Laws that made it impossible for Jews to work in film, she continued her friendship with many of her Jewish colleagues.  In 1937, she bailed out her friend, choreographer Jens Keith, who had been arrested for violating Paragraph 175, a Nazi era law criminalizing homosexuality.  While out on bail, Keith fled to Paris.  Lilian Harvey was arrested by the Gestapo, but  released several days latter.  In 1939, Lilian Harvey herself fled Germany, moving to France.  Eventually she was stripped of her German citizenship for entertaining French troops.  Her large real estate holdings and bank accounts were also seized.

In 1942, Lilian Harvey, once again, moved to the United States.  This time there would be no film work.  (Her last films were shot, in France, in 1940.)  She did work on stage, and was also a nurse in Los Angeles.  After the war, she moved to France, where she worked as a singer.  It wasn't until 1949 that she returned to Germany to give a series of concerts.  Her career petered out after that.  Eventually she retired to Antibes on the French Riviera, where she supported herself running a souvenir shop.  She died in 1968, at the age of 62.

The photo is a German tobacco card, from the 1930s.

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