Saturday, October 05, 2013

Briana Čechová: Anny Ondra, European Comedienne (Pordenone 2013 introduction)

LUCERNA (CS 1925) [THE LANTERN]. Director: Karel Lamač. Poster. Národní filmový archiv, Praha
Národní filmový archiv 70

Briana Čechová:
Anny Ondra, comedienne europea
Anny Ondra, European Comedienne

“Buster Keaton in skirts”, “Woman-Frigo” (Frigo was the Czech distribution name for Buster Keaton’s character), “Woman-Gag”, or the “Czech Porcelain Doll” – which of these images is the most accurate description of Anny Ondra, the first European star with Czech roots? A supple, girlish figure, with cheery, restless eyes with blinking long lashes, distinctive heart-shaped lips, curly blonde hair, and – despite the comparison with Keaton (made by Rudolf Arnheim) – an essential, quizzical smile. An ingénue with an innocent expression, and an emancipated woman with a large dose of sex appeal. This modern, temperamental, and agreeably snappy woman probably was not swept to the heights of European popularity by her beauty or talents, but by an uncommon sense of humour and an inclination to practical jokes. Initially she was confined to child-woman roles by her directors, similar to Lucy Doraine, Mary Pickford, or Ossi Oswalda (indeed, for a short time she was even billed as “Ossia Valdová”). Only when she was emancipated from this persona did she become, at least for few years, the best European comic actress, who also excelled in dramatic roles.

The term “star” was never common in the world of early Czech cinema. In the first half of the 1920s, only Suzanne Marwille complied with the attributes of stardom, followed by Anny Ondráková. But for Ondráková, this was a condition of her work for foreign productions. Her success abroad strengthened her position at home, while always accenting her modesty and pride of her Czech roots. Only the comic actor Vlasta Burian in the sound period enjoyed a similar popularity. Coincidentally, Ondráková was Burian’s only equal female comic partner, working with him in the silent Milenky starého kriminálníka (The Lovers of an Old Criminal, 1927, directed by Svatopluk Innemann) and in her first Czech sound film, On a jeho sestra (Him and His Sister, 1931, directed by Karel Lamacˇ and Martin Fricˇ).

Anna Sofie Ondráková (15.5.1902, Tarnów, Poland – 28.2.1987, Hollenstedt, Germany) was born into a family of Czech officers in the Austro-Hungarian army; she spent her childhood in different garrison towns of the empire, Pula in Croatia or Terezín in Bohemia. After World War I her parents returned to Prague, where she soon verged towards an acting career. As a schoolgirl she had already appeared as an extra at the Švandovo Theatre, in the Prague quarter of Smíchov. By the age of 16 she had graduated to more important roles there, such as Hanicˇka in Alois Jirásek’s Lucerna (The Lantern). And in spite of the tales of her being discovered in the park or skating, it was probably when she was seen on stage by the future distinguished directors Gustav Machatý and Prˇemysl Pražský, who noted her talent and offered her a small part in their playful film sketch Dáma s malou nožkou (The Lady with the Small Foot, 1919).

In the following years she appeared in six films, but it was Karel Lamacˇ (1887-1952), a young actor, scriptwriter, and director, who discovered her as a real actress, devoted workmate, and lifelong friend. Lamacˇ who understood Ondráková’s true talents and underlined her charisma via tailor-made roles, in his films Otrávené sveˇtlo (The Poisoned Light, 1921), Bílý ráj (White Paradise, 1924), Chyt´te ho! (Catch Him!, 1924), Polská krev (Polish Blood, 1934), and their last joint (and Ondráková’s last Czech) project, Du°vod k rozvodu (Grounds for Divorce, 1937). Modelled on the American United Artists Fairbanks-Pickford-Griffith-Chaplin “Big Four”, Lamacˇ and Ondráková established their own production company, Ondra-Lamacˇ -Film, in collaboration with cinematographer Otto Heller (1896-1970) and scriptwriter Václav Wasserman (1898-1967). Their names also appeared together on films by other directors (e.g., Kantor Ideál / The Ideal Schoolmaster, 1932, directed by Martin Fricˇ). Ondráková’s name soon became famous in neighbouring Germany, where the three films she worked on with Jan Stanislav Kolár (1896-1973) between 1919 and 1921 were distributed: Dáma s malou nožkou (The Lady with the Small Foot), Zpeˇ v zlata (The Song of Gold), and Prˇíchozí z temnot (Arrival from the Darkness). Still at the beginning of her career, she was already a favourite of such directors as the German-American Sidney M. Goldin, performing in two of his Austrian films (Führe uns nicht in Versuchung and Hütet eure Töchter, both 1922). During the filming of Lamacˇ’s Czech-German production Dcery Eviny (Evas Töchter / Daughters of Eve, 1928) she received a surprise offer from London, to appear in Graham Cutts’ Glorious Youth (1928). The success of this film brought her to the attention of Alfred Hitchcock, who featured her in his last silent film, The Manxman (1929) and his first sound production, Blackmail (1929), in which she excelled, being the first in his series of attractive blondes with covertly provocative sex appeal. She also gained experience in Berlin, Vienna, and London theatres. Although she was dubbed by an English actress in the sound version of Blackmail, her language abilities did not limit her in the sound era, when she also worked in France, recording a few songs for gramophone discs in French, Czech, and German. A multi-talented artist, Ondra not only sang, but also danced, rode horses, and learned a number of acrobatic routines.

Her European career was later notably influenced by her marriage to the German boxing champion Max Schmeling (1905-2005) in 1933 (it lasted an impressive 54 years). It was probably due to Schmeling that she declined an offer from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and worked in Prague for the last time in 1943 (in Himmel, wir erben ein Schloss, directed by Peter Paul Brauer). Her final film was Helmut Käutner’s Die Zürcher Verlobung (The Affairs of Julie, 1957), in which she appeared as herself, wife of the controversial champion. In 1978 Robert Michael Lewis made an American television film entitled Ring of Passion, about the fights between Max Schmeling and Joe Louis between 1936 and 1938; Britt Ekland played Anny. Another television film dealing with the same subject was the 2002 American-German co-production Joe and Max, directed by Steve James; this time Anny was played by the Australian actress Peta Wilson. The most recent film about the famous couple was Uwe Boll’s Max Schmeling (Germany, 2010), in which Ondráková was played by Susanne Wuest.

Thus it seems that after all these decades Anny Ondra is now more famous for being a celebrated sportsman’s wife than a European star of the inter-war years. But her comic genius was unique, perfectly in keeping with the demand for an iconic type of her era. Her sensibility for the perfect punchline, combined with a talent for dramatic roles, her singing and dancing abilities and acrobatic proficiency, and the sense of humour she kept until old age, all remain enviable currency of one artist’s destiny and temperament. – Briana Čechová (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, catalogue, 2013)

DRVOŠTĚP (Zázračná léčba Dra. Jenkinse) (CS 1923), [THE LUMBERJACK; DR. JENKINS’ MIRACLE CURE], Director: Karel Lamač. Poster by Otto Ottmar. Národní filmový archiv, Praha

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