Thursday, July 10, 2014

Paul Henreid, or Everything was Better Back in the Day.

Recently I've developed more appreciation for Paul Henreid. You know him as the actor who played Victor Laszlo in Casablanca. He preferred to be known for his role as Bette Davis' lover in Now, Voyager (which is a very weird movie and I should blog about it.) Anyway, after watching a few of his films I became interested enough to read his autobiography, Ladies Man.

In order to understand why I am so susceptible, you must know that my favorite historical era runs from approximately 1885-1935, in England and Europe. Henreid was born in 1908, which is almost exactly at the midpoint of this period, and brought up in Vienna. Vienna before the war - is there any more romantic city?

The fact is that Henreid doesn't say much about his early childhood; the book begins with an anecdote from 1921, when he was thirteen. As a young man, he received a thorough theatrical education:
Acting in Austria in those days was considered as much a profession as medicine or law. You had to attend school and study [for three years] and eventually take an examination to determine not only whether you could act, but also how much you knew about makeup and the theater, its lore and its history. You had to know the leading parts in eight plays by heart - four classical and four modern ones. Of the classics, two had to be in prose and two in verse. Of the modern plays, two must be comedies and two dramas.
In 1935, he had a successful stage career and was starting to break into films. When the famous German film studio, Ufa, asked him to sign a contract he was overjoyed. He went to Berlin, saw the studio . . . and when he sat down to sign the contract, discovered that he was required to become a member of the Nazi party. He refused, and went back to Vienna.

Soon he discovered that he had been blacklisted by the Nazis. (Ironically, just 12 years later he would be blacklisted again, by HUAC.) When the film he had just completed was shown in Germany, his name was removed from the credits. No one else in the German-speaking film industry would hire him. Remarking that unlike many people, he wasn't deeply attached to Vienna, he began to look farther afield.

He got a part in an English play (not allowing the fact that he knew no English to slow him down.) One role led to another, and when the Nazis invaded Austria in 1938, Henreid and his wife were both in England.

Henreid's wife, Lisl, was a dress designer, and very well known in her day. Henreid tells us that when they moved to America, "the trade papers for the garment industry announced LISL ARRIVES IN NEW YORK in great headlines." (There were no headlines for him.) As it happens, she was also one-quarter Jewish. When Austria was invaded, she wanted to go back and get her parents out. In fact she made two trips, and had run-ins with the Nazis both times. (If you want to know what happened you'll have to read the book.)

If it weren't for the Nazis, Henreid would probably never have gotten to Hollywood. As everyone knows, he was one among many European refugees there in the 1940s. They brought Continental sophistication, and they brought their life experience. I believe this is why films such as Casablanca are so powerful - because they were made by people who really had escaped from the Nazis, along with those residents of Hollywood who had good reason to hate and fear the Nazis.

Perhaps this sometimes led to melodrama - I'm not saying that all of the anti-Nazi films made in Hollywood during the 30s and 40s were as good as Casablanca. But I know for sure that few people in modern Hollywood have any comparable experiences. How many war refugees would be welcomed by Hollywood today? If we had an influx of refugees from Rwanda, or Bosnia, we would get films about Rwanda, or Bosnia. But we don't. Instead - this has been the case for many years - we get nothing but fantasy. Like the James Bond films.

Let me get back to Henreid. In 1941 he signed a contract with RKO which specified that in all his films he would play the male lead, "the actor who gets the girl." (Later he signed another contract with Warner Bros.) They did ask him to change his name - up until now he was Paul von Hernried. He absolutely refused to become "Paul Hammond" but he had no objection to dropping the "von" and went along with removing the extra R and change of "ie" to "ei." What's in a name? He was a star. Probably he had no idea how brief his rise would be.

Which of his films should you watch? The Conspirators makes an interesting comparison to Casablanca - both anti-Nazi spy films, both starring Henreid and the usual suspects, Greenstreet and Lorre. But the latter film is a classic and the former is not. I also recommend The Spanish Main, in which he plays a swashbuckling pirate. According to his daughter, he wanted more action roles. According to him, Jack Warner said "If I want swashbuckling I have Errol Flynn for that." The Spanish Main is a bit of fluff, really, but it does feature female pirate Anne Bonney. [This is a bit of a digression, but the leading lady of The Spanish Main, Maureen O'Hara, also played a swordfighter who "passes" for male in the film At Sword's Point.]

In 1947 Henreid was one of a group of Hollywood celebrities who traveled to Washington to protest the treatment of the "Hollywood Ten." They were derided as Communist dupes, if not fellow travelers. Henreid says that he was the only member of this group to be blacklisted, because all the others were under contract and their studios protected them. He himself had decided that he didn't want to be tied down by another studio contract. This turned out to be a mistake.

I believe that the blacklist was the beginning of the end for Hollywood. People often attribute its fall to the rise of television, or changing social mores . . . and those are all factors, but this act of betrayal must have done something too. People turned on each other . . . the same people who had hated the Nazis and proclaimed the value of American freedom now showed how cowardly they were. How could you trust anyone?

It seems that one of the rules of the blacklist is that no one will tell you you've been blacklisted. All he knew was that his phone stopped ringing. At last he asked an old friend, someone highly placed at MGM, "just tell me the truth, am I blacklisted or not?" His friend replied "Yes, but don't tell anyone I told you or I could lose my job." Henreid kept working - since no one would hire him as an actor he switched to directing independent films and television. But it was a stressful time.

Despite these moments of unpleasantness, the overall tone of the memoir is lighthearted and entertaining. There is plenty of Hollywood gossip. Henreid seems like a nice guy, if obstinate at times. (His agent begged him to sign a new contract in 1947 and he wouldn't do it.) My only regret is that he seems not to have met Erich von Stroheim, although their time in Hollywood did overlap briefly. Their lives had some interesting parallels. I would love to be able to say that Stroheim picked up the "von" that Hernried dropped, but since he came from an earlier generation he must have gotten someone else's von. They both came from Vienna to Hollywood, had some early success but couldn't maintain it. One started out as an actor, the other as a director - then they switched careers. Stroheim ended up going back to Europe but Henreid stayed.

This autobiography was published in 1984. Henreid died in 1992. He would have liked to be remembered as the suave, romantic figure who lit two cigarettes in his mouth and handed one to Bette Davis, a bit of business that Henreid says he and his wife worked out together.


  1. Henrid was never a Communist. He just had came from the experience of ideological purges and didn't like them. It wasn't a 'mistake'. It was the sign of an Upright Man

    1. No, I don't think he was ever a Communist. That's not why he was blacklisted.