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Anton Walbrook

A Life of Masks and Mirrors


James Downs

Viennese-born actor Adolf Wohlbrück enjoyed huge success on both stage and screen in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s, becoming one of the first truly international stars. After leaving Nazi Germany for Hollywood in 1936, he changed his name to Anton Walbrook and then settled in Britain, where he won filmgoers’ hearts with his portrayal of Prince Albert in two lavish biopics of Queen Victoria. Further film success followed with Dangerous Moonlight and Gaslight, several collaborations with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger – including his striking performance as Lermontov in The Red Shoes – and later work with Max Ophuls and Otto Preminger.

Despite great popularity and a prolifi c career of some forty films, alongside theatre, radio and television work, Walbrook was an intensely private individual who kept much of his personal life hidden from view. His reticence created an aura of mystery and «otherness» about him, which coloured both his acting performances and the way he was perceived by the public – an image that was reinforced in Britain by his continental background.

Remarkably, this is the first full-length biography of Walbrook, drawing on over a decade of extensive archival research to document his life and acting career.

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Chapter 9 ‘This is not a Gentleman’s War.’ Playing ‘the Good German’, 1943–1945


CHAPTER 9‘This is not a Gentleman’s War.’Playing ‘the Good German’, 1943–1945*

The author of Watch on the Rhine, Lillian Hellman (1901–67), was from a Jewish family and had travelled in Germany in the late 1920s. Her first play, The Children’s Hour, premiered on Broadway in November 1934. Watch on the Rhine was written in 1940 and made its appearance on Broadway the following April, when it won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for the best American play of the season and ran for 378 performances before closing on 21 February 1942.

In the wake of this success, H. M. Tennent brought it to London’s West End in April 1942. Watch on the Rhine reunited Walbrook with Diana Wynyard, once again playing husband and wife, Kurt and Sara Müller, but bound, in this instance, by a happier marriage than that depicted in Gaslight. Shortly after the play opened, Walbrook and Wynyard attended an exhibition entitled Waste Paper goes to War at Selfridges department store, which directed public attention towards the military needs for paper-based products and suggesting ways in which paper could be saved and recycled. To publicise the work, the pair shredded a script for Gaslight, as if symbolically marking the transition from Mallen to Müller – the end of their old ‘stage marriage’ and the beginning of the new.

Figure 12. Walbrook and Wynyard shredding Gaslight script. Author’s collection.

The play opens with...

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