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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 12 ‘Everybody’s wearing masks.’ Myths of Mitteleuropa, 1952–1955


CHAPTER 12‘Everybody’s wearing masks.’Myths of Mitteleuropa, 1952–1955*

If Walbrook felt lost in postwar Europe, his role in the musical Call Me Madam seems almost to offer an oblique riposte, for he was cast as Cosmo Constantine, foreign minister of the imaginary Grand Duchy of Lichtenburg. A huge success when it opened on Broadway in 1950, the original Call Me Madam starred Ethel Merman as American ambassador Sally Adams, the ‘hostess with the mostest’, who is appointed to Lichtenburg despite being temperamentally unsuited for any sort of diplomatic or political work. The plot is light and frivolous, but pleased audiences with its lively music score, happy ending and memorable songs such as ‘Married for Love’. Ethel Merman’s role in the West End production went to Billie Worth, a 35-year-old American with years of experience on Broadway, while other parts were played by Robert Henderson, Jeff Warren, Arthur Lowe – later well-known to British audiences as Captain Mainwaring in Dad’s Army – and Shani Wallis. The music was directed by Cyril Ornadel, who admitted that ‘Walbrook was the first star I had to conduct who used to speak his numbers. He always tried to catch me out because he’d do it differently every night.’1

The musical opened in February at the New Theatre in Oxford before transferring to the Coliseum in London, where the premiere took place on 15 March 1952. The following morning one reviewer commented ←275 | 276→on ‘the strange case of Mr Walbrook himself. Playing...

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