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Submitted by Neal Lofthouse
By Tom Dysart
Picturegoer Saturday December 25 1937
An appreciation of the Viennese actor who plays Prince Albert in Victoria the Great and has already founded a firm reputation with only three English-speaking pictures.
A few months ago Anton Walbrook didn't exist for English-speaking audiences. Today he has a better than even chance of taking a place among the few really great stars of the screen. The story behind those facts is the story of one actor and three films.
A few months ago Continental actor Adolph Wolbruck was offered a Hollywood contract. He accepted, after much consideration; and was re-christened Anton Walbrook, just to make it easier for us.
Chracteristically, Hollywood chose to introduce this new find as a glamorous personality rather than as an actor; and to do so made over as Michael Strogoff his most catchily colourful European success.
[The French film Michel Strogoff (1935) was remade as The Soldier and the Lady (1937) for R.K.O.]
Walbrook's performance was honestly sincere and effectively dashing, but he wasn't given a chance to show what a fine actor he really is. The film itself was a patchily grandiose affair that stirred filmgoers' imaginations only superficially.
The coolness of its reception makes me wonder what might have happened to Walbrook, had not R.K.O.-Radio just at that time decided to tie up with Herbert Wilcox on a long-term producing and distributing arrangement..
Perhaps he would have waited around anxiously for a long time, got bored with hoping for a better break, and finally returned to Europe, where he had a big reputation. But, things being as they were, he got instead the part of the Prince Consort in Victoria the Great.
It was a lucky break for Walbrook as far as his career in Anglo-American films was concerned. For it took the seemingly inspired casting of him as Albert to show the English-speaking world that there was in existence a great actor it hadn't met.
His performance was as near to being beyond criticism as a portrayal can be. All the charm, strength of character, the courage, the tenderness, the fine powers and the human qualities of a man England understood but little are brought out in it. And the superficial things, likeness, bearing, accent and the rest were so absolutely right. Walbrook stated his claim to eminence conclusively in Victoria the Great.
He has since made The Rat. The step from historical nobility to gutter-rat melodrama was a tricky stride indeed. But Walbrook took it with the ease of a giant.
The Tough Romantic
Here is a story, devised by a clever craftsman of the theatre, built cunningly around a shabbily glamourous central figure, a worthless gallant such as always has captured our illogical imaginations.
Cast the central figure badly, or let him be played by a poor actor, and your film is doomed. But Walbrook is no poor actor. His Rat, if anything, transcends the story. You do not look for depth of characterisation in a portrayal of such a fellow, neither is it strictly necessary; it is enough if his adventures capture your imagination, and create a pleasant, numbing glamour.
But Walbrook, even though playing such a romanticised rogue, was too good an actor to shirk the challenge. Like any other born actor, he had to try to make the character seem not only attractive, but real.
That is why his performance is worth watching and remembering. It presents no glamorous Chelsea Arts Ball apache, with picturesque blouse, knotted scarf and flowing locks. Walbrook wears a truculent gor-blimey cap, a waisty suit with padded shoulders and exaggerated cut, and a coarse sweater underneath. He doesn't look romantic; he looks tough.
And he behaves that way. There are blows, not stylishly given, for those who cross him; harsh words for women who irritate him.
He sulks and shouts when things go wrong. There is often a snarl in his words of affection. When he is bored he flings himself petulantly on the bed and stares moodily at the ceiling.
But at the same time he has decent instincts, such romantic ones as the proverbial thieves' honour, and elemental integrity.
By showing the realistic side of the character, and letting more artificial qualities develop implicitly, Walbrook achieves a portrayal that is a subtle blend of realism and romanticism. Not many actors could have done as much.
But the effort has been worth the candle, for it is Walbrook's strong bid for realism that helps to give the story humanity and grip.
I have dealt at length with Walbrook's portrayal of the Rat, because it proves that he is one of those rare actors who, when there is an alternative, choose the harder way which, if successfully followed, will produce a better result.
Such a course would be commendable in any actor, but it is doubly worthy in Walbrook's case because, as he showed in Michael Strogoff, he has enough romantic dash and fire of personality to have played the part for its superficial romanticism.
Make a point of seeing Walbrook in The Rat as well as in Victoria the Great; and if you have previously seen Michael Strogoff, so much the better.You will find no repetition in the two later pictures, but you will find a striking display of versatility.
You will see instinctive sincerity expressed through two widely differing characters. You will see, too, the result of a fine feeling for detail, and a brilliant faculty for seeing a character in the round, instead of just flat. Above all, you will be impressed by the great range that this actor, until a few months ago almost unknown to English-speaking filmgoers, has at his command.
It will give you, I hope, a deep respect for his powers and possibilities ; but that respect may increase when you learn that he has not yet shown to English-speaking audiences the style of acting with which he is most familiar and upon which his great continental reputation, which covers half a dozen countries is founded.
Walbrook, by inclination and the majority of his experience, is a light comedian. He is actually something between a William Powell and a Robert Montgomery, as you can appreciate from the fact that he originally played the part in Maskerade that William Powell later took in its Hollywood version, Escapade.
Best Since Boyer
Any actor, therefore, who can so easily step out of type, although Walbrook has never really been typed in the Hollywood sense, and give a performance of the callibre of his Prince Consort, is one of most uncommon ability. That is he equally at home in the heroics of Strogoff and the romanticism of The Rat is needless emphasis of the fact.
It might be a good thing if Walbrook could next be seen in a light comedy role. Although he has proved his ability as an actor, he has not yet revealed his natural personality, except, perhaps, in his early scenes in Victoria the Great. A modern picture would enable him to do so; and even though it might not do much for his prestige as an actor, it would do wonders for his popularity in this country.
In my estimation, Walbrook is the most interesting Continental player to have been introduced to English and American filmgoers since Charles Boyer. And he has a personality more likely to catch the popular fancy than Boyer's. The Wilcox-R.K.O. Radio people have a ready made star in their possession. Three quick, good pictures would take him straight to the top. I hope they will make them.