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Submitted by Michelle Guillot
Acting is in His Blood
By Mark Breen
Picturegoer Weekly, September 25, 1937
The famous young Viennese actor Anton Walbrook, now playing in British films, makes some interesting disclosures.
When a fellow's ancestors have been actors for three hundred years at least, something gets into the blood. It happened in the case of Anton Walbrook.
He told me all about it this week, as we sat talking in a house he has taken in a quiet corner of Chelsea.
"I had no idea my family had such a long connection with the stage," he said in his excellent English with the pleasant soft accent of the cultured Austrian. "My father himself did not know. He had been left an orphan at a very early age, and had been adopted by a musician, but at seven he joined a circus and subsequently became a famous clown.
"Oddly enough, although I was practically born in the circus and had been brought up in that atmosphere, I had no interest in it. I wanted always to go to the theatre - that was my only thought.
"One day a few years ago an authority on theatrical history wrote me asking of I were the son of Adolph Wohlbruck the clown; and on hearing that I was he told me I belonged to a family of theatre folk stretching back over three centuries - which did to some extent explain my hankering for the footlights rather than the sawdust.
"He unearthed some distinguished people among my forbears. One great-grandfather, it appears, had composed the libretti of operas by Marschner and Karl Maria von Weber. Ida Schuselka-Wohlbruck, a great-great-great (or so!) grandmother, had been the first Austrian woman to go to France and establish her own theatre, and so on."
He paused, leaning back in his high backed oak chair and gazing before him as if envisaging that long, long line of entertainers of which he is such a worthy scion.
A picturesque figure he looked, in an open-necked shirt and a blue corduroy-velvet jacket; a handsome fellow, too - but there is something about him which has nothing to do with his looks. He has an air of natural courtesy, a quick sensitivity, a ready intelligence, a warm sympathy. I found him pleasantly easy to interview.
"And you were successful in keeping out of the circus ring?" I pursued.
"Oh, yes! As soon as I left school - at about fifteen - I went on the stage; and there I have been fortunate."
Fortunate! He has succeeded in making himself one of the most illustrious Continental actors, if that's what he calls being fortunate.
"But the circus dogged me," he went on whimsically: "my very first film, about five and a half years ago, was a circus picture, Salto Mortale, directed by E. A. Dupont."
"And featuring Anna Sten," I remembered.
"Yes. It did me no good - no good at all!"
Indeed, he does not seem to have come into his own in the film world until he played opposite Paula Wessley in Maskerade, which took Europe by storm, and attracted the attention of Hollywood. But even then, when MGM made an English-speaking version of it, called Escapade, they didn't invite Adolf Wohlbruck (as he was then) to participate, but tossed the plum role to William Powell.
Then Wohlbruck starred in The Student of Prague, and again Hollywood sat up and took notice, but the young man had no English to speak of - or to speak - and somehow he stayed in Europe.
Then came the German and French versions of Michael Strogoff, in both of which Wohlbruck played the title role, and by this time Hollywood's resistance was reduced to nil. Radio decided to make an English-speaking version and they decided to have the actor who had already done so well in the other two versions.
"I'm afraid I didn't see it," I confessed. "It isn't quite my type of picture."
"It isn't quite my kind of picture, too." He admitted with a smile; "in fact, I am tired to death of it! But I have to remember that it was that that took me to Hollywood."
"And you knew very little English, I believe?"
"I had been learning for less than four months. The French version had taken up all my time - that also, you see, was in a foreign language and one more difficult to me than English."
All the same, the young actor had linguistic ability also in his blood, for his father, who is 73, speaks eleven languages, including Russian.
Incidentally, he is a great friend of another famous clown, Grock, who was once instrumental in saving his life, and with whom Adolf Wohlbruck Sr., has for some years spent part of the summer, at Grock's home in Italy.
"About this change of name," I suggested.
"Oh, it is sometimes difficult to remember," he laughed, "especially when I am signing cheques or autographing portraits. Generally Austrian boys are given three names, and mine are Adolf Anton Wilhelm; and as the chiefs of Radio thought the name Adolf was unromantic they suggested I use the second."
"And Wohlbruck automatically became Walbrook?" I said. "Well, it's certainly easier for us. Now tell me - how did you come to make films in England?"
"I was offered a contract with Gaumont-British," he explained, "which I accepted, but by the time Michael Strogoff was completed, Gaumont-British production activities had come almost to an end, so they asked me if I would be willing to waive the contract, and I agreed."
"I remember you were to have been in Non-Stop New York", I remarked. "Go on."
"I decided, however, to stay in England until it was time to make my next Hollywood picture, because I was determined if possible to learn English without an American accent. And then I had a great stroke of luck: Herbert Wilcox decided I looked so much like the Prince Consort that he must have me to play opposite Anna Neagle in Victoria the Great. And when that was finished he engaged me for the title role in The Rat - and here I still am!"
From the courier of the Czar which he played in Michael Strogoff to the character of Prince Consort in Victoria the Great is a far cry, but not so far as from that to the modern Parisian apache in The Rat - a pretty good test of versatility.
Like most Austrians, Walbrook likes England and the English. I don't think he was altogether happy in Hollywood - partly because, as he admits, he was heartily tired of Michael Strogoff, and partly because he was still in the floundering stage with his English. I fancy it will be a very different matter when he returns there, with his new command of our language.
"I have my teacher every day," he told me. "Already, in The Rat, I speak better than I did in Victoria. Fortunately they both call for a foreign accent. I would never attempt to play an English role."
While we were speaking his mother came is - a frail little lady whose English is as scanty as my German, which is saying a good deal.
Anton has lately taken her for her first trip to Paris, and now she is "seeing London" before returning to her beloved home in Italy.
She is charming, and obviously proud of her distinguished son, but implacably opposed to the change in his name, the necessity for which she cannot understand. I should like to have explained to her that by the time the average Englishman had finished trying to pronounce Wohlbruck it would be very like Walbrook anyway. Why did I never learn German?
To sum up, Anton Walbrook is young, handsome, well-built, dignified, modest, charming, and a highly accomplished actor. I hope we shall have him here for many more pictures.
He is the kind of Continental actor who is an asset to our studios.
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