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Actor or Lover?

Unlike most actors faced with this choice of roles,
Anton Walbrook makes no secret of his preference

Film Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol 4 No 5; May 1949

   It makes quite a change to find an actor whose family objected strongly when he didn't want to go on the stage. "They'd been actors for generations," explains Anton Walbrook with that slow, sad smile of his. "My father was the only one to break the tradition - he was a famous circus clown in Vienna."

   So it must have been a great relief to the Wohlbrucks ("I haven't always been a Walbrook, you know") when young Adolf ("I naturally changed that, too"), while still a student at a monastery school, gradually lost interest in becoming a monk, and turned to the stage.

   And it might also be called a great relief to many movie-goers in this country who have come to rely on Anton Walbrook as the man who never gives a bad performance.


Side-tracked into 'heavy' parts

   With his steady, dark-blue eyes, his carefully brushed dark hair, his precise, delightfully-accented voice, and his perfect manners, Walbrook could have become a romantic lead that would have made most of our own leading men look like wooden dummies. But somehow he got side-tracked into - well, not exactly "heavy" roles, but vaguely unsympathetic parts.

   There were two exceptions - and he doesn't think much of either of them. The first was the part of Albert, Prince Consort to Anna Neagle in the two Victoria films ("I became s-ee-k of Albert"), and the other was that of the pilot in "Dangerous Moonlight" ("It was not a very good film. The music became popular, that's all").

   But don't think that Walbrook has any regrets about his career in this country. Although he came from a background as pleasant as any imaginable - the old, romantic Vienna - his one unswerving aim is to spend the rest of his life in England. And he makes no secret of the fact that he is past the age for young romantic roles.

   "Actually, I am quite relieved," he confesses. "I much prefer to be an actor rather than a lover."

   The reason that he can be either so convincingly undoubtedly stems from his Continental training. In pre-Hitler Germany and Austria there was a tradition in the theatre - and later the cinema - that gave young aspirants to fame every possible encouragement.


On the Continent, a build up

   "In England it is very, very hard for beginners," comments Walbrook. "In Germany we would have a two or three-year contract with a company, and the producer would take an interest in hid youngsters and spend endless time teaching them and building them up.

   "We would tour the Continent - and you know what audiences were like there. They knew their theatre. We did a lot of Shakespeare and Shaw. They were very popular, and I loved them."

   He smiles a little sadly. "It has been my greatest regret that I cannot do Shakespeare in England. I tried so hard for years to lose my accent. With an accent it is impossible." He shrugs his shoulders disconsolately.


Behind the moustache

   In his 'twenties the young actor played every conceivable stage part - singing, dancing, straight plays, drama, operetta. Then he went into films. The first in which he was noticed over here was "Masquerade," with Paula Wessly [Wesseley].

   There is a fascinating story behind Walbrook's first film - and his moustache.

   "I tried for two years to enter films," he explains, "The trouble was I made such a bad photograph. They kept on trying to photograph me, but it was no good. Hopeless from both sides. My face was wrong.

   "Then one day they asked me to put on a moustache to play Johann Strauss. I refused for a long time. Then a friend of mine, a Swiss producer, advised me to stick one on. 'It won't cost you anything,' he said. So I did."

   And it made such a difference that Walbrook has kept it ever since. Only now it's his own.

   "I though at first the ladies wouldn't like it," he adds shyly. "But it seems that they do."

   Anton Walbrook's name and face began to arouse notice in Britain and America, particularly after his parts in "The Student of Prague" (with Conrad Veidt) [Anton took the role that Connie had played in the silent version] and "Michael Strogoff."

   In fact, R.K.O. took him to America to remake "Strogoff" in English. It was a dismal failure. And Anton was most unhappy in America. He was just learning English, and his shyness was mistaken for stiffness and aloofness. So he came to England. The shadows were creeping across Germany and Austria, and he determined never to go back.


Albert, then Albert again

   Herbert Wilcox was at that time casting his first film about Victoria. Who better was there to play Albert, the Queen's Prussian consort, than Anton? "Albert is so handsome," wrote Victoria in her diary. So Walbrook did it, and a fine job it was. Then he played Albert again.

   For a long time Albert's shadow followed Anton wherever he went. But eventually he lost it by returning to his first love, the stage. And it was while touring with Diana Wynyard in Noel Coward's "Design for Living" that he read Patrick Hamilton's thriller, "Gaslight."

   "That's the part for me," he said firmly. All his friends, led by Diana tried to argue that it would ruin his reputation and make his public hate him.

   Instead it turned out to be one of the best and most gripping British films ever made. It remains Walbrook's favourite part and favourite film - so don't, in his presence, ever raise the subject of the Hollywood company which bought up all the copies of the film, destroyed them, and re-made it with Boyer and Bergman as "Murder in Thornton Square." [Luckily they missed a few copies and Anton's wonderful performance can still be seen]


Versatile, too

   Walbrook stayed mainly on the stage, making on average one film a year. In 1941 he showed his versatility in "49th Parallel," by playing the bearded, saintly leader of a religious settlement in Canada.

   After that came his wonderful portrayal of Roger Livesey's German officer friend in "The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp." One of the most moving scenes I can remember is that in which the elderly Walbrook, now a refugee in England at the outbreak of the last war, is told by the embarrassed British official that he will have to be interned because he is a German.

   The war over, Walbrook achieved his greatest ambition - naturalization as a British citizen. It is now a point of honour with him to stay here no matter what.


And still a bachelor

   Since the war he has made two films that pleased him immensely - "The Red Shoes," in which he played Lermontov, the cold, hard impresario whose heart is obsessed with ballet, and "Queen of Spades," the brilliant, horrifying thriller about black magic in Czarist Russia.

   Now a relaxed and comfortable forty-eight (although he doesn't look it), [Anton was nearer fifty three in 1949. But he didn't look that either] Walbrook has given up some of the more violent pastimes that he used to enjoy, like riding and ski-ing, and immerses himself in books and music.

   And for anyone who is interested - and I can assure you that many are! - Anton Walbrook is still a bachelor.

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