Tuesday, December 18, 2012
The Girl Who Was Not Greta Garbo
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer described its incredible assembly of dramatic talent eighty years ago with the slogan, -- "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven" -- a phrase dreamed up by Howard Dietz, head of the New York publicity office of the studio. And it seemed only a slight exaggeration since Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, John Gilbert, Lon Chaney, Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, Marion Davies, Buster Keaton, Mae Murray, Rene Adoree, Marie Dressler, Francis X. Bushman and Ramon Novarro -- the gods and the goddesses of the Golden Years of moviemaking, were all under contract to MGM. Presiding over this singular constellation of matinee idols in the studio in Culver City was Louis B. Mayer, vice president and general Manager of MGM. Mayer's talented young assistant in California was Irving Thalberg, the production chief of MGM who was known in the film industry as "the boy genius."
Mayer reveled in his position and in the enormous prestige and power that went along with it. He also enjoyed and carefully cultivated a reputation for the ability to recognize in aspiring performers that precious elusive trait known as "star quality." Whenever anyone who signed a contract with MGM became a super star, Mayer invariably crowed, "I told you so" and the publicity department loyally echoed and reechoed his proclamations of prescience.
His greatest discovery, it was popularly held, was Greta Garbo, the young Swedish actress who signed with MGM in the spring of 1925 in Berlin and who became the studio's brightest star and biggest profit maker. Mayer, quite characteristically, took most of the credit for recognizing her potential and for bringing her to the American screen. And the press of the day accepted his version of seeing and signing Garbo.
Yet the truth is that Mayer and Thalberg and all the other top brass of MGM had absolutely no faith at all in Garbo when she arrived in America in the July of 1925 and they fully expected her to fail as an actress. Her tremendous success came as a complete surprise to Mayer and to almost everybody else at the studio. Nonetheless, as soon as it became clear that American movie audiences utterly adored Garbo and could never get enough of her, Mayer started sputtering, "I told you so, I told you so."
While Mayer and Thalberg and MGM president Nicholas Schenck completely missed the appeal of Garbo and then played frantic games of publicity catch-up for the next several years, they were also embarrassingly wrong in their assessments of another young actress who they were completely certain would be a big star -- far bigger than Garbo. They referred to her as "The New Garbo" or "Little Garbo" and praised her for a short while as the studio's greatest discovery ever. But when she failed to become a screen goddess they quickly dropped and forgot her and then they also conveniently forgot their own initial enthusiasm and their own monumental error in predicting her success. Finally, they even forgot that they forgot and in that way succeeded in altering movie history to make themselves seem brighter and kinder than they ever really were.
Hubert Voight is one of the few people would can tell the story of "the two Garbos" because he was given the assignment of publicizing each of them. As an insider he saw how miscalculations by powerful men in the studios could be easily glossed over, even when deep personal tragedy was the result of the miscalculation. And he also saw that the highly-prized reputation of studio executives for selecting successful dramatic talent was something the publicity department often invented through a process of sifting through facts and choosing which ones to use and, equally important, which ones to file and forget. The early months of Garbo's career were filed and forgotten. And so were all of the optimistic files on "Little Garbo."
Voight told me the story of "the two Garbos" one afternoon not long ago while talked about Hollywood's Golden Years at his Palo Alto apartment. He recalls Greta Garbo fondly and is still proud of his role in launching her career. But the story and the star he remembers most, the vision of Hollywood that disturbs him most today, is the story of "Little Garbo."
Voight first heard the name "Greta Garbo" when his boss, Howard Dietz, called him into his office one afternoon in late June of 1925 and told him that Mayer had signed a new Swedish director for work at MGM. The director -- a sure success, Dietz called him -- was Mauritz Stiller, who was known at the time as "the D. W. Griffith of Swedish film." Stiller was scheduled to arrive in New York during the first week in July. And he was bringing with him, Dietz complained, "some excess baggage" in the form of "somebody called Greta Garbo." In order to get Stiller, Dietz revealed, Mayer had been forced to sign Garbo also, a protege of Stiller and his constant companion. [Mayer was unimpressed by Garbo when he met her during a film festival in Berlin in 1924. And after signing her to a contract, at Stiller's insistence, he told the interpreter, "Tell her that in America men don't like fat women." Garbo, despite the fact that she disliked the squat, fat Mayer, went on a strict diet and slimmed down.] Dietz thought for a moment and then said, "You know, I just hate that name -- 'Garbo.' It reminds me of 'garbage.' So see if you can come up with something better for her.' But since Dietz never brought the name change up again, and since Voight was busy with other things, the department never got around to giving the Swedish actress a more acceptable name.
Dietz gave the assignment of escorting Stiller and Garbo around New York for several weeks to Voight. He also wanted Voight to get as much publicity as he could for them, but he did not want to spend any money on them. And so he allotted to Voight a total of ten dollars as his publicity budget. Then he reminded Voight that Stiller and Garbo were to pay all of their own expenses -- all -- including hotel rooms, meals, transportation and entertainment. And, since neither Stiller nor Garbo spoke much English, Voight was required to find an interpreter to accompany them during some of their outings in New York. Later Voight learned that the studio even billed Stiller for the interpreter.
Voight plotted out his first publicity campaign. He planned to plant a story in some of the papers announcing the arrival of Stiller and Garbo and he thought he should provide some descriptive information on both of them. But Dietz knew nothing of them except that they had been signed by Mayer. When Voight asked what Garbo looked like, Dietz told him, "How in the hell should I know? I really don't have the slightest idea what she looks like and nobody else around here does either."
Since the New York office of MGM had no photographs of Garbo, Voight had to use his imagination in describing her in his press release. So he composed a statement for release to the newspapers and he wrote that "On July 5th, MGM's newest star, Miss Greta Garbo, the Norma Shearer of Sweden, will arrive in New York City. She will be accompanied by the famous director, Mauritz Stiller, who has also been signed by MGM."
Voight believed that the mention of the popular Norma Shearer in the release would get Garbo some attention. But, he found out later, his statement was simply absurd. Norma Shearer was a gorgeous actress, and so was Garbo. But Garbo looked nothing at all like Shearer. In any case, the statement went out as a newspaper filler and ran in several New York papers and then was promptly forgotten.
Voight used the ten dollars that Dietz had allotted him to get three photographs of Garbo and Stiller aboard their ship when it docked in New York. He was successful, eventually, in getting one of the pictures in a newspaper, the New York Graphic, a sensational tabloid published by Bernarr McFadden. The Graphic printed the picture with the caption, "Foreign star arrives." That was all of the publicity that MGM bought for the arrival of Greta Garbo and Stiller in America.
But during the next weeks, Voight got Garbo an interview with Gladys Hall of Movie Weekly and had her pose in some new fashions for the rotogravure section of the New York Times. He also escorted Garbo and Stiller around New York City to see the clubs and the shows and the speakeasies -- all of which they paid for out of their own limited funds. Then every few days he tried to get them in to see Nick Schenck, the president of MGM. And every time he tried to arrange it, Schenck's secretary said he was simply too busy to see them. Dietz did take off a moment to meet them -- once. he was not impressed. You can't tell much about a director by shaking his hand, Dietz believed. And he found Garbo's hairdo "as casual as a drunken driver's."
Garbo and Stiller were forced to spend two months in New York, months that she described as "the most miserable period of my career." In a letter to a friend in Stockholm she confessed that she felt suicidal and considered jumping out her hotel window. "Everything is a mess," she concluded. And because of his persistent efforts to contact studio executives, Stiller was labeled an"interfering nuisance" by them.
When MGM discovered that Garbo was not yet 21 -- Mayer hadn't even asked her age when he signed her in Berlin -- it became necessary to renegotiate her contract. And Voight was instructed to bring Stiller and Garbo to the MGM office of Major Edward Bowes, one of the studio vice presidents, for the signing. After the contract was signed and Voight, Stiller and Garbo were leaving the office, Bowes held Voight back, put his arm around his shoulder and whispered to him, "My, what an awkward girl she is! What a peasant type, Voight. She'll never live out that contract. The studio will have her back here in six months and on her way back to Sweden." Bowes was wrong, of course, dead wrong. According to one account, shortly before Garbo and Stiller planned to return to Sweden, director Victor Seastrom, who worked for MGM in California, showed Mayer a packet of photographs of Garbo taken in New York. Mayer's response: "Who is she? Go get her at once!" He had to be reminded that she was the same young woman he had been forced to sign to a contract several months earlier. So, finally, Mayer invited them to California. But when they arrived in Los Angeles, the reports in the press were unflattering. One columnist recommended that Garbo return to the "Swedish Brooklyn" from which she obviously had come and the question on everyone's lips was, "What on earth does Stiller see in her."
Eighteen months later Garbo had completed three hit movies and was making $2000 a week with MGM. Stiller, on the other, was released from his contract with MGM. The Swedish director had been a disappointment in American films, but his "excess baggage" had become MGM's biggest star.
In the fall of 1928 Stiller left California and returned to Sweden. Voight was asked to handle all the arrangements for Stiller's stay in New York and his departure for Sweden. The studio was by the time trying hard to forget all about him. He was a proven loser and they had no time and no money for losers. Once again, none of the studio executives in New York wanted even to think about him, let alone see him. Voight did what he could for Stiller. He had some publicity shots taken and then escorted him to his ship.
Voight remembered how excited Stiller had been when he first arrived in New York. "He had been quite a dashing and debonair fellow, dancing with Garbo in the speakeasies, laughing at the shows, enjoying himself and looking forward to the future with confidence. All of his dreams were coming true. Then, suddenly, all of that changed in California. He had lost his protege and his lover and he had lost all of his confidence. You could see that now. He was a very unhappy man. I tried to cheer him up. I learned that Prince William of Sweden was sailing on the same ship as Mauritz and I managed to get them to pose together for a photograph and they were both flattered and enjoyed it. Then I shook hands one last time with Mauritz before leaving him on the ship. He thanked me for all I had done for him and all I had done for Garbo."
That was the last time Voight ever saw Stiller. He felt badly about Stiller traveling home alone. But the Swedish director was only the first of many people Voight saw in those years passing through New York on their way home again -- people who had gone to Hollywood and hadn't made it. People whose dreams just did not come true in Hollywood and now they were returning home to live out the remainder of their lives with the failure of their dreams .
Stiller died in Sweden one year later. He was forty five years old. He left no will. He was holding a photograph of Garbo when he died.
After Mayer succeeded in convincing the press that he had "discovered" Garbo and that he had known from the moment he laid eyes on her that she would be a big star, there was a race at MGM to see who could come up with "the next Garbo." Studio executives liked nothing better than to foster the deep drama of "discovering the newest star" and, of course, the publicity department had to go along with every hunch put forward by the executives.
There had always been intense competition at MGM, Voight recalls, between Mayer and Thalberg in the star-discovering business. Mayer moved far ahead of Thalberg with his "discovery" of Garbo, but in 1928, Thalberg caught up, he believed, with his own discovery of "Little Garbo" in Austria. But this time the result was not stardom and fame and fortune. This time the result was tragedy.
Thalberg married Norma Shearer in 1927 and in 1928 the couple went on a delayed honeymoon trip to Europe. There, in Vienna, Thalberg spotted the star he had been searching for. He discovered another Garbo.
Apparently an agent of MGM in Vienna showed Thalberg a photograph of a young girl in a dance program. Thalberg responded by saying, "I have to meet that girl." Here was the big chance, he suspected, to top Mayer in the press -- a stroke of incredible luck.
When Thalberg was introduced to the sixteen year old girl whose name was Eva von Plentzner, he announced, "This girl has it!" Shearer agreed with him. Eva was a natural for the movies. She really did have "it," whatever "it" was.
A few days later the New York publicity office of MGM received a lengthy telegram from Vienna informing them that "MR. THALBERG IS BRINGING BACK A FUTURE MGM STAR. HER NAME IS EVA VON PLENTZNER. SUGGEST YOU CHANGE THE NAME NOW."
Dietz immediately called a conference of the entire publicity department staff and discussed changing the name of Thalberg's discovery. Several suggestions were made before someone thought that since Thalberg had discovered her it might be nice to name her after him, something like, say, Eva Irving or Eva Thalberg. But several members of the department didn't like the sound of the name so it was dropped. Then they discussed calling her Eva Shearer, but that too was discarded. Finally they decided to name her after another studio executive, Paul Bern[who eventually became the husband of Jean Harlow]. The publicity department kept the first name of Eva but also decided to keep the aristocratic sounding "von" and then just to take on Bern to it. Finally, for some reason, and nobody knew exactly why it happened, somebody added an "e" to the end of her name. And so the department thought up a name for Eva von Berne and that's how she was introduced a few weeks later to the American public.
At a meeting on the following day Dietz told all of the staff members, "Now we want to do everything right this time" -- he remembered his now-embarrassing oversight in the Garbo arrival in 1925. "We've quite obviously got another Garbo here," he announced. "Maybe even bigger than Garbo! But I really think she is at least a second Garbo. Voight, you handle the publicity again. But this time, Voight, instead of ten bucks, the sky's the limit. Spend all you need. But get her in the papers. All the papers. She's gonna be a star."
Voight carefully went over the meager materials he had at the time on the new MGM star. Eva von Plentzner was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on August 18, 1910. Her father, Karl Emil Plentzner had been born in 1878 in Hungary. His wife, Franziska, was born in Salzberg in 1886. The couple had moved to Vienna in 1915 and there, in September of that year, another daughter Maria Dorothea Plentzner, was born.
This was an incredible unexpected opportunity for Voight, suddenly having all the money he wanted for a major publicity campaign.
He planned this campaign carefully. He didn't make any wild predictions in the newspapers this time about what Eva looked like. He didn't say she was the new Norma Shearer or the Garbo of Austria nor did he even call her Little Garbo. He wanted everything to be right this time so he waited until he saw her before he sent out any releases to the papers.
When he finally did see a photograph of her -- a photograph in which Norma Shearer was showing her how to apply makeup --and then met her, he found she was a beautiful young woman, sweet and bashful and happy -- an ingenue. And so he became highly animated in his work publicizing her because he could see that she really would be inspiring to work with -- and he thought it would actually be difficult to exaggerate her beauty or her public appeal. Above all else, she had incredible credentials. She was not merely recommended by Thalberg and Shearer and the MGM agents in Europe. She had the additional incontrovertible cachet of having been signed to a contract by the boy genius himself. What an opening line that was, he thought.
And so for this Little Garbo he made up for all that he had been unable to afford with Greta Garbo in 1925. He spent money on her lavishly and introduced her to every one of the studio's executives in New York -- all of them were eager to meet her and to be photographed with her. There were daily press conferences and parties every night for her -- along with a translator provided at studio expense, since Eva did not speak English. And Voight succeeded in getting a tremendous amount of publicity for her and space in the newspapers and the movie magazines. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to meet her or to see her and to talk with her and to get her opinion on something -- on anything.
Voight had the best photographers in New York take her picture and placed them in the newspapers. He went to the best clubs and the best shows, always with executives and their wives or girlfriends in tow, and whenever Voight walked into a place with Eva, the show stopped. He took her to the most famous speakeasies in New York and dined at the Stork Club and heard people around them whispering about "Thalberg's discovery" and "She's the New Garbo!" Voight was delighted. "Thalberg had said she would be a big star and now everybody was starting to believe it," he found.
So Eva von Berne had her name and her picture plastered all over the newspapers and the fan magazines and she departed for California on the heels of a wildly optimistic New York fanfare. When she arrived in Culver City she immediately met Mayer and she was pampered further by the studio and the press. Eva was, by then, ready to be a big star and the studio was eager to make her one.
They chose as her first film not just an ordinary production. They put her in a film entitled "Masks of the Devil," directed by the Victor Seastrom and starring John Gilbert and Alma Rubens, two of the biggest stars at MGM. Seastrom has just completed filming "The Divine Woman" which starred Garbo and "The Wind" which starred Lillian Gish. Gilbert was by this time, of course, the "Great Lover" of the silent films and was associated romantically with Garbo, having just starred with her in the successful "Flesh and the Devil." And Rubens, one of the studios biggest stars, had been the original cast for "The Torrent," Garbo's first picture. But she had become ill and was replaced by the Swedish star at the last moment, giving Garbo her first big break in Hollywood.
Eva was to be a sweet little ingenue in the picture -- a part that seemed perfectly suited for her. But when the filming started it quickly became obvious to everyone that something just wasn't working. And unfortunately, it also became clear that was wrong was Eva von Berne. She was very clearly not a Little Garbo.
If Eva von Berne only could have acted, then "Masks of the Devil" would have been the perfect opening act for her career. But Thalberg and everyone else at MGM had overlooked one important consideration. They had all assumed that Eva could act. They had assumed that almost anybody could act. But Eva von Berne could not act. She could not act at all. She could not take direction and she could not emote and she could not move correctly when the camera was on her. She seemed acutely self conscious and she became wooden when the cameras rolled and she looked too heavy in the takes that were developed. So, after only a few days on the set, MGM considered cutting their losses by replacing her on the picture. But Seastrom complained and asked for a little more time for her and then in desperation he had a victrola brought onto the set where the film was being made. And music was played to get Eva into the proper mood for the film, sad music to make her cry and happy music to make her smile. That was the only way anyone could imagine to motivate her to respond properly to the director. And she worked more intensely with her translator.
But it didn't work. And so rather than waste money on her, Thalberg ordered her off the picture. It was a tragic experience for her to go through. After the terrific buildup she had been given the title of "Little Garbo" and she had, like everyone else, expected immediate success. But then she was told suddenly that it was all over and that she was not going to be a star after all -- that was a shock for anyone, but especially for this tender young girl. She was suddenly utterly traumatized by the studios'
severe sudden decree. And she was completely lost as to what to do or where to turn.
At that moment John Gilbert stepped forward and appealed for her reinstatement in the picture and then insisted that all of the cast members of the picture work with her. Voight remembers that Gilbert was a good-hearted actor and his goodness and charity were exhibited in this instance. Thalberg relented for the moment and Eva came back to "Masks of the Devil." Gilbert then convinced the make-up staff and the wardrobe staff and everyone else who could help her to do it. And everybody pitched in. Yet although they made Eva appear thinner and even more beautiful, they just could not correct the basic problem of her complete inability to follow direction and to act. She became even more self conscious and nervous and stilted. When all of the physical things had been corrected, her problem seemed to be inside. She was utterly without dramatic ability.
Thalberg did let her finish the film. But when "Masks of the Devil" was completed the studio was finished with her. She was given the cold shoulder and it was intimated strongly that the studio would appreciate it if she would agree to cancel her contract. It was implied that if she lost weight, as Garbo had lost weight, and if she went home and received some dramatic training, she would make a comeback in Hollywood. Just how much of this talk was to convince her to cancel her contract and leave without protest and how much was actually serious can never be known. She was not assigned to another picture and she was successfully pressured to ask to be released from her contract, much to the relief of the studio. On October 24th she sent Thalberg a letter asking to be released from her contract. On October 27, 1928, Thalberg responded in a brief note to Eva that was sent to her at 1738 Caufield Avenue where she lived with a Mrs. Frazer, acknowledging her "request to be released from contract because of the lingual handicap you would be under in adapting yourself to English speaking parts." He said that he appreciated her "frankness and sincerity in being released from contract before its termination." And he told her that he was complying with her wish to be released from the contract. He then wished her a safe and pleasant trip home.
The studio gave her check for $300. Studio records show that she worked 7 and 1/6 week at $50 per week for 366.67 and was idle for 9 and 2/6 weeks for which she was paid $458.33, earning $825 from the studio for 26 week contract which called for $1300
None of this was publicized, of course. And with the cancellation of the contract the studio was finished with her, except for the final obligation to get her out of the country quietly before any reporters could find out what happened and write something of the enormous blunder made by MGM.
So the studio bought her a train ticked to New York and then they bought her a boat ticket to Europe and they financially kissed her goodbye and wrote her off as another embarrassing mistake. Joe Sherman of the publicity department in Culver City directed the New York office to have a man meet Miss von Berne at the train station and then to deliver her to Pier 84 on West 44th Street where she was to depart on the S. S. Columbus She was then scheduled to sail on the S. S. Columbus on November 1, 1928, at 12:01 AM. The ship was scheduled to arrive in Bremen on November 10th.
The New York publicity office was ordered to avoid any fanfare and to allow no interviews and no publicity. The studio publicity people were simply to see that she got out of the country safely. Then they were to forget her, too.
Howard Dietz again put Voight in charge of seeing that Eva got on her ship all right and he was also to take care of her accommodations in New York. But when Voight started planning for her stopover in New York he discovered something that shocked him. MGM had booked her on a ship that was leaving on the very night she arrived by train in New York. They had not even allowed her a full day in New York to recover from her cross-country journey this time because, Voight concluded, they did not want to spend any money on a hotel room and meals for her and they did not want any nosey reporters to talk to her. And she would not be traveling in style, this time. They had booked her on a little North German cabin ship so she could return home in the cheapest way possible. It was, Voight believed, incredibly shabby treatment for the young woman.
Voight felt personally responsible for some of this, since he had invented and managed the original publicity for "Little Garbo." So he got together with some of his closest young friends in the publicity department and they decided to do something for her to make her final moments in New York memorable and happy.
Val Lewton and Halsey Raines worked with Voight to plan a surprise farewell bash for Eva von Berne. Raines had a Viennese girlfriend in New York, Voight remembers, and the men appropriated her apartment to put on a party. They bought some prohibition beer and some food and they all chipped in out of their own pockets in order to pay for it since the studio did not budget a single cent for Eva this time. The young men in the department put up bunting and decorated the apartment and Lewton raided the MGM picture files for some of the marvelous photographs taken of Eva during her earlier stay in New York when she was bubbling and happy and it looked like she was going to be MGM's biggest, brightest star. Then they plastered the pictures all over the walls of the apartment.
Voight picked Eva up at the train station and took her straight to the party. She was, he found, exhausted and depressed, a dramatic contrast to the young woman he had welcomed to New York earlier in the year. But the young men cheered her up and drank and danced and joked and toasted her and celebrated for several hours. It was, generally speaking, a very loud and very happy ending to a very unhappy and abbreviated career in the movies, Voight felt. "We accomplished on that night just what we set out to accomplish -- we got Eva's mind off what had really happened to her. She actually laughed out loud that night -- something I did not think was possible when I had seen her at the train station."
As the time for her departure drew near, Voight called a couple of taxis and the moved the party down to the pier. Aboard the S. S. Columbus Voight met the woman who had been assigned to share a cabin with Eva. "I explained to her in a few words just what had happened and just what we were doing. She promised to keep an eye on Eva for me. I wanted her watched closely because I thought she might get morose and melancholy on the way home and if she started thinking about everything that had happened to her in America I did not want anything to happen to her --I didn't want her going over the side of the boat or anything like that."
So Voight and his friends bade farewell to "Little Garbo" and they each embraced her one last time and kissed her goodbye and as her ship pulled away into the darkness, they raised their glasses and toasted her once more with a loud enthusiastic cheer. She was a little tipsy by then from all of the beer, and she seemed happy as a lark as she watched her intoxicated young admirers from the deck of the departing ship. They were saluting her in exactly the same enthusiasm she had been saluted when she had arrived in new York the previous summer. For a moment, it appeared, nothing had changed.
When "Masks of the Devil" was released later that year, Eva got, ironically, fairly good reviews. Variety said that she had "an appealing figure, photographing well and showing some ability and intelligence as an actress." Variety, however, also remarked that some moviegoers found her a bit heavy. She did not quite fit the stylish "boyish lines" popular at the time. Variety stated that she "photographed well" and showed "some ability and intelligence as an actress. She has a form that strikes masculine eyes as extremely nifty, although dames, with their phobia for boyish lines, have been heard suggesting lamb chops and pineapple." Mordaunt Hall of the New York Times wrote that Eva gave "a fairly competent performance" and that although she was not "radiantly beautiful" she was "well suited for the part she played."
It is doubtful that Eva von Berne ever saw those reviews of her only American film. In early 1929 she traveled to Berlin and made a film for Hom Film entitled "Ruf des Nordens." She also dieted in order to prepare herself for her American comeback.
Hubert Voight never heard from Eva again. And he knew nothing of her German film. Several months after she had departed for Bremen, however, someone in the publicity staff at MGM put a small newspaper clipping on his desk without comment. The clipping announced that "Eva von Plentzner, known in the United States as Eva von Berne, died today. The cause of her death is attributed to overdieting."
Voight was shattered when he read that. He believed then and he believes today that Eva von Berne really died of a broken heart. She had suffered a blow that very few people could live through. She had incredible fame thrust upon her and then just as suddenly had it withdrawn. She had been the unsuspecting victim of a terrible misjudgment made initially by the boy genius of the studio and then finally by the entire studio staff. "She believed too much in the movie myths," he recalls, "and too many of us at MGM assumed too many things and had played out important parts in the tragedy of that was that young girl's life."
No matter how much money the studio lavished on Eva von Berne, they could not make her into a movie star. And no matter what Thalberg said and no matter where Mayer placed her in pictures, they could not transform her into another Garbo. It was simply not within their power. Nor her's. "She had been pushed too far ahead of her class," Voight believes. "Had Eva stayed in Vienna and worked on acting -- had Thalberg merely encouraged her and then left her in Vienna, she might in time have made a competent actress. But, then, of course, she would certainly never had been given the dream chance like the one offered by Thalberg and MGM.
"Thalberg had seen her and had picked her up and stood her in the center of the publicity spotlight. But then, not liking what he saw, he switched the spotlight off and walked away without a word.
"If only we had left her alone," Voight concludes, "had Thalberg missed seeing her photograph, she might have stayed in Vienna and had a career. Or she might even have married some starry-eyed young suitor and lived happily ever after. But that was just not meant to be, I guess.
"I never felt quite the same way about the movies again," Voight remembers. "I had always believed what I had written for MGM, that movies and moviemaking were the real stuff of dreams. The successes make you believe that sort of thing. Certainly the success of Garbo buoyed me up for a time. But then Stiller's experience in Hollywood affected me in the opposite way. Yet he had another career and years of success behind him before he came to Hollywood. The Eva von Berne episode, however, really opened my eyes. There was another darker side to the movies, to Hollywood. We never talked about that darker side, never wrote about, never let the public hear about it. But we saw it and in some cases it could break your heart.
"Even today I can remember the first time I saw Eva von Berne. What a beautiful young woman she was. So filled with dreams and with hope for the future. We all fell in love with her. And then, only a few weeks later, she was utterly finished.
"And, you know, I can still see her departing for home that night in New York, not quite understanding what had happened. Or why, but seeing a small enthusiastic group of intoxicated American men saluting her just like she was a big star. I think that vision alone probably sustained her for a while. But then she was, I am sure, overwhelmed by reality."
[Hubert Voight died in the fall of 1988 after being struck by an automobile in Palo Alto. Greta Garbo died in the spring of 1990 in New York of an undisclosed illness. She was mourned by movie fans around the world.]
Addenda! [January 8, 2011]
Eva von Berne, the Austrian actress brought to Hollywood as a potential Greta Garbo rival and who played the ingénue in the apparently lost John Gilbert-Alma Rubens silent drama The Masks of the Devil (1928) — her sole American movie — has died. Again.
Von Berne, according to many sources including the IMDb, had already passed away in 1930, purportedly from "excessive dieting." (Other "reports" claim she died in a car crash.) Now, via the Everett Collection’s Eve Golden — sourcing content originally posted at the online forum voy.com, also published in the German newspaper Die Welt — I learn that von Berne actually died "after a short illness" on Nov. 9, 2010, in the Hungarian town of Hedervar. Von Berne was 100 years old.
Much as I tried in the last couple of hours, I couldn’t find any confirmation of the report.
According to Toni Schieck’s mini von Berne bio at voy.com, the actress was born Eva Plentzner von Scharneck on July 9, 1910, in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina — then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Eva fled with her family to Vienna following the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
A teenage model, she was discovered by MGM’s second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg while he was honeymooning with Norma Shearer in Vienna in 1928. That summer, the young model sailed to New York and from there she headed to Hollywood, where Thalberg hoped the now renamed Eva von Berne (reportedly after producer and future Jean Harlow husband Paul Bern) would become another Greta Garbo.
Garbo had to lose weight and be beautified after going Hollywood, and so did von Berne. Garbo, however, had had prior film experience in both Sweden and Germany. Von Berne had had none, which proved to be a handicap following her arrival. The fact that the 18-year-old had little-to-no command of the English language didn’t help matters any.
The studio was unimpressed following her appearance in Victor Sjöström’s The Masks of the Devil as the young, innocent woman for whose sake a sex-loving baron (John Gilbert, then MGM’s biggest male heartthrob) decides to go monogamous. (Reviewing the romantic melodrama, one publication at the time wrote that von Berne "reminds one of those oval-faced expressionless ladies so often found in Italian primitives.") Shortly thereafter, the young actress was sent packing back to Europe.
In Berlin, she landed roles in a handful of film in 1929, including Adolf Trotz’s The Somnambulist, which featured future Nazi filmmaker Veit Harlan (Jud Süß); Louis Ralph’s (Spanish-, not French-led) Foreign Legion drama Flucht in die Fremdenlegion / Escape to the Foreign Legion; and Nunzio Malasomma and Mario Bonnard’s mountain film Der Ruf des Nordens / The Roof of the North, starring Luis Trenker.
Schieck quotes von Berne friend Christa Holy as saying that Der Ruf des Nordens "was a financial disaster" and that von Berne gave up on movies as she "lost her interest on [sic] acting" right when the switch to sound was about to take place. It was at that time that rumors about her demise began circulating. Who came up with those rumors — and why — I have no idea. (I was unable to find any 1930 obit for von Berne.)
Von Berne returned to Vienna, where she attended an art school and worked at a department store as a "window decoration executive." She later married Helmut Krauss, a former major of the Austrian army, and became a sculptress. Her work was shown in galleries in several Austrian cities.
Giving credence to the fact that she didn’t die in 1930, von Berne is listed online as one of the interviewees in Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s mammoth 1980 BBC documentary Hollywood, a comprehensive look at the silent film era in the United States. (I’ve seen Hollywood, but I can’t recall an Eva von Berne interview.)
According to Schieck, von Berne was the last living performer from the German silent era. Countess von Freyberg-Eisenberg, aka Pandora’s Box actress Daisy D’Ora, had died on June 12. In 2006, von Berne told Schieck in a telephone interview, "It’s lucky [sic], that the world believe I’m [dead]."
Following Miriam Seegar’s death last Jan. 2, Barbara Kent, 104, has become the only surviving adult performer who had at least one major role in Hollywood silent movies (Flesh and the Devil, Lonesome).
Read more: http://www.altfg.com/blog/movie/eva-von-berne-100-dies/#ixzz2FSf5ihyV