• THE LAST FILM STAR

    The Reception of Curd Jürgens in America

THE RECEPTION OF CURD JÜRGENS IN AMERICA

By Jan-Christopher Horak

Curd Jürgens managed to “break” America and enjoyed a long career in the United States, something that few German-speaking actors have achieved in film. He belonged to that circle of authentic film stars that came to attention not only through the American trade press, but also as an object of curiosity in the popular press. To this elite belonged Emil Jannings, Conrad Veidt, Paul Henreid, Maximillian Schell, and now Christoph Waltz [editor’s note] and Arnold Schwarzenegger. But to date, only Schwarzenegger and Curd Jürgens remained in the Hollywood limelight for more than two decades. Apart from Veidt, all are Austrians (by birth or residency), a statement that speaks volumes about the prejudices of Americans. The Germans do not do any worse than other non-American actors. The preference of film managers for white, American-speaking actors as media stars is connected to the fact that they think – with justification – that even today Americans love themselves best of all. Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr und Senta Berger stand alone in the circle. The exceptions are the German exiles of the 1930s who sought asylum in Hollywood. But how many suffered voluntary shipwreck on the cliffs of the Hollywood dream factory: O.W. Fischer, Horst Buchholz, Liselotte Pulver, Maria Schell, Cornell Borchers, Hildegard Knef, right down to Hanna Schygulla?

With Hildegard Knef in Hollywood, 1951

The subject of the discussion here is not how Curd Jürgens managed to gain a place there, but rather the reception of the “Norman wardrobe” in the United States. The large number of press reviews that accompanied Jürgens’ life over the years allows us to reconstruct a picture of the actor which, by bypassing reality, penetrates the wishful thinking of the American recipients in two regards. Jürgens not only embodied many single roles as fictions, but over time constructed a star image in the public arena that established itself as higher-level fiction. This film figure reflected the audience’s need for specified ideological and psycho-sexual content. But even Jürgens’ so-called private life was utilised by himself, his press agents and the press as PR-narrative in the interest of his star cult. At times, Jürgens was considered to be the last of the film stars because he seemed to still cultivate a lifestyle which had more in common with the glory days of Hollywood (before the introduction of general income tax) than with contemporary reality in the industry. These two connected, but at times contradictory, narrative strands of the Curd-Jürgens-in-America-saga sometimes reveals much more about the contents of the American media, about the pictures Americans had in their heads, than about the person who went in Los Angeles under the name of Curt Jürgens.

Curt Jurgens

It is striking how often the adjective “stolid” was used when reviewing Jürgens’ performances in his American films. In American usage, “stolid” means “not flexible, not mentally agile, passive because of torpor or stupidity.” The word is not infrequently used in connection with the stereotypical description of a German. However, in contrast to the German reviewers who passed a similar judgement on Jürgens’ acting, the Americans inserted the pejorative adjective alongside Jürgens’ positive personal qualities. Jürgens was seen as a charmer, a European dandy, a male sex object: “Six Foot Four of Nordic Charm”. As Jürgens embodied both qualities in his image, inertia and charm, he contributed to a positive change in the way Germans were seen publicly in post-war America, a change that was necessary not only because of the continuing American resentment against Germany as a result of the war and the Holocaust, but also needed for propaganda reasons in light of the Cold War. Curd Jürgens created for the Americans a “good German”, one who, despite moral weakness in the past, should again be accepted into the community. Consequently, his woodenness was interpreted as moral steadfastness, Wernher von Braun, the mass murderer, is transformed into the earnest space scientist, whether it is in Penemünde or Cape Canaveral.

WERNHER VON BRAUN – I AIM AT THE STARS (1960)

However, the acceptance of this transformation depended partly on the second fiction – that of the international playboy, jetsetter, lover, and Hollywood star, which Jürgens brought to the pages of the tabloid press from the very start. Even in his obituaries a sentence was quoted from his earliest days in Hollywood: “With the taste for the romantic and extravagant, he once said the things he liked best were comfort, women, whisky, marriage and work.”[i] Americans – and Europeans – were equally fascinated by his many wives, girlfriends, villas, trips, parties and other extravagances, served up chapter after chapter, the fun never ceasing. In interviews and stories, the French element of the “private” Jürgens was emphasised, which was indeed anchored in his biography, so that he appeared less as a German more as an internationalist, at home in the south of France as much as in Hollywood or Vienna. In terms of the new world order, this PR strategy also contributed to modifying the image that the American public consciousness had, of the grim German, strongly marked by Prussianness and fascism.

DEBUT IN AMERICA

DES TEUFELS GENERAL (The Devil’s General, 1955, D: Helmut Käutner) was Curd Jürgens’ introduction to America. The film began its run in New York in April 1957 and became both a commercial and a critical success.

  • DES TEUFELS GENERAL (1955) Dokumentation der Werbemaßnahmen zum US-release, 1957
  • DES TEUFELS GENERAL (1955) Dokumentation der Werbemaßnahmen zum US-release, 1957
  • DES TEUFELS GENERAL (1955) Dokumentation der Werbemaßnahmen zum US-release, 1957
  • DES TEUFELS GENERAL (1955) Dokumentation der Werbemaßnahmen zum US-release, 1957
  • DES TEUFELS GENERAL (1955) Dokumentation der Werbemaßnahmen zum US-release, 1957
  • DES TEUFELS GENERAL (1955) Dokumentation der Werbemaßnahmen zum US-release, 1957

DES TEUFELS GENERAL (1955) US-Release’s documentation, 1957

In the 1950s war films, in which German officers were portrayed as brutal murderers or madmen, belonged to the most popular action genre[ii]; but here was a new type. For the first time, a German was presented in a film about the Second World War who was not obliged to follow the stereotype of the Hollywood anti-Nazi film, but embodied a conscience-stricken Wehrmacht general who nonetheless does his duty. In short, the Americans saw a uniformed German here as an identificatory figure. The New York Times described Harras/Jürgens as follows: “a tall, handsome hero with a sense of humor, (who) has won his medals honorably and openly hates the Gestapo and industrialists, who are vying for Hitler‘s favor.”[iii] If it was Zuckmayer’s intention to conceptualise an honourable German, when he wrote the play in the first year after the war, a potential comrade-in-arms of the other (antifascist) Germany, capable of helping to reconstruct a democratic state, then Harras/Udet [Ernst Udet, General Marshal of the German Air Force in the Second World was Zuckmayer’s model for Harras] appears in the 1955 film as a propaganda pioneer of a re-armed German army (complete with its former Wehrmacht officers) aiming to fight against communism with their American allies. Times had changed with the arrival of NATO. But not everyone allowed themselves to be sucked in by the new politics. The critic for Time magazine for example showed little enthusiasm for the German generals’ new image. His review ends with a quote from Harras himself: “I can’t eat as much as I’d like to spew.”[iv]

But Hollywood called and in July 1957, Jürgens found himself in front of the camera with 20th Century Fox under the direction of Dick Powell in THE ENEMY BELOW. Jürgens and Robert Mitchum played the two matched adversaries. Following the Hollywood model, Jürgens, was given a role which re-cast the character of Harras. The Variety critic wrote this on the subject: “To soft soap the German side of the fight for American audiences, Jürgens is quickly established as an anti-Nazi old line Navy man, doing his sworn duty without too much enthusiasm.”[v] The good German was again on the (world) stage and Jürgens played his part in this. This is James Powers’ comment in the Hollywood Reporter: “It is due to Jürgens projection of character that we are able to accept the concept of a good man who wears the uniform with the Swastika decoration.”[vi]

A factor perhaps even more important for the American film producers: Jürgens attracted a female audience to the male film genre and so contributed significantly to the film’s financial success.[vii] The film critic Pauline Kael recalls the cinema reception of Jürgens in Des Teufels General:

“Though the film is a melodrama of conscience, it derives much of its impact from the sexual assurance of Curt Jürgens in the leading role: Jürgens creates a mature but dashing figure that is one of the most satisfying romantic images of masculinity that has ever adorned the screen. (When I was running theatres, I was used to schoolgirls phoning for pictures of stars, but only after showings of The Devil’s General were there such requests from ladies with M.D.s and Ph.D.s).”[viii]

A further sign of the strength of Jürgen’ debut in America: Powell had filmed two different endings for the film, one in which both heroes die, one in which the two captains survive and meet one another. In test showings film viewers decided on the happy ending.[ix] According to his own statements, Jürgens had been waiting for the offer of this type of part over several years and turned down many contracts.[x]

THE GOOD NAZI

WERNHER VON BRAUN / I AIM AT THE STARS (1960, D: J. Lee Thompson) was sold as the filmic biography of Wernher von Braun, who had built the V-2 rockets for Hitler and the Atlas missiles for Eisenhower und Kennedy. Instead of being brought to justice before a military court as the English consistently demanded, von Braun had immediately gone over to the Americans to serve in the Cold War. Columbia now wanted to make an idealised and politically sanitised biography of the man, a role tailor-made for Jürgens’ image. Indeed Jürgens was attested as having given the hero sympathetic traits: “His earnestness creates sympathy for the man, despite a stolid performance.”[xi] But when the film premiered in New York, students demonstrated against the film because it glorified Nazis, a replication of how protests had been in Munich and how they would be in London.[xii] For all the optimism about space that Americans displayed at the time, the film was counted as a flop, perhaps because in the final analysis it was received as propaganda.

But now the stereotype of the “good” Nazi was secure in the genre. In THE LONGEST DAY (1961/62), a war film about the invasion of Normandy which is made up entirely of secondary roles, Jürgens needs only a few scenes to show the character. The actor himself delineates his role as Major General Günther Blumentritt in an interview: “My character is a Bavarian, a kindly man who has no great sympathy for the Nazis. He has human moments – he gets a little drunk in one scene and recites a poem of Verlaine – he has little in common with the human war machine we are used to seeing in such films.“[xiii]

The degree to which his role had developed into a new stereotype is evident in a review of the film MIRACLE OF THE WHITE STALLIONS (1962/63): “(…) and Curt Jürgens as a good Nazi type are no more than stock military figures in an essentially stock film.“[xiv] In later years Jürgens much preferred playing the villain (THE SPY WHO LOVED ME, 1977, D: Lewis Gilbert), but as the publication material for the film GOLDENGIRL (1979, D: Joseph Sargent) reflected: “Curt Jürgens is one of the few actors successful at playing a sympathetic villain.”

However, whether as hero or rogue, Jürgens remained a foreigner. There was only one time when Jürgens was allowed to play an American in an American film and that was at the start of his career in THIS HAPPY FEELING (1958) when he played a prosperous actor with an appetite for young girls. This true-to-life role was a clear allusion to his image as playboy which was initiated in the gossip press with astonishing alacrity.

IMAGE AS PLAYBOY

As early as the summer of 1957 when Jürgens was still only standing in front of the cameras in his Hollywood debut film, Joe Hyams composed a first biographical profile in the New York Herald Tribune. Hedda Hopper, queen of the Hollywood gossip-columnists, followed in February 1958 with an article that appeared in several versions throughout America. Then in July 1959 America’s other gossip queen, Louella Parsons, published an often reprinted portrait of Curd Jürgens. At the end of the 1970s under the title “Curt Jürgens, the Last of the Old-Style Sybarites”, there appeared a full-page article about Jürgens in the Los Angeles Times[xv]. What both the first and the last-named articles had in common was their scrutiny of Jürgens’ lifestyle in which particular themes were highlighted such as houses, women and money.

With Helmut Käutner in Hollywood, 1957
Curd Jürgens’ diary, 1960s

Perhaps because Americans do not understand why there are people who have no particular desire to live in their country, hack-writers repeatedly mentioned his decision not to live in Hollywood and to have a variety of domiciles instead, whether in St. Paul-de-Vence, Vienna, Cap Ferrat, Cádiz, the Bahamas, Zürich or the Swiss Alps. The actor explained his constant relocations by saying that he hated hotels. However, the outcome was that he was perceived as being a jetsetter. For the times when Jürgens had to be in Hollywood in a professional capacity he would rent one of the biggest villas in the film colony, a decision which again reinforced his reputation as a “big spender.” His “nomadic” existence also fostered the impression that Jürgens was no longer to be identified as German. Indeed, the film star contributed to the blurring of his national identity himself by claiming to be an Austrian with a French mother and a much-travelled German father.

The constant swapping of homes went hand-in-hand with the change of female company. When Jürgens arrived in America he had three marriages behind him, one of them with the Hungarian Eva Bartòk who was already a familiar face in Hollywood. Brigitte Bardot’s comment that Jürgens had sex appeal like no other, was often quoted at the time. Likewise, Ingrid Bergman commented that he had more charm in his little finger than most men had in their whole body.[xvi] His erotic aura on film was supported by numerous openly-discussed liaisons and made him into an object of fascination for many women in America and Europe. His affairs with women were always seen as being newsworthy. As a result, the Los Angeles Examiner dedicated a three-page spread to Simone Bicheron, the 21 year-old fashion model who was to be Jürgens’ fourth wife.[xvii] The newspaper articles over the years emphasised repeatedly how young the women around the elderly actor were, with headlines like “Curt Jürgens, 56, talks about his romance with a 23-year-old Brazilian beauty“[xviii]. In an era when Cary Grant and other film stars nearly always had wives who were twenty years younger, Jürgens was no special case: such stories, if anything, further strengthened his status as a star. In contrast, his affair with the black American actress Dorothy Dandridge was kept concealed in the press, as sexual relationships between whites and blacks were still a taboo subject in the 1950s.

With Dorothy Dandridge in TAMANGO (1958) and at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival

The press also liked to write about the numerous parties and the profligate lifestyle of the actor. He was seen as one of the last film stars to host parties for several hundred people. In the words of Louella Parsons: “Not since the old elegant days of the movie colony when our stars lived like kings, has there been anything resembling the style in which Curt Jürgens and his beautiful bride, Simone Bicheron, live.” This image remained a staple ingredient of his press coverage until after his heart operation, when a shocked press disclosed his thoughts on suicide.[xix] His last party too, the funeral ceremony in Vienna, at night with 15,000 guests in a torchlight procession, gave cause for thought with headlines in Variety.[xx] There had not been a show like this since the death of Rudolph Valentino.

Jan-Christopher Horak: The Last Film Star. The Reception of Curd Jürgens in Amerika. In: Hans-Peter Reichmann (ed.): Curd Jürgens. Frankfurt am Main 2000/2007 (Kinematograph No. 14). Translated from German by Elizabeth Ward.

Notes:

[i] See obituary New York Times, 19.6.1982, p. 18, New York Post, 18.6.1982, p. 13. Further obituaries were published in Variety, 23.6.1982, no page, Los Angeles Times, Time, Newsweek, Los Angeles Herald-Examiner (Article Archive of the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Beverly Hills, below AMPAS).

[ii] There had been a brief lull in the production of anti-Nazi films in the last year of the war and in the years just after the Second World War, but with the film Berlin Express (USA 1948) by Jacques Tourneur the genre was popular again.

[iii] N.N.: The Devil’s General. In: New York Times, 16.4.1957 (Newspaper Article Archive, New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, below NYPL), no page.

[iv] Time, 13.5.1957, p. 110.

[v] Variety, 25.11.1957 (AMPAS), no page.

vi] James Powers: Enemy Below. In: Hollywood Reporter, 25.11.1957 (AMPAS), no page.

[vii] For this see Hedda Hopper: Six Feet Four of Nordic Charm. In: Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine, ca. Februar 1958, NYPL), no page.

[viii] Pauline Kael: Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. New York, no year, p. 320.

[ix] See Press release for The Enemy Below by 20th Century Fox, Harry Brand, no date and Phillip K. Scheuer: The Enemy Below. In: Los Angeles Times, 3.11.1957 (AMPAS), no page.

[x] See Joe Hyams: It’s Now Curt (Not Curd) Jurgens. In: New York Herald Tribune, 26.7.1957, no page, Erskine Johnson: Curt Jurgens is Living It Up. In: Los Angeles Mirror News, 11.2.1958, no page, Hopper, loc. cit. (NYPL), no page.

[xi] Margaret Harford: Rocket Scientist’s Story Told on Film. In: Los Angeles Mirror, 22.10.1960, no page, also James Powers in Hollywood Reporter, 7.9.1960, no page, Phillip Scheuer in Los Angeles Times, 11.9.1960, no page, John L. Scott: Two Suspense Films. In: Los Angeles Times, 20.10.1960 (MPAS), no page.

[xii] See N.N.: Police Scatter Shouting Pickets Plaguing ‘Aim at the stars’ on B’way. In: Variety, 24.10.1960, no page.

[xiii] Hedda Hopper: To Find Curt Jurgens, Look in the Lap of Luxury. In: Chicago Sunday Tribune Magazine, no date (1962) (NYPL), no page, also N.N.: Leading Man, European Style. In: New York Times Magazine, 18.11.1962, no page.

[xiv] Bosley Crowther: Miracle of the White Stallions. In: New York Times, 23.5.1963, no page.

[xv] Roderick Mann: Curt Jurgens, the Last of the Old-Style Sybarites. In: Los Angeles Times, 4.6.1978, p. 40.

[xvi] See Jesse Zunser: German Film Invasion Gathers Speed. no place and year (ca. February 1958), New York Post, 18.6.1982 (NYPL), no page, Peer Oppenheimer: Curt Jurgens. Charmer of Two Continents. In: Hollywood Citizen-News, 22.11.1958, p. 4.

[xvii] See Warren Hall: The Capture of Curt Jurgens. In: Los Angeles Examiner, 12.4.1959, p. 4, p. 23.

[xviii] National Enquirer, 27.8.1972 (NYPL), no page, also William P. Luce: The Man You’ll Love to Hate. In: New York Times, 27.7.1977, p. C15.

[xix] N.N.: Aging Curt Jurgens shocks the World as He Talks Openly About Life & Death. In: Star, 4.11.1980 (NYPL), no page.

[xx] Ernie Reed: 15,000 Attend Torchlight Burial For Curt Jurgens. In: Variety, 7.7.1982, p. 2/69.