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25 July 2012

Lya Mara

Lya Mara (1897 - 1960?) was one of the biggest stars of the German silent cinema. Some immensely successful silent operettas presented her as the perfect Viennese Girl. Hundreds of postcards and trading cards cemented her stardom, which was even the subject of a novel, published in 100 episodes between 1927 and 1928. Her career virtually ended after the arrival of sound film.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 241, 1919-1924. Photo: Becker & Maass.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 155/3, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Balázs, Berlin.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1889/3, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Schneider, Berlin / Zelnik-Film.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3831/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Atelier Balázs, Berlin.

Prima Ballerina
Lya Mara was born as Aleksandra Gudowiczóna in a Polish family in Riga, Russian Empire (now Latvia) in 1897. She was the daughter of a civil servant, and went to a Catholic boarding school. As a young girl she wanted to become a chemist, like Marie Curie, the then famous French woman scientist who was also Polish-born, but instead Lya went to the ballet school of Riga. One year later she was already a solo dancer and in the following years she danced for the Riga State theater and became astonishingly famous. This success was crowned with her promotion to prima ballerina in 1913. Just before World War I, Lya moved with her family to Warsaw. Credited as Mia Mara she played her first small part in the short silent comedy Wsciekly rywal/The Rival (1916, Aleksander Hertz), and soon thereafter she played another part in Bestia/The Polish Dancer (1917, Aleksander Hertz). Star of this film was another Polish actress, Pola Negri, who would make an extraordinary career in Germany and Hollywood. Negri left for Berlin, and soon Lya Mara would follow her steps. Newspaper articles and pictures of Mara had appeared in Berlin newspapers, and she was spotted by the young and energetic actor-director-producer Friedrich Zelnik (later credited as Frederic Zelnik). He summoned her to Berlin. After some screen tests she signed a contract which obligated her for a total of seven pictures with Zelnik. Among their first films were Das Geschlecht der Schelme/The sex of the Scoundrel (1917, Alfred Halm) opposite Zelnik himself, Halkas Gelöbnis/Halka's Vow (1918, Alfred Halm) opposite Hans Albers, Die Rose von Dschiandur/The Rose of Dschiandur (1918, Alfred Halm) again opposite Zelnik, and Die Serenyi (1918, Alfred Halm) opposite Conrad Veidt.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Photochemie, Berlin, no. K. 2286. Photo: Berliner Film-Manufaktur.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1401/2, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Balázs, Berlin / Zelnick Film.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1210/2, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Schneider, Berlin.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1485/4, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Balázs, Berlin.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1401/2, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Schneider, Berlin.

Immensely Successful Operettas
Friedrich Zelnik and Lya Mara married in 1918. Zelnik promoted her to a major star in Germany. Among the following films he directed and produced with her were Manon (1919), Charlotte Corday (1919), and Anna Karenina (1919) with Johannes Riemann. From 1920 on Zelnik's film production company was named Zelnik-Mara-Film GmbH. Lyda starred in lightweight fare like Die Ehe der Fürstin Demidoff/The Marriage of Princess Demidoff (1921), and Das Mädel vom Picadilly/The Girl from Picadilly (1921), in which she either played noble ladies or naïve girls from the countryside. From 1924 on, she only made two Zelnik films a year, among them immensely successful operettas like Die Försterchristel/The Bohemian Dancer (1926), An der schönen blauen Donau/The Beautiful Blue Danube (1926), and Das tanzende Wien/Dancing Vienna (1927), often with Harry Liedtke or Alfred Abel as her screen partner. Lya Mara perfectly embodied the Viennese Girl, and she enjoyed great popularity all over Europe. Her stardom also was the subject of a novel, Lya. Der Herzensroman einer Kinokönigin/Lya, The Heart Novel of a Cinema Queen, which was published in 100 episodes between 1927 and 1928. Lya Mara and her husband became real celebrities, and received at their home many known artists. Her popularity was further cemented by hundreds of her photographs issued as postcards, chocolate and cigarettes trade cards.

Lya Mara in An der schönen blauen Donau
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 56/1. Photo: Zelnik Film. Publicity still for An der schönen blauen Donau/The Beautiful Blue Danube (1926).

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1608/6, 1927-1928. Photo: Zelnick-Film.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1368/2, 1927-1928. Photo: Atelier Balázs, Berlin.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 1608/3, 1927-1928. Photo: F. Zelnick-Film.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3413/3, 1928-1929. Photo: Defina / DEFU.

Lost Traces
A serious car accident at the end of the 1920's interrupted Lya Mara's career. There was an immensely huge sympathy of the audience, but somehow she could not adapt her acting to the sound cinema, introduced in Germany in 1929. While Friedrich Zelnik became the first director in Germany who postsynchronized foreign films, Lya Mara's only film from the sound era is Jeder fragt nach Erika/Everyone Asks for Erika (1931, Friedrich Zelnik). In 1932, just before Adolf Hitler took over the power in Germany, Lya Mara and Friedrich Zelnik went in exile in London. There is no record of her acting there, although her husband continued to direct and produce films in England and The Netherlands until 1939. Zelnik died in London in 1950, and since then all traces of his wife were lost. Lya Mara probably spent her last years with her sister in Switzerland. Thomas Staedeli and IMDb indicate that she died there in 1960 at the age of 62.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3599/1, 1928-1929. Photo: Atelier Balázs, Berlin.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3953/5, 1928-1929. Photo: Atelier Balázs, Berlin.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 3449/1, 1928-1929. Photo: G.L. Manuel Frères, Paris.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4308/4, 1929-1930. Photo: Ernst Schneider, Berlin.

Lya Mara
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 4180/1, 1929-1930. Photo: Alex Binder, Berlin.

Sources: Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Filmportal.de, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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