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08 October 2012

Betty Nansen

Stage and film actress Betty Nansen (1873 - 1943) was a star of the Danish silent cinema in the 1910's. A stint in the US for Fox Films proved to be no success. She then became the star, manager and director of the theatre in Frederiksberg that still carries her name, the Betty Nansen Theatre.

Betty Nansen
German postcard by Photochemie, Berlin, no. K 1510. Photo: Nordisk Films.

The primadonna Of The Copenhagen Theatre
Betty Nansen was born Betty Anna Maria Müller in Copenhagen in 1873. She was the daughter of actor, theatre manager and stage director Frederik Carl Christian Oscar Müller and his wife, actress Maria Petrine Petersen. In 1892, Nansen entered Det kongelige Teaters elevskole (the theatre school of the Royal Danish Theatre). The following year, she debuted in Victorien Sardou’s Dora at Copenhagen’s Casino Theater, after which she played Magda in the German play Hjemmet (Homeland) by Hermann Sudermann. She soon become the primadonna of the Copenhagen theatre. Between 1896 and 1899 she was employed at Det kongelige Teater, debuting as Martha Bernick in Henrik IbsensSamfundets støtter (Pillars of Society) and playing also Bødvild in Vølund Smed (Wayland the Smith). She then moved to the Dagmarteatret, where she had her real breakthrough and remained between 1899 and 1903, acting in all kinds of plays such as the Norwegian play Poul Lange og Tora Parsberg. She had individual guest performances at the Nationaltheatret (National with her second husband Henrik Bentzon. Nansen left the Dagmar Theatre in 1903 when she couldn’t stand Martinius Nielsen's despotic leadership anymore. She moved to the Folketeatret (People's Theatre). She became here the first female Copenhagen theatre manager, and worked here as well as co-director until 1905. At the Folketeatret, she played the title role in Agnes, which was one of her greatest successes in her early career. In the years 1907-1910, she was again actress at Det kongelige Teater, and returned to the Dagmarteatret until 1911.

Betty Nansen
British postcard by The Ideal Film Renting Co., London / The Vandyck Printers, Bristol and London.

Starring For Fox
In 1913 Betty Nansen made her film debut in the Nordisk production Bristet lykke/A Paradise Lost by August Blom, with Olaf Fönss and Poul Reumert co-acting. The then 36-years-old Nansen plays the wife of a rich attorney (Fönss), who is deluded that her husband doesn’t care about her anymore, but only about his work. She starts an affair with a baron, who proves to be a dangerous robber. More films at Nordisk followed, mostly directed by the prolific Blom. Examples are Af elskovs nåde/Acquitted (1913, August Blom) with Adam Poulsen, Aggerholm, Sønnen/Her Son (1914, August Blom) with Carl Lauritzen, Revolutionsbryllup/A Revolution Marriage (1914, August Blom) with Valdemar Psilander, Eventyrersken/Exiled (1914, August Blom) with Aage Hertel, and finally En ensom kvinde/The Doctor’s Legacy (1914, August Blom) with Frederik Jacobsen, which was only released in 1917. She also worked with other prominent Danish directors like Holger-Madsen and Robert Dinesen. These included Prinsesse Elena/Princess Helena (1913, Holger-Madsen) with Sven Aggerholm, Moderen/The Mother (1913, Robert Dinesen) with Nicolai Johannsen, Hammerslaget/Hammer blow (1913, Robert Dinesen), and Under skæbnens hjul/Under the Wheel of Destiny (1914, Holger-Madsen). In 1914, Nansen went to the United States where she tried to forge a career and acted in a few films for Fox. She played starring roles in The Celebrated Scandal (1915, James Durkin, J. Gordon Edwards) with Stuart Holmes, the presumed lost Anna Karenina (1915, J. Gordon Edwards) based on the Leo Tolstoy novel, and A Woman's Resurrection (1915, J. Gordon Edwards) also based on Tolstoy. Should a Mother Tell (1915, J. Gordon Edwards) was based on a story and script by Rex Ingram, and dealt with a mother who has to choose between the happiness of her 16-year old daughter and an innocent man. The Song of Hate (1915, J. Gordon Edwards) was an adaptation by Ingram of Victorien Sardou’s play Tosca with Nansen as Floria Tosca and Arthur Hoops as Scarpia. All these films were directed by J. Gordon Edwards, and none of them was a success. She returned to Denmark and left the cinema.

Betty Nansen
British postcard by The Ideal Film Renting Co., London / The Vandyck Printers, Bristol and London.

Mrs. Director Nansen
During her film years, Betty Nansen also did guest performances in theatres in the Scandinavian capitals, but also in Russia, America and France. In Paris, she played with Henrik Bentzon in Ghosts. In 1917 she bought the Alexandra Theatre in Frederiksberg and renamed it the Betty Nansen Teatret, creating one of the most literary theatres in the country. She sat at the helm and went as talented stage director and administrator in the process of realizing her dream of a new artistic scene in Frederiksberg. The audience got the return of the prima donna already in the opening performance, a French comedy where Mrs. Director Nansen appeared as an exuberant young widow in a silver dress. Nansen remained head of the theatre until her death in 1943. In 1936 something non-traditional happened when Stig Lommer had her perform in a show to the tune of Alexander's Ragtime Band. Betty Nansen surprised also with plans to expand the theatre, which henceforth would operate with a film company. In her final years Betty Nansen had plans for a film project, which she called the Eternity film - a modern film about the life of Jesus, where Henrik Bentzon was to play Christ and Nansen herself the Virgin Mary. Betty Nansen was married twice. First she married author and publisher Peter Nansen in 1896. The marriage lasted until 1912. In 1927, she married the 22-years-younger Norwegian actor Henrik Bentzon. The marriage was dissolved in 1933. Betty Nansen mingled often in the theatre politics debate. In the years 1935-1940 she was Chair of the Private Theaters Director Association. In 1907 Nansen was awarded with the medal Ingenio et Arti and in 1938 with the Order of Merit in gold. Along with Henrik Bentzon she bought Kontumatshuset, the old Quarantine Station in Skagen, which they called Strandgården. Betty Nansen died in 1943 in Copenhagen and was buried in the dunes at Kontumatshuset.

Betty Nansen
German postcard by Photochemie, Berlin, no. K 1470.

Sources: Danskefilm.dk (Danish), Wikipedia (Danish and English) and IMDb.

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