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18 March 2013

Felix Bressart

German stage and screen actor Felix Bressart (1892 –1949) had to flee Germany after the Nazis seized to power in 1933. He continued his film career in Austria and later in the US, where he became a popular character actor for MGM.

Felix Bressart
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6023/1, 1931-1932. Photo: Ufa.

Character Comedian
Felix Bressart (pronounced Bress-ert) was born in Eydtkuhnen in East Prussia, Germany (now Chernyshevskoe, Russia) in 1892. He got acting lessons from Maria Moissi in Berlin and made his stage debut at the Stadttheater Würzburg in the autumn of 1914. After World War I, he made a stage tour through Bavaria. From 1922 on he worked at the Deutsche Theater Hannover, at the Albert-Theater in Dresden, and from 1925 on at the Theater in der Josefstadt under Max Reinhardt. In 1927 the character comedian moved to Berlin to appear in theatres and cabarets. There he also made his film debut in the comedy Liebe im Kuhstall/Love in Kuhstall (1928, Carl Froelich) with Henny Porten. He started off in the cinema as a supporting actor in films like Es gibt eine Frau, die dich niemals vergißt (1930, Lero Mittler) starring Lil Dagover, and the mountain film Der Sohn der weißen Berge/The Son of the White Mountain (1930, Mario Bonnard, Luis Trenker). For the Ufa, he played the Bailiff in the box-office hit Die Drei von der Tankstelle/The Three from the Filling Station (1930), directed by Wilhelm Thiele and starring Willy Fritsch, Lilian Harvey and Heinz Rühmann. He also co-starred in Thiele’s musical Die Privatsekretärin/The Private Secretary (1931, Wilhelm Thiele) with Renate Müller and Hermann Thimig. He co-starred with Anny Ondra in Eine Freundin so goldig wie Du/A cute girlfriend like you (1930, Carl Lamac). Soon he established himself in leading roles of minor films, including Der Schrecken der Garnison/Terror of the Garrison (1931, Carl Boese), Holzapfel weiß alles/Holzapfel knows everything (1932, Victor Janson), and Goldblondes Mädchen, ich schenk Dir mein Herz/Gold Blonde Girl, I give you my heart (1932, Rudolph Bernauer) with Charlotte Ander. After the Nazis seized power in 1933, Jewish-born Bressart had to leave Germany and continued his career in German-speaking movies in Austria, where Jewish artists were still relatively safe. In Switzerland he appeared in Wie d'Warret würkt/How the truth works (1933, Walter Lesch), in France in C'était un musicien/Once there was a musician (1933, Maurice Gleize, Frederic Zelnik) starring Fernand Gravey, and in Austria in Salto in die Seligkeit/Somersault into bliss (1934, Fritz Schulz). He worked at Peter (1934) starring Franciska Gaál for the European division of Universal with émigré director Hermann Kösterlitz (aka Henry Koster) and producer Joe Pasternak. Bressart made 30 European films in eight years.

Felix Bressart
Dutch postcard, no. 519. Photo: Ufa.

Felix Bressart
Dutch postcard, no. 238. Photo: Remaco-Film. At the rop right is a censorship stamp, necessary in the Netherlands for all film photos at the time.

Kindly, Friendly Characters
Producer Joe Pasternak invited Felix Bressart to come to Hollywood. Bressart's first American film was Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939, Henry Koster), a vehicle for Universal Pictures' top attraction, Deanna Durbin. Pasternak also selected the reliable Bressart to perform in a screen test opposite Pasternak's newest discovery, Gloria Jean. The influential German community in Hollywood helped to establish Bressart in America. Bressart scored a great success in Ernst Lubitsch's Ninotchka (1939), produced at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. MGM signed Bressart to a studio contract in 1939. Lubitsch also directed Bressart to similar effect in the romantic comedy The Shop Around the Corner (1940) with James Stewart. Most of his MGM work consisted of featured roles in major films like Edison, the Man (1940, Clarence Brown) and Blossoms in the Dust (1941, Mervyn LeRoy) starring Greer Garson. He combined his mildly inflected East European accent with a soft-spoken delivery to create kindly, friendly characters, as in Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), in which he sensitively recites Shylock's famous ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?’ speech from The Merchant of Venice. Bressart soon became a popular character actor in films like The Seventh Cross (1944, Fred Zinnemann), and Without Love (1945, Harold S. Buquet), starring Spencer Tracy. Perhaps his largest role was in RKO Radio Pictures' B musical comedy Ding Dong Williams (1945). Bressart, billed third, played the bemused supervisor of a movie studio's music department, and appeared in formal wear to conduct Chopin's Fantasie Impromptu. After almost 40 Hollywood pictures, Felix Bressart suddenly died of leukemia at the age of 57. His last film was My Friend Irma (1949, George Marshall), the movie version of a popular radio show. Bressart died during production, forcing the producers to finish the film with Hans Conried. In the final film, Conried speaks throughout, but Bressart is still seen in the long shots. Felix Bressart was married to Frieda Lehner.

Felix Bressart, Anny Ondra
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6065/1, 1931-1932. Photo: Ondra Lamac Film. Publicity still for Eine Freundin so goldig wie Du/A cute girlfriend like you (1930, Carl Lamac) with Anny Ondra.

Hermann Thimig & Felix Bressart
Dutch postcard by Remaco-Film, no. 229. Hermann Thimig and Felix Bressart in Die Privatsekretärin (1931, Wilhelm Thiele).

Sources: Wikipedia (English and German) and IMDb.

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