03 March 2014

Ilona Massey

Statuesque blonde Ilona Massey (1910-1974) was a Hungarian opera singer who appeared in some Austrian films before she was discovered by Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer. MGM billed her as ‘the new Dietrich’ and showcased her in operettas with popular baritone Nelson Eddy. But somehow her Hollywood career never really took off.

Ilona Massey
Dutch postcard, no. AX 176. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Fotoarchief Film en Toneel.

She looks like Dietrich, talks like Garbo

Ilona Massey was born as Ilona Hajmássy in Budapest, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now Hungary) in 1910. Her family was poor. Her father was a typesetter who was left an invalid in World War I. Her father inculcated in her a hatred for communism, which she would carry for her entire life.

As a child she went to work as a dressmaker's apprentice and managed to scrape up money together for singing lessons. She first danced in chorus lines, later earning roles at the Staatsoper Wien (State Opera in Vienna).

According to Wikipedia, Massey was discovered by Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer of MGM when she sang Aida in Czechoslovakia. Mayer was enchanted by her offstage voice singing the high priestess's aria. After sending an invitation backstage to join him for supper, Mayer was delighted to see that Ilona Hajmássy was a statuesque blonde with movie-star looks, who could sing and dance.

A Hollywood fabrication? According to IMDb, Massey “submitted her photograph to the Vienna office of MGM and ended up one of 36 European hopefuls to try out Hollywood. Only two succeeded. Ms. Massey and Hedy Lamarr.”

In fact, she had already starred in the Austrian films Der Himmel auf Erden/Heaven on Earth (E.W. Emo, 1935) starring Heinz Rühmann, and Zirkus Saran/Circus Saran (E.W. Emo, 1935) with Leo Slezak and Hans Moser.

In Hollywood, MGM billed her as ‘the new Dietrich’, and gave her a supporting part in the musical Rosalie (W.S. Van Dyke, 1937) starring Nelson Eddy and Eleanor Powell. She played the supporting role of a lady-in-waiting to Powell. Unable to speak English at the time, she spoke her lines phonetically.

Soon she learned to speak the language fluently. Massey played her first starring role opposite Nelson Eddy in Balalaika (Reinhold Schünzel, 1939), based on the 1936 London stage musical of the same name, which had in turn been inspired by a German operetta.

Roger Fristoe at TCM: “Before Massey was substituted as leading lady, Balalaika had been planned as a vehicle for Eddy and his long-time co-star Jeanette MacDonald.” The film follows the romance of Prince Peter Karagin (Nelson Eddy), captain of the Czar's Cossack Guards, and Lydia Pavlovna Marakova (Ilona Massey), cabaret-cum-opera singer and secret revolutionary, who fall in love on the eve of World War I, are separated by war and ideology, and meet again in 1920s Paris.

Only the musical's title song At the Balalaika, with altered lyrics, was used in the film. Instead, MGM had music director Herbert Stothart adapt materials it already owned or were otherwise available, or write original material as needed.

Previewed in December 1938, most American critics agreed: the stars and production were excellent even if the script and plot were not. Frank S. Nugent's review in The New York Times praised Massey's blond good looks and Eddy's competence: "She looks like Dietrich, talks like Garbo... while leaving the bulk of (the score) safely to Mr. Eddy..."

Critics went on to prophesy a glowing career for Massey but somehow that career would never really take off. Roger Fristoe: “Despite the promise of Balalaika, Massey's career turned out to be a disappointing one that played out in minor film and TV appearances.”

Ilona Massey and Nelson Eddy in Balalaika
Hungarian postcard. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for Balalaika (1939).

Ilona Massey and Nelson Eddy in Balalaika
Hungarian postcard by Athenaeum Color. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for Balalaika (1939).

Ilona Massey, Nelson Eddy
Belgian collector's card by Kwatta, no. C. 182. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for Balalaika (1939).

A Staunch Conservative Republican

Ilona Massey co-starred with Alan Curtis in the historical film The Great Awakening/New Wine (1941), a biography of composer Franz Schubert produced by Gloria Pictures Corporation, and released by United Artists. Star Alan Curtis would become her second husband. Like Balalaika, the film was directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who was an exile from Nazi Germany and whose last direction this was.

Massey appeared as a beautiful singer in the wartime spy-drama International Lady (Tim Whelan, 1941) starring George Brent, and she played Baroness Frankenstein in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Roy William Neill, 1943) with Lon Chaney Jr. and Bela Lugosi.

Gary Brumburgh at IMDb gives an indication why her Hollywood career went nowhere: “Massey did not live up to the hype as her soprano voice was deemed too light for the screen and her acting talent too slight and mannered.”

In 1943, she appeared on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1943. The musical was a huge success and ran for more than 500 performances. Becoming an American citizen in 1946, she remained strongly anti-communist for what she saw as the destruction of her native country.

In 1947, she co-starred for a third time with Nelson Eddy in the musical Western Northwest Outpost (Allan Dwan, 1947), composed by Rudolf Friml. Northwest Outpost was Eddy’s final film, and was produced by Republic Pictures. It was well received by critics and had a strong box office performance.

Next she starred in Love Happy (David Miller, 1949), the fourteenth and worst feature starring the Marx Brothers. She played Madame Egelichi, a femme fatale spy who is after Harpo, and her performance inspired Milton Caniff in the creation of his femme fatale spy, Madame Lynx, in the comic strip Steve Canyon. Caniff hired Massey to pose for him.

On TV, she starred in the adventure weekly Rendezvous (1952). From the end of 1954 on, she hosted DuMont's The Ilona Massey Show, a weekly musical variety show in which she sang songs with guests in a nightclub set, with music provided by the Irving Fields Trio. The series ended after only 10 episodes.

Massey was a staunch conservative Republican. In 1954 a special subcommittee of the House of Representatives held hearings in Manhattan on communist aggression in Eastern Europe and Massey became their star witness, testifying to the rape, murder and robbery committed by Soviet agents against her Hungarian native land. After the 1956 Hungarian uprising, she picketed in protest when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and Deputy Premier Anastas Mikoyan visited the US.

In 1959 she returned one more time to the cinema in the B-film Jet Over the Atlantic (Byron Haskin, 1959) starring Guy Madison. Then she retired and spent her time as a respected Washington socialite. Her film career had been brief: she appeared in only 2 Austrian and 11 American films.

In 1974, Ilona Massey died of cancer in Bethesda, Maryland at the age of 64. She is buried in Virginia's Arlington National Cemetery near her fourth husband since 1955, Donald Dawson, who had served in the United States Air Force Reserve as a Major General. She had also been married to Nick Szavazd (1935-1936), actor Alan Curtis (1941-1942) and jewellery shop owner Charles Walker (1952-1954), all three marriages had ended in a divorce.

Ilona Massey
Dutch postcard.

Ilona Massey
Dutch postcard. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 1294a. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Sources: Roger Fristoe (TCM), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Find A Grave, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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