British postcard in the Autograph Series, London, no. A 11.
Paul Lukas was born Pál Lukács (native form is Lukács Pál) in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1891. He was the son of Naria (née Zilahy) and Janos Lukacs, an advertising executive. His family was Jewish.
He graduated from the Hungarian School for Drama, but in 1913, he had to serve in the Hungarian army. In 1915, he was invalided out.
He went to Kosice (Kassa) to be an actor. Soon he became a matinee idol, and in 1917, he made his film debut in Sphynx/Sphinx (Béla Balogh, 1918).
Among his other Hungarian films are Udvari levegö/Song of the Heart (Béla Balogh, 1918) and Masamód/The Milliner (László Márkus, 1920) with Ica von Lenkeffy.
Between 1918 and 1927, he was a member of the Comedy Theatre in Budapest. Legendary stage director Max Reinhardt also had him guest-star in Berlin and Vienna stage productions.
In Austria, he also co-starred in the silent film epic Samson und Delila/Samson and Delilah (Alexander Korda, 1922). This was the first film to be made at the Rosenhügel Film Studios, which were still under construction at the time and was among the first epic films to be made in Austria. Delilah was played by Maria Corda, the director’s wife.
The film was a failure and both the Kordas and Lukas moved to Germany. There they made the silent drama Das unbekannte Morgen/The Unknown Tomorrow (Alexander Korda, 1923) starring Werner Krauss, María Corda and Olga Limburg. Lukas played a minor role. The film was a financial success, and Korda used his share of the profits to buy a stake in the film distribution company FIHAG.
Hungarian postcard by FMSI, no.17. Photo: Korvin / Joe May Film.
In 1927 Paul Lukas was invited by Hollywood producer Adolph Zukor to come to the US. His American film debut was delayed while he learned English. He made his first American appearance in the silent film Two Lovers (Fred Niblo, 1928).
Next he co-starred with other ex-pats Pola Negri and Olga Baclanova in Three Sinners (Rowland V. Lee, 1928). The film was produced by Famous Players-Lasky and distributed by Paramount Pictures. It is based on a play Das Zweite Leben (or The Second Life) by Rudolf Bernauer and Rudolf Osterreicher.
That year, Lukas also worked again with Korda at the drama The Night Watch (Alexander Korda, 1928), which was set almost entirely on a French warship at the beginning of the First World War. Although largely a silent film. The Night Watch was the first of Korda's films to feature sound effects and music but no dialogue.
Lukas was busy in the early 1930s, appearing in such films as the crime caper Grumpy (George Cukor, Cyril Gardner, 1930), the early film noir City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931) starring Gary Cooper, the suspense film The Kiss Before the Mirror (James Whale, 1933), starring Nancy Carroll, and the box office hit Little Women (George Cukor, 1933) starring Katharine Hepburn.
Another gem was the elegant comedy By Candlelight (James Whale, 1935). Hal Erickson at AllMovie: “Though quite miscast, Paul Lukas successfully conveys the role of Josef, ultra-dutiful valet to the libidinous Count Von Bommer (Nils Asther). Falling in love with Marie (Elissa Landi), whom he assumes to be a countess, Josef poses - quite convincingly - as his rakish master. The catch: Marie is herself a poseur, a mere maidservant to Count and Countess Von Rischenheim (Lawrence Grant, Dorothy Revier). Based on a play by Siegfried Geyer, By Candlelight is chock full of delightfully double-entendre pre-Code dialogue and dextrous directorial touches.”
Lukas followed William Powell and Basil Rathbone portraying the series detective Philo Vance once in The Casino Murder Case (Edwin L. Marin, 1935). A success was the drama Dodsworth (William Wyler, 1936).
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 661.
The Sinister Nazi
Paul Lukas became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1937.
In England he appeared at the mysterious and charming Dr. Hartz in Alfred Hitchcock's classic comic thriller The Lady Vanishes (1938) starring Margaret Lockwood and Michael Redgrave.
In the late 1930s and 1940s Lukas frequently played the sinister Nazi. Another example is Dr. Kassel, the propaganda chief in the patriotic wartime melodrama Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Anatole Litvak, 1939) with Edward G. Robinson and Francis Lederer.
His greatest film role came in Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin, 1943). His portrayal of Kurt Mueller, the German émigré with an American wife (Bette Davis) working against the Nazis was universally lauded by critics. He had originated the role in the Broadway premiere of the play by Lilian Hellman in 1941. He won the Academy Award and the Golden Globe for Best Actor for the role.
In the same year, he guest starred as the eponymous character in an episode of the radio program Suspense, Mr. Markham, Antique Dealer. In the 1940s, Lukas was a charter member of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, a conservative lobbying group opposed to possible Communist influence in Hollywood.
In the 1950s he started appearing on stage more and more, and worked only sporadically for the cinema. Well known is his role as Professor Aronnax in Walt Disney's film version of Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Richard Fleischer, 1954). By that time, however, he was, at age 63, suffering from memory problems during the production, apparently leading him to lash out at cast and crew alike.
His film career picked up momentum in the 1960s with six films, including the musical Fun in Acapulco (Richard Thorpe, 1963) with Elvis Presley, and the adventure film Lord Jim (Richard Brooks, 1965) with Peter O'Toole. His final film was The Challenge (1970). Director George McGowan chose to hide his involvement by using the pseudonym Alan Smithee.
Paul Lukas died in 1971 in Tangier, Morocco, reportedly while searching for a place to spend his retirement years. He was 80.
Lukas had been married three times. His first Hungarian wife is unknown. His second wife was Gizella ‘Daisy’ Benes (1927–1962; her death) and his last wife was Annette M. Driesens (1963–1971; his death).
British postcard by Real Photograph, London, no. FS 101. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Publicity still for Ladies in Love (Edward H. Griffith, 1936) with Simone Simon.
British Art Photo postcard, no. 115. Photo: Universal.
Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Ronald Bowers (Film Reference), Encyclopaedia Britannica, AllMovie, Wikipedia, and IMDb.