19 January 2019

Photo by Ambrosio

The following weeks we will interrupt the weekly series on Hollywood studios at EFSP with some posts on pioneering Italian studios. The Società Ambrosio & C., or simply Ambrosio-Film, was founded in 1906. From 1908 on, the studio flooded the world with its short films and, from 1911 on, with its features. Ambrosio established worldwide its reputation and that of Italian cinema with the historical dramas Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei/The Last Days of Pompei (1908) and Nerone/Nero (1909). The company was dissolved in 1924 after releasing 1400 films.

Febo Mari
Febo Mari. Italian postcard by La Rotofotografica, no. 1. Photo: Ambrosio-Film.

Tullio Carminati
Tullio Carminati. Italian postcard by La Rotofotografica, no. 27. Photo: Ambrosio Film. Tullio Carminati's outfit and hairdo reminds of these in the film Romanticismo (Carlo Campogalliani, Arrigo Frusta, 1915).

Diana Karenne in Cinema Palace
Diana Karenne. Dutch postcard for the Dutch Cinema Palace, Steenstraat, Arnhem, sent 17 February 1919, from Apeldoorn, to a girlfriend in Ghent, Belgium. Photo: Ambrosio, Torino. The postcard could have been to promote Sofia di Kravonia, shown at this cinema in September 1918.

Ermete Novelli
Ermete Novelli. Italian postcard by La Rotofotografica, no. 52. Photo: Ambrosio-Film.

François-Paul Donadio
François-Paul Donadio. Italian postcard by La Rotografica, no. 112. Photo: Ambrosio Film.

Flooding the world with shorts and features


The Ambrosio film company was founded in 1906 in Turin by Arturo Ambrosio and Alfredo Gandolfi, first as ‘Società Ambrosio & C.’, in 1907 turned into the public corporation ‘Società Anonima Ambrosio, Torino’.

From 1908, when it opened its new studio complex, until 1912 it flooded the world with its shorts and, from 1911 on, with its feature-length films, starting with L’ultimo dei Frontignac/The Last of the Frontignacs (Mario Caserini, 1911) with Alberto Capozzi.

In 1912 and 1913 Ambrosio managed to release around 200 films per year and shared with the Roman company Cines the primate of the Italian cinema on the international market. Ambrosio established worldwide its reputation and that of Italian cinema with the historical drama’s Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei/The Last Days of Pompei (Arturo Ambrosio, Luigi Maggi, 1908) and Nerone/Nero (Arturo Ambrosio, Luigi Maggi, 1909), both with Luigi Maggi and Lydia Roberti

Ambrosio’s historical films, released from 1909 on as ‘serie d’oro’ (Golden Series), were the firm’s business card. Among them were films as Spergiura!/Swear! (Arturo Ambrosio, Luigi Maggi, 1909, the first in the ‘serie d’oro’), Il granatiere Roland/Grenadier Roland (Luigi Maggi, 1911) and in 1913 the second version of Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei  (Mario Caserini, Eleuterio Rodolfi, 1913), released in competition with that of Pasquali.

The historical films won Ambrosio much prestige. In 1911 the company received the prize for the best artistic film and best documentary at the International Exposition in Turin with the Risorgimento drama Nozze d’oro/The Golden Wedding (Arturo Ambrosio, Luigi Maggi, 1911), featuring the leading Ambrosio actors Alberto Capozzi and Mary Cléo Tarlarini, and the documentary La vita delle farfalle/Life of the Butterflies (Roberto Omegna, 1911), based on a text by Guido Gozzano.

I promessi sposi (Ambrosio 1913)
Italian postcard. Photo: Ambrosio. Publicity still for I promessi sposi (Eleuterio Rodolfi, 1913), adapted from Alessandro Manzoni's classic novel, and starring Mario Voller-Buzzi as Renzo and Gigetta Morano as Lucia. Here Renzo is about to be arrested on false accusation. Caption: Ah! Have you understood at last, Lorenzo Tramaglino?, the man with the black cape said. (Ch. XV).

Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1913)
German postcard by Rodera-Lichtspiele, Dresden, 1913. Photo: Publicity still for Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei/The Last Days of Pompeii (Eleuterio Rodolfi, 1913). From left to right: Antonio Grisanti as Arbaces, the Egyptian High Priest of Isis; Cesare Gani Carini as Apecides; Eugenia Tettoni Fior as Jone; Ubaldo Stefani as Glaucus, Jone's lover; and Fernanda Negri Pouget as the blind slave Nidia. The film was produced by Società Anonima Ambrosio.

La Gorgona (1914)
Italian postcard. Photo: Ambrosio Film. Publicity still for La Gorgona (Mario Caserini, 1915), scripted by Arrigo Frusta and starring a young Annibale Ninchi and French stage and screen actress Madeleine Céliat. The film was based on a play by Sem Benelli. The film was released in Rome on 9 March 1915.

Tullio Carminati in Romanticismo (1915)
Italian postcard by IPA CT, no. 748. Photo: Film della Società Anonima Ambrosio, Torino. Publicity still for Romanticismo (Carlo Campogalliani, Arrigo Frusta, 1915) with Tullio Carminati. Caption: Friday Night. Romanticismo was based on a famous play by Gerolamo Rovetta, and was the film debut of diva Helena Makowska.

Domenico Serra in Romanticismo (1915)
Italian postcard by IPA CT, no. 749. Photo: Film della Società Anonima Ambrosio, Torino. Publicity still for Romanticismo (1915) with Domenico Serra. Caption: There is also conspiration among the flags and the garments.

Hiring a lion tamer for sensational dramas


Considering other genres, Ambrosio profiled itself mainly through comedy such as the farces with the tall and anarchic Marcel Fabre alias Robinet and the corpulent but swift Ernesto Vaser alias Fricot. It also became well known for its boulevard-like comedies with Morano, Rodolfi en De Riso.

The company was famous for its actualities and travel films from all over Europe, sometimes including remarkable split-screen effects such as in Tripoli (Pietro Marelli, 1912), and its scientific films such as La nevropatologia/The Neuropathology (Camillo Negro, Roberto Omegna, 1908) on hysteria.

Ambrosio’s distribution reached as far as Russia. In 1909-1910 Ambrosio cameraman Giovanni Vitrotti shot films here and contributed to the start of the Russian film production.

In 1912 Ambrosio hired lion tamer Alfred Schneider and his lions for a series of sensational drama’s such as La nave dei leoni/The Ship With the Lions (Luigi Maggi, 1912), starring Mario Bonnard. Ambrosio never really was a production company of diva films, notwithstanding the sole production with stage star Eleonora Duse: Cenere/Ashes (Febo Mari, 1916).

After 1911 Ambrosio’s international market share started to drop in favour of that of Cines. The most serious problems however started with the outbreak of the First World War and Italy’s joining the Allied forces. The government requisitioned the studio complex for the construction of airplane propellers and production dropped to 9 films in 1917.

After the war Ambrosio tried to revive itself through expensive productions as La Nave/The Ship (Gabriellino D'Annunzio, Mario Roncoroni, 1921) with dancer Ida Rubinstein, and Teodora/Theodora (Leopoldo Carlucci, 1922), but they were economic failures.

Arturo Ambrosio left the company, the production stopped in 1923 and, one year after, the company was dissolved. In the two decennia of its productivity, Ambrosio released 1400 films, of which a little more than 1/10 remains today, mainly in the film archives of Turin, Amsterdam, London, Gemona, Bologna and Rome.

Gioconda 12
Italian postcard by IPA CT, no. 3873. Photo: Film della Società Ambrosio, Torino. Publicity still for the lost film La Gioconda (Eleuterio Rodolfi, 1916, released 1917), based on Gabriele D'Annunzio's play and with Helena Makowska as the Egyptian courtesan. Caption: The resurrected mummy told the monk, refugee in the desert, the story of her ancient life: She had been a voluptuous courtesan who lived in the times of the great Pharaon.'

Gioconda 7a
Italian postcard by IPA CT, no. 3876. Film della Soc. Ambrosio, Torino. V. Uff. Rev. St., Terni. Publicity still of Umberto Mozzato as Lucio Settala and Helena Makowska as Gioconda Dianti in La Gioconda (Eleuterio Rodolfi, 1916). Caption: Lucio Settala is madly in love with his model Gioconda Dianti.

Diana Karenne in Demi-vierges
Italian postcard by IPA CT Duplex. Photo: Film Società Anonima Ambrosio, Torino, no. 4043. Publicity still of Diana Karenne in Il romanzo di Maud aka Demi-vierges (1917), based on Marcel Prévost's novel Demi-vierges, and directed by Diana Karenne herself. The film stars Diana Karenne as Maud, while Alberto Capozzi plays Maxime and Francesco Cacace Julien.

Attila
Italian postcard by IPA CT Duplex. Photo: Film Società Anonima Ambrosio, Torino. Publicity still of Febo Mari in the title role in Attila (Febo Mari, 1918). Caption: Attila orders to kill all prisoners.

Attila (1918)
Italian postcard by IPA CT Duplex. Photo: Film Società Anonima Ambrosio, Torino. Publicity still of Febo Mari in the title role in Attila (Febo Mari, 1918). Caption: The torture of a girl by orders of Attila.

Rita Jolivet and Ferruccio Biancini in Teodora (1921)
Italian postcard by Unione Cinematografica Italiana, no. 9. Photo: Ambrosio Film. Publicity still for Teodora (Leopoldo Carlucci, 1921). Caption: When Teodora (Rita Jolivet) meets the Greek Andrea (Ferruccio Biancini) she becomes his lover, pretending she is a widow with the name of Mirta.

Sources: Paolo Bertetto and Gianni Rondolino (Cabiria e il suo tempo - Italian), Ivo Blom (Encyclopedia of Early Cinema) and IMDb.

18 January 2019

Mario Lanza

Talented, temperamental and tragic Mario Lanza (1921–1959) was an American tenor, actor and Hollywood film star of the late 1940s and the 1950s. His masterpiece was The Great Caruso (Richard Thorpe, 1951), the top-grossing film in the world in 1951. Lanza's voice was so dazzling that an awestruck Arturo Toscanini called it the ‘voice of the century’. He was the first singer to ever earn gold records, with million sellers in both classical and popular categories. Lanza was known to be rebellious, tough, and ambitious. He suffered from addictions to overeating and alcohol which had a serious effect on his health and his career. Lanza died at the age of 38.

Mario Lanza
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. D 40. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for The Great Caruso (Richard Thorpe, 1951).

Mario Lanza
Belgian collectors card by Kwatta, Bois d'Haine. Photo: M.G.M. Publicity still for The Toast of New Orleans (Norman Tautog, 1950).

Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso (1951)
Austrian postcard by Kellner Fotokarten, Wien, no. 1436. Photo: MGM. Publicity still for The Great Caruso (Richard Thorpe, 1951).

A sensational concert at the Hollywood Bowl


Mario Lanza was born Alfredo Arnold Cocozza in 1921 in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Mario was exposed to opera and classical singing at an early age by his Abruzzese-Molisan Italian parents. In 1940 he began studying repertoire with soprano Irene Williams. Two years later, he came to the attention of the celebrated conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who promptly invited him to the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood on a full scholarship. It was here, at Koussevitzky’s urging, that Alfred Cocozza became Mario Lanza—the masculine form of his mother’s name (Maria Lanza).

The young tenor made his opera debut, as Fenton in Otto Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, at the Berkshire Music Festival in Tanglewood in August 1942, after just six weeks of intensive study with conductors Boris Goldovsky and Leonard Bernstein. In the New York Times, noted music critic Noel Straus hailed the 21-years-old Lanza as “an extremely talented, if as yet not completely routined student, whose superb natural voice has few equals among tenors of the day in quality, warmth, and power.”

His budding operatic career was interrupted by World War II, when he was assigned to Special Services in the U.S. Army Air Corps. He appeared in the wartime shows On the Beam and Winged Victory. He also appeared in the film version of the latter, Winged Victory (George Cukor, 1944), albeit as an unrecognisable chorus member.

In 1945 he married Betty Hicks. She was the sister of Lanza's army buddy. He was interested in her picture, and the buddy introduced them. Lanza resumed his singing career with a concert in Atlantic City with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in September 1945 under Peter Herman Adler, subsequently his mentor.

After a sensational concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1947, the good-looking tenor signed a seven-year film contract with Louis B. Mayer, the head of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who was impressed by his performance. The contract required him to commit to the studio for six months, and at first Lanza believed he would be able to combine his film career with his operatic and concert one.

In 1948,  he sang the role of Pinkerton in Puccini's Madame Butterfly in New Orleans. Reviewing the opening-night performance in the St. Louis News, Laurence Oden wrote, "Mario Lanza performed ... Lieutenant Pinkerton with considerable verve and dash. Rarely have we seen a more superbly romantic leading tenor. His exceptionally beautiful voice helps immeasurably."

Following the success of these performances, he was invited to return to New Orleans in 1949 as Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata. But, as biographer Armando Cesari wrote, Lanza by 1949 "was already deeply engulfed in the Hollywood machinery and consequently never learned that role.”

Mario Lanza and Kathryn Grayson in The Toast of New Orleans (1950)
Vintage card. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Publicity still for The Toast of New Orleans (Norman Taurog, 1950) with Kathryn Grayson.

Mario Lanza
Belgian postcard, no. 452. Photo: MGM. Publicity still for The Great Caruso (Richard Thorpe, 1951).

Mario Lanza in The Great Caruso (1951)
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. D 46. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Publicity still for The Great Caruso (Richard Thorpe, 1951).

Mario Lanza in Because You're Mine (1952)
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. D 238. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Pubicity still for Because You're Mine (Alexander Hall, 1952).

Million-selling hit songs


Mario Lanza’s film debut for MGM was in the musical romance That Midnight Kiss (Norman Taurog, 1949) with top-billed Kathryn Grayson and Ethel Barrymore. According to MGM records the film earned $1,728,000 in the US and Canada and $1,449,000 overseas resulting in a profit of $173,000.

A year later, in The Toast of New Orleans (Norman Taurog, 1950), again opposite Kathryn Grayson, his featured popular song ‘Be My Love’ became his first million-selling hit. In 1951, he played the role of tenor Enrico Caruso, his idol, in the biopic The Great Caruso (Richard Thorpe, 1951). This film was a highly fictionalised biography of the life of the great operatic tenor, and co-starred Ann Blyth and Czech soprano Jarmila Novotná. It produced another million-seller with ‘The Loveliest Night of the Year’, a song which used the melody of 'Sobre las Olas'.

The Great Caruso was the top-grossing film that year, and according to MGM records it made $4,309,000 in the US and Canada and $4,960,000 elsewhere, resulting in a profit of $3,977,000. The film was nominated for three Academy Awards; at the 24th Academy Awards ceremony, Douglas Shearer and the MGM Studio Sound Department won for Best Sound. The film was also Oscar-nominated for its costume design and its score.

The title song of his next film, Because You're Mine (Alexander Hall, 1952), was his final million-selling hit song. The song went on to receive an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song. Though popular at the box office, the film was not a critical success.

After recording the soundtrack for his next film, The Student Prince, he embarked upon a protracted battle with studio head Dore Schary arising from artistic differences with director Curtis Bernhardt. Lanza was eventually dismissed by MGM. The film would later be made by Richard Thorpe with Edmund Purdom as young prince Karl, lip-synching to Lanza. The film was a big hit, but Lanza’s career began a downturn that would never be reversed.

Mario Lanza
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. W 875. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Mario Lanza
Dutch postcard, no. 152. Photo: MGM.

Mario Lanza
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 448.

Mario Lanza
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. U 361. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Overeating, crash dieting, coupled with binge drinking


After four years, Mario Lanza returned to an active film career in Serenade (Anthony Mann, 1956), with Joan Fontaine and Sara Montiel, and released by Warner Bros. However the film was not as successful as his previous films, despite its strong musical content, including arias from Der Rosenkavalier, Fedora, L'arlesiana, and Otello, as well as the Act I duet from Otello with soprano Licia Albanese.

The film differs greatly from the James M. Cain source novel. In the book, the male protagonist is John Howard Spring, a professional opera singer who has lost his voice and fled the United States to Mexico in a crisis of confidence after being sexually wooed (not unsuccessfully, though details are vague) by a male socialite and impresario. Juana Montes is a Mexican prostitute who sees Spring as gay and therefore a trouble-free partner to open a brothel with. But after having sex in a deserted church with Juana, Spring recovers his voice and his preferred sexual identity. The two lovers come into conflict with the local police and flee to Los Angeles, where Spring reestablishes his singing career, more successful than ever. But once they move to New York, the singer must struggle against the renewed blandishments of the gay impresario, whom Juana eventually murders with a torero's sword.

As none of this material could be considered suitable for an American film in 1955, the story's male impresario becomes female instead and the Mexican prostitute becomes a Mexican bullfighter's daughter. The film made a purported loss of $695,000.

Lanza then moved to Rome, Italy in May 1957, where he worked on the film Arrivederci Roma/Seven Hills of Rome (Roy Rowland, 1958) with the gorgeous Marisa Allasio. He returned to live performing in November of that year, singing for Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Variety Show at the London Palladium. From January to April 1958, Lanza gave a concert tour of the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Germany.

During most of his film career, Lanza suffered from addictions to overeating and alcohol which had a serious effect on his health and his relationships with directors, producers and, occasionally, other cast members. In September 1958, he made a number of operatic recordings at the Rome Opera House for the soundtrack of what would turn out to be his final film, For the First Time (Rudolph Mate, 1959) with Johanna von Koczian and Zsa Zsa Gabor. Howard Thompson of The New York Times called it Lanza’s "most disarming vehicle in years."

The Rome Opera’s artistic director, Riccardo Vitale, offered the tenor carte blanche in his choice of operatic roles. Lanza also received offers to sing in any opera of his choosing from the San Carlo in Naples. At the same time, however, his health continued to decline, with the tenor suffering from a variety of ailments, including phlebitis and acute high blood pressure. His old habits of overeating and crash dieting, coupled with binge drinking, compounded his problems.

In 1959, Mario Lanza died of an apparent pulmonary embolism in Rome, at the age of 38. At the time of his death, he had agreed to sing the role of Canio for the Rome Opera’s 1960-1961 season, but Lanza’s dream of becoming a great opera star remained unfulfilled. He was survived by his wife and four children. Betty Lanza returned to Hollywood completely devastated. She died five months later of a drug overdose.

Derek McGovern at Opera Vivrá: “He left behind an uneven but astonishingly diverse legacy of operatic recordings—some of which rank alongside the best efforts of more celebrated practitioners—together with Neapolitan songs, English love songs, and operetta; and seven operatically flavored films.“

Jeff Rense at IMDb: “Lanza's seven films and scores of astonishing recordings continue to stun and inspire singers and the public 40 years after his death. He is celebrated and honored with film festivals, a steady flow of new Cd's, and constant worldwide musical tributes.” Lanza has been a major influence on the generation of tenors who came after him. Luciano Pavarotti, Plácido Domingo, José Carreras, Andrea Bocelli, and Roberto Alagna all credit Lanza as an inspiration to them in pursuing their chosen careers.

Mario Lanza in Serenade (1956)
German postcard by Kolibri-Verlag G.m.b.H., Minden/Westf, no. 714. Photo: Warner Bros. Publicity still for Serenade (Anthony Mann, 1956).

Tea Time with the Lanzas
Dutch postcard. Photo: MGM. Tea time with Mario Lanza and his wife Betty Hicks Lanza.

Mario Lanza
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. D 178. Photo: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Mario Lanza and Johanna von Koczian in For the First Time (1958)
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Film-Vertrieb, Berlin, no. 2106, 1964. Photo: publicity still for For the First Time (Rudolph Maté, 1959) with Johanna von Koczian.

Coming soon: Next weeks, we will post the first of two film specials on Mario Lanza's most popular films.

Sources: Derek McGovern (Opera Vivrá), Jeff Rense (IMDb), Wikipedia and IMDb.

17 January 2019

Anna Q. Nilsson

Blonde and beautiful Anna Q. Nilsson (1888-1974) was a Swedish-American actress, who peaked in the silent era. Photoplay magazine named her 'the ideal American girl' in 1919. She became one of the first super stars of the American film industry and played in about 200 silent films, including one Swedish production. Her glittering career came to a tragic abrupt end.

Anna Q. Nilsson
British postcard in the "Pictures" Portrait Gallery, no. 109, London.

Anna Q. Nilsson
Swedish postcard by Officin. A.-B. Svea Film Imp. Photo: Wolfenstein.

Anna Q. Nilsson
British Real Photograph postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 175a. Sent by mail in 1932.

Dreaming of finding happiness in America


Anna Quirentia Nilsson (popular known as Anna Q) was born in 1888, in Ystad, Sweden, as the daughter of police constable Per Nilsson. Her middle name, 'Quirentia', is derived from her date of birth, 30 March, Saint Quirinius' Day. She moved with her family to Hasslarp outside Helsingborg when she was eight years old.

In her teens, she dreamed of 'finding happiness' in America. A neighbour, just returned from a trip to the United States came by the Nilsson home for a visit. She wore a hat made of ostrich plumes. "I'd never seen anything so beautiful in my life as that hat," recalled Anna later: "and I decided that America was the place for me." For five years she worked at the sugar fields at Hasslarp and as a clerk in Halmstad to collect money for the ticket.

In 1905, she took the boat to New York where she received work as a nanny ans started to learn English. One day she was discovered on a thriving avenue by the famous portrait painter James Carroll Beckwith. Anna leaped at the opportunity. She became New York's highest paid model, working for well-known fashion photographers and fine artists, such as Penrhyn Stanlaws. In 1907 she was named 'America's most beautiful woman' and she became a model for the 1910s beauty ideal, The Gibson Girl Look.

In 1911, Nilsson was offered the title role in the Kalem film Molly Pitcher (Sidney Olcott, 1911), which became the start of her acting career. Her screen husband in that film was Guy Coombs. They played together at Kalem for years, and she would eventually marry him, though the marriage didn't last long. She stayed at the Kalem studio until 1915, acting in some 70 shorts. She ranked second behind Kalem's top star, Alice Joyce.

She branched out to other production companies, such as Fox, Erbograph, Metro Pictures, Famous Players, etc., alternating star roles with supporting parts. Feature films of special note in her post-Kalem years are the gangster film Regeneration (Raoul Walsh, 1915) starring Rockliffe Fellowes, Her Surrender (Ivan Abramson, 1916), the first feature in which she was the star of the film, and Seven Keys to Baldpate (Hugh Ford, 1917) which still exists.

Other films include Venus in the East (Donald Crisp, 1919) with Bryant Washburn, The Love Burglar (James Cruze, 1919) with Wallace Reid, Soldiers of Fortune (Allan Dwan, 1919) with Norman Kerry and Wallace Beery.

In 1920-1921, she appeared in The Toll Gate (Lambert S. Hillyer, 1920) with William S. Hart, One Hour Before Dawn (Henry King, 1920) with H.B. Warner, The Luck of the Irish (Allan Dwan, 1920) with James Kirkwood sr., and The Lotus Eater (Marshall Neilan, 1921) with John Barrymore.

In 1921, Nilsson returned to Sweden to act in the rural film comedy Värmlänningarna/Harvest of Hate (Erik A. Petschler, 1921), produced by Svea Film. It would be her only Swedish film. The main role of Anna was first given to Rosa Tillman, but when the famous Hollywood star Anna Q. Nilsson came to visit her old homeland just at the time of the shooting of the film, Nilsson was given the part and Tillman got a supporting role.

The film was a box office hit in Sweden and the press praised Nilsson's acting. Värmlänningarna was long believed to be lost, but in 1998 a print showed up in the Moscow film archive and was restored by the Swedish film archive.

Anna Nilsson and Tor Weijden in Värmlänningarna (1921)
Swedish postcard by Officin. A.-B. Svea Film Imp, no. 1. Photo: Svea Film. Publicity still of Anna Nilsson and Tor Weijden in Värmlänningarna (Erik Petschler, 1921). Värmlänningarna was adapted from a play by Fredrik August Dahlgren. Anna (Anna Q. Nilsson) plays a poor girl who loves Erik (Tor Weijden), the son of a rich farmer. His parents are however determined to make Erik marry the rich Britta.

Anna Q. Nilsson and Tor Weijden in Värmlänningarna (1921)
Swedish postcard by Officin. A.-B. Svea Film Imp, no. 2. Photo: Svea Film. Publicity still of Anna Q. Nilsson and Tor Weijden in Värmlänningarna (Erik Petschler, 1921).

Anna Q. Nilsson in Värmlänningarna (1921)
Swedish postcard by Officin. A.-B. Svea Film Imp, no. 9. Photo: Svea Film. Publicity still of Anna Q. Nilsson in Värmlänningarna (Erik Petschler, 1921).

Värmlänningarna 17
Swedish postcard by Officin. A.-B. Svea Film Imp, no. 17. Photo: Svea Film. Publicity still of Anna Q. Nilsson in Värmlänningarna (Erik Petschler, 1921).

Hollywood's Wrangle


All in all, Anna Q. Nilsson participated in exactly 200 films (and a handful where she played herself). All films were American, except for the one mentioned above - recorded in Värmland. Nilsson was one of the very first big stars (and the first Swedish) in American film and one of the silent film's most engaged female actors. She was very affectionate about Hollywood, and, soon after arriving in Hollywood, she bought a landmark, which became the heart of the film industry, and when she built a weekend house on the then still deserted beach strip of Malibu, it became 'in'.

Nilsson was often called 'Hollywood's wrangle' because she consistently refused to take the help of any stunt woman. In the 1920s, Nilsson successfully freelanced for Famous Players/ Paramount, Universal, First National, and many other studios. In 1923, she made nine films, including Cecil B. DeMille's Adam's Rib (remade in 1949), Hollywood (James Cruze, 1923), one of the first satires on film life, and The Spoilers (Lambert Hillyer, 1923),  with Milton Sills in the male lead. Nilsson was severely burned while filming a scene in which she drove a locomotive through a forest fire for Hearts Aflame (Reginald Barker, 1923). She required a week to recuperate, but that did not impede her career.

Anna Q reached a peak of popularity just before the advent of sound film. In 1926, she was named 'Hollywood's most popular woman'. Nilsson welcomed royalty when the Swedish Crown Prince Gustav Adolf (later King Gustaf VI Adolf) and his wife Louise Mountbatten visited Hollywood. In 1928, Nilsson was one of the highest-rated Hollywood stars, earning $ 20,000 a week, for films such as Sorrell and Son (Herbert Brenon, 1927) with H.B. Warner. Nilsson played opposite legendary baseball player Babe Ruth in the sports comedy Babe Comes Home (Ted Wilde, 1927), an early sound film. While working on this film, Nilsson seriously injured her vertebrae.

In 1928, Anna Nilsson made her last film of the silent era, Blockade (George B. Seitz, 1928), which was actually a part-talkie. That same year (some sources claim it was in 1925 or 1929), while horse riding, she either fell off the horse or was kicked by the horse (versions differ), was thrown against a stone wall and broke her hip. After two years of being hospitalised and hard training, she was on her feet again, but it took until 1933 for a new film to be released with her: The World Changes (Mervyn LeRoy, 1933) with Paul Muni and Mary Astor. By then the film world had changed as the sound film had set in, and Nilsson was reduced to supporting roles.

During the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, Nilsson participated in 39 sound films, always in minor roles opposite stars such as James Stewart, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Cary Grant, Judy Garland, and Elizabeth Taylor. She played the role of the Swedish immigrant mother of Loretta Young in The Farmer's Daughter (H. C. Potter, 1947). The film won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Young and was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Charles Bickford.

In Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), Nilsson played a cameo role as herself, along with Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner. They were referred to as the ‘waxworks’, playing bridge with Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond. Today she is best remembered for this film, where she has only one single reply. Her very last film effort was an even smaller film role in the musical Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954).

During World War II, Nilsson worked with Bette DavisMarlene Dietrich and many other stars at the Hollywood Canteen to raise cash for the war fund. She served food to the soldiers and sold war bonds. After the war, she was rewarded by both the US state, the army, and the navy, and the Red Cross. Her money had been well invested and she threw herself into a life of charity work, reading, and extensive travel. Throughout her life, Nilsson kept in touch with her country of origin and when she was in Sweden in 1921 to shoot Värminänningar, she bought a house for her parents at Tingsgatan in Klippan, dubbed 'Quirentia'.

Anna Q. Nilsson was married with actor Guy Coombs in 1916, with actor Robert Taber, and from 1923 till 1925 with Norwegian-American shoe dealer John Marshall Gunnerson. Her second divorce drew big headlines in the newspapers. Anna Q. Nilsson died in 1974, in Hemet Convalescent Hospital, California, at the age of 85. She was the first Swedish actor to get a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Anna Q. Nilsson
Swedish postcard by Förlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1161.

Anna Q. Nilsson
Swedish postcard by Förlag Nordisk Konst, Stockholm, no. 1312.

Anna Q. Nilsson
Swedish postcard by A/B Nordiska Papperskompaniet, Helsingfors, no. 809.

Sources: Jon C. Hopwood (IMDb), The New York TimesThe Glory Days of Hollywood, Wikipedia (English, German, and Swedish), and IMDb.