12 September 2014

Oscar Beregi, Sr.

Hungarian stage and film actor Oscar Beregi, Sr. (1876-1965) appeared in 27 European and American films between 1916 and 1953. He is best remembered as Dr. Baum in Fritz Lang’s Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (1933).

Oscar Beregi Sr.
Hungarian postcard by S.S.Bpt., no. 235.

An attack on the aristocracy

Oscar Beregi, Sr. was born Beregi Oszkár or Oszkár Beregi (according to Wikipedia) or as Berger Oszkár (according to IMDb) in Budapest, Austria-Hungary, in 1876.

In the 1910s, he was the leading actor of the National Theatre in Budapest, and would later perform in plays in Vienna and Berlin.

The sources differ about Beregi’s film debut in 1916. Was it with the lead role in the silent Hungarian production Mire megvénülünk/The time we get old (Ödön Uher ifj., 1916) or with the male lead in Hófehérke/Snowwhite (Márton Garas, 1916) with Ica von Lenkeffy?

A year later he starred in the drama A Gólyakalifa/The Stork Caliph (Korda Sándor a.k.a. Alexander Korda, 1917), co-starring Gyula Bartos and Judit Bánky. It was the second film made by the legendary director-producer for his newly established Corvin Film company. Korda pulled off what was considered a literary coup by persuading the author Mihály Babits to allow him to film a version of his 1916 novel of the same name.

Two years later, Beregi appeared in another drama by Korda, Ave Caesar! (Alexander Korda, 1919) with Gábor Rajnay and María Corda. The film tells the story of a debauched Habsburg Prince, who sends out one of his aide-de-camps to bring him back a gypsy girl.

Ave Caesar! was considered as an attack on the aristocracy. It was made by Korda for the state-owned film industry during the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Once the regime fell later that year Korda was arrested and eventually compelled to leave Hungary as part of the White Terror.

Beregi also worked with another Hungarian who would later become famous in Hollywood, Mihaly Kertész (later known as Michael Curtiz), on the drama Jön az öcsém/My Brother is Coming (Mihaly Kertész, 1919) with Lucy Doraine.

Like many other Hungarian film makers, Oscar Beregi, Sr. fled with his family the Béla-Kun-Regime and moved to Austria. There he appeared as Cesare Borgia in Meriota, die Tänzerin/Neriota – the dancer (Julius Herska, 1922) opposite Maria Mindzenty as Meriota and Nora Gregor as Lucrezia Borgia.

Later he played Amenmeses opposite María Corda in the epic Die Sklavenkönigin/The Moon of Israel (Mihaly Kertész, 1924), produced by Sascha Kolowrat-Krakowsky and Arnold Pressburger. The script was written by Ladislaus Vajda, based on H. Rider Haggard's novel Moon of Israel, which in its turn was inspired by the Biblical story of the Exodus.

Shooting took place in Vienna with about 5,000 extras, in the studios of Sascha-Film, and outdoors on the Laaer Berg. Vienna was touted as 'the Hollywood of Europe,' and the film brought Kertész to the attention of the American studio head Jack Warner. Warner invited Kertész to Hollywood in 1926, where he rapidly became Michael Curtiz and made a career with the Warner Studios.

Die Sklavenkönigin was entirely lost for many years, but in 2005 the film was restored and re-copied by the Filmarchiv Austria and presented in the Wiener Metro Kino.

Beregi then starred in the drama Der Fluch/The Curse (Robert Land, 1924). The film marked the screen debut of Lilian Harvey as a young Jewish women in an Eastern European shtetl, who struggles to reconcile her aspirations with her duty to her family. As her lifestyle grows wilder, her mother is shocked by her immoral behaviour and commits suicide by drowning - repeating ‘the curse’ which has haunted the family for centuries.

He also starred in Austrian-Polish coproduction Ssanin (Friedrich Feher, 1924) with Magda Sonja, and the Jewish production Jiskor (Sidney M. Goldin, 1924) with Maurice Schwartz and Dagny Servaes.

Oscar Beregi Sr.
German postcard by NPG. Photo: Mátrai, Budapest.

Oscar Beregi Sr.
Hungarian postcard. Photo: Mátrai, Budapest.

A menace to public health and safety

From 1926 on, Oscar Beregi, Sr. appeared in several Hollywood films, including the romantic comedies The Love Thief (John McDermott, 1926) and Butterflies in the Rain (Edward Sloman, 1926), with Laura La Plante.

He also had a supporting part in the silent drama The Flaming Forest (Reginald Barker, 1926) starring Antonio Moreno and Renée Adorée. The film is remarkable while a two-strip Technicolor sequence was shot for the climactic blaze sequence of the film.

When the sound film was introduced in Hollywood, Beregi’s possibilities as an actor were limited and he returned to Europe. He appeared there in several Hungarian films, but he is best remembered for his performance as Dr. Baum in Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse/The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933).

This German crime film is a sound sequel to Lang's silent film Dr. Mabuse der Spieler/Dr. Mabuse the Gambler (Fritz Lang, 1922) and features Rudolf Klein-Rogge as Dr. Mabuse who is in an insane asylum where he is found frantically writing his crime plans. When Mabuse's criminal plans begin to be implemented, Inspector Lohmann (Otto Wernicke) tries to find the solution with clues from the gangster Thomas, the institutionalized Hofmeister and Professor Baum (Beregi) who becomes obsessed with Dr. Mabuse.

According to Wikipedia, the film was scheduled for release on 24 March 1933 at the UFA-Palast am Zoo, but Adolf Hitler came to power at the end of January 1933 and on 14 March, Hitler established the new Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda headed by Joseph Goebbels. By 30 March, the Ministry of Propaganda banned Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse as a menace to public health and safety. Goebbels stated that he would not accept the film as it "showed that an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence".

On the French release, The New York Times wrote that "It is the French version of Fritz Lang's production, Le Testament du Dr. Mabuse (Dr. Mabuse's Will). It is a hallucinating and horrifying story, depicted with great power and the extraordinary beauty of photography that Lang has led his admirers to expect."

During the Third Reich he lived in Budapest. Because of the anti-Semitic laws of 1939, he was only allowed to work as a stage actor in Omike, and he just barely escaped the Holocaust.

In the late 1940s, he emigrated to the US where he played a supporting role in the Oscar-winning film Call Me Madam (Walter Lang, 1953) starring Ethel Merman.

Oscar Beregi, Sr. died in 1965 in Hollywood, California. He was the father of actor Oscar Beregi, Jr., who also worked as a film and TV actor in Hollywood.

Oscar Beregi Sr.
German postcard by NPG, no. 1275 Photo: Angelo, Budapest, 1918.

Sources: Daniel Rudolf (Ralph’s Cinema Trek), Wikipedia (English and German), and IMDb.

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