Friday, May 21, 2010

Henny Porten

Actress, Film producer 
"Sturdy and blond, she reminded you of the Valkyries and the bronze statues in German town squares," wrote the French critic Georges Sadoul of Henny Porten, the preeminent German screen actress of her generation. The daughter of Franz Porten (1859-1932), a baritone and an actor-director with the Stadtheater of Magdeburg, Porten had come to films without any prior theatrical experience in 1906. By 1910 audiences were clamoring to know the name of the blonde (and blind) girl in Das Liebesgluck der Blinden, a melodrama written for her by her sister Rosa, and by 1912 she had become a true star, millions of moviegoers flocking to the so-called "Henny-Porten-Filme." Although she worked most frequently for the rather mediocre but popular Gustav Frölich, Porten reached the height of her screen career under the gentle guidance of Ernst Lubitsch, who cast her as the title characters in Anne Boleyn (1920; British title Deception) and Kohlhiesel's Daughter (1920), both opposite Emil Jannings. By the late '20s, Porten, still a major star, had become the quintessence of German womanhood, ladylike yet kindhearted and a not a little petit bourgeois. All this, however, was about to change. The Nazi takeover of Germany in 1933 brought Henny Porten's career to an almost standstill. The wife of a Jewish doctor, the star had become a thorn in the eye of propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who not only attempted to ban her from working but denied her an exit visa to join Lubitsch in Hollywood. Yet the public still clamored for her and Porten was permitted to work in such Austrian-made films as the comedy Der Optimist and the crime drama War es der im Dritten Stock (both 1938). Old friend G.W. Pabst hired her to play the duchess in The Comedians (1941) and she was reunited with Frölich for the homey comedy Familie Buchholz (1944). An allied air raid left her homeless for a time (allegedly no one would offer shelter to the wife of a Jew) but she survived the fall of the Third Reich and spent the remainder of her life as a living legend. Hans J. Wollstein, Rovi ➔  Henny Porten Biography

Growing up with Henny Porten
"I am now keeping a very tight rein on myself", Marlene Dietrich confided to her diary on January 30, 1914. Admonishment to do so became her maxim for both private and professional life. "I had to learn very early to have a firm hold on things", she later wrote in her memoirs with a clearly different emphasis.  

Albeit playfully, she first fashioned her own identity, stylizing herself into a new being, in 1912 and 1913. On the covers of her school notebooks she contracted her first names – Marie Magdalene – into "Marlene", at the time a rather unusual unique name, indeed. Outwardly, Marlene Dietrich's childhood took a quite normal upper-middle-class course. Through her step-father Eduard von Losch, she encountered relatives who were staunchly conservative earls and princesses. They left their mark on Marlene Dietrich's values. She took violin lessons, performed at school events and participated in evenings of music at home. She was infatuated by her elegant Aunt Vally and by her occasional young male acquaintances at the skating rink. And she confided her hopes and doubts, flirtations and yearnings to her diary. 

As an adolescent, she experienced the First World War primarily as a personal drama. She longed for her step father, wounded for the first time in September 1914 and sent to a military hospital in Brunswick. She compensated for his absence with revengeful taunts in the schoolyard: "Hiddekk" (An exclamation resulting from the first letters of the words in German meaning: 'Foremost the English must be beat’) After her step father's death, her mother moved with the two daughters to relatives in Dessau. Trips to Berlin were increasingly regarded as enjoyable interludes in an entertaining metropolis. Over the Christmas holidays in 1916/17, Marlene Dietrich attended theater and ballet performances at Berlin's Schiller Theater, the Grosses Schauspielhaus and the Wintergarten, but also a screening of a film at the Union-Theater on the Kurfürstendamm. In spring 1917, the family of three moved back to Berlin. An entry in her diary on April 13, 1917 reveals that the sixteen-year-old's moods fluctuated between private concerns, school and the impact of the war; "I don't have a crush on anyone right now, but maybe I'll meet Georg Tarnowski through Heinz Gottwaldt. My violin lessons are very difficult, I have to practice like mad. (...) Yesterday a picture of Uncle Max arrived. Dear, dear Uncle Max. We never really spent time together, but now that he's dead, I realize how dear he was. (...) I don't think the war will ever stop. Now against America, too! Well, I'd better stop writing and wait till I can write something more interesting, like about the new love I'm waiting for."  

From autumn 1917, the object of her adoration was the German movie star, actress Henny Porten. In wartime kitchen dramas, Porten played women whose lives were harsh, often misused by men who appeared noble but were in fact morally base. Henny Porten was considered the personification of all romantic torment inflicted by men on women. Her indignation at the humiliation she experienced was always genuine. With a lofty gesture she expelled the sinners from her paradise. She suffered without complaining, silently, breathing hard, her chest trembling, hands wringing. At moments of extreme despair she threw herself on the ottoman. Marlene Dietrich was elated to be able to worship Henny Porten. She sent home-made cream cakes to the actress' box at the theater, visited her at her home, serenaded her on her birthday, and gave her cards of the star that she had painted in herself. But for Marlene, the greatest joy was yet to come. "My mother was quick to note my great passion, and so one day, for a Porten film premiere, she took the large box next to Henny's for the whole family. Without having expected it, this day turned out to be an exhilarating triumph for me. Namely, some months before, I had made a gobelin cushion for Henny and sent it to her. And what did I suddenly see on the screen? Where did Henny Porten let herself fall when she passionately swooned? Right onto my cushion! I pinched my mother's arm and trumpeted out into the Mozart Hall: 'Mother, look! She has fallen on my cushion.' What bliss!" 

Henny Porten remained her heartthrob, the fixed star of her youth. She wrote three film treatments for this Messter Production star; they were all kindly rejected. She gained experience on the stage in school performances, established amorous contacts with actors and actresses, and revealed to her diary: "I will definitely go on the stage. Something in me is afire, so to speak, for Henny Porten." (Oct. 19, 1917). Politically, on the other hand, she was naive, if not ignorant. On November 9, 1918, the day on which Emperor Wilhelm II abdicated the throne and the Republic of Germany was proclaimed, Marlene Dietrich had other concerns: "Why do I have to live through these dreadful times. After all, I had wanted a golden, happy childhood. And now it has turned into this. I feel so sorry for the Emperor and everybody else. Terrible things are supposed to happen tonight. We'd invited a few ladies over for tea, not a one could get through. Except Countess Gersdorff. Although on the Kurfürstendamm, armed soldiers tore off her husband's cockade. Wherever one looks - red flags. What do the people want. (...) That nothing happens (to Henny), they are especially out for those who are finely dressed." It would still take some time for Marlene Dietrich to liberate herself from the gilded cage of her childhood. ➔  MARLENE PLUS

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