Harvey, Lilian (1906–1968)

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Harvey, Lilian (1906–1968)

British-born German motion-picture actress who was Germany's most popular film star in the early 1930s. Born Lilian Muriel Helen Pape on January 19, 1906, in Muswell-Hill, England; died in Cap d'Antibes, France, on July 27, 1968; daughter of Walter Bruno Pape; married Valeur Larsen, in 1953.

In a poll of its readers conducted by the German movie journal Licht-Bild-Bühne a few weeks before Adolf Hitler became German chancellor in January 1933, the female film actress chosen as the number one star was neither Marlene Dietrich nor Greta Garbo , but British-born Lilian Harvey. The trilingual Harvey starred in French, British, and American films, as well as German ones, and for some years was Germany's closest equivalent to an international star. She was born Lilian Muriel Pape in a suburb of London in 1906. The daughter of a German father and British mother, Lilian was eight when her family moved to Germany. Within months, World War I began, and the country was thrown into turmoil, but her parents were able to remove her from danger by sending her to Switzerland where she attended school in Solothurn. At war's end, Lilian returned to Berlin. There, she studied dance with a noted teacher, Mary Zimmermann , and by age 16 had joined a Viennese dance company. Lilian toured the major cities of Germany as well as Budapest, Prague, and Vienna. There, she caught the eye of film director Richard Eichberg, who cast her in her debut film, Der Fluch (The Curse), in 1925. The film's success led to 11 more leading roles in Vienna for Lilian Harvey—her film name—over the next several years.

By 1926, when she appeared opposite Willy Fritsch (1901–1973) in the filmed operetta Die keusche Susanne (Chaste Susanne), Harvey had become famous in German-speaking Central Europe. But it was with the appearance of talkies in the late 1920s that she was rapidly able to assert herself as an international screen star. Completely trilingual, she made French- and English-language versions of her films after she had completed her German original. In 1932, the readers of the French magazine Pour Vous voted her the most popular non-French actress. Thus it was scarcely a surprise to international audiences when she co-starred with Charles Boyer and Laurence Olivier in the respective French and British versions of an originally German film. With her doll-like features and her ability to sing and dance, she was invariably cast as the flirtatious but basically virtuous girl next door, the kind of young woman whom millions of middle-class mothers regarded as the ideal daughter-in-law.

In 1930, Harvey became a superstar by appearing in Liebeswalzer (Waltz of Love), once again courted by Willy Fritsch (in all, she would make 14 films with Fritsch), who serenaded her with "Du bist das süsseste Mädel der Welt" ("You are the sweetest girl in the world"). In the British version of this international hit, filmed the same year, she appeared opposite John Batten. Offering pure escapism to a troubled world, Liebeswalzer was a worldwide hit in the first full year of world economic depression, taking people's minds off their woes for an hour or two. Even in Japan, audiences packed theaters in Tokyo and elsewhere to hear, "You are the sweetest geisha in the world." Lilian Harvey possessed the indefinable qualities of a major star even though London's Times noted in 1974 that her "appeal (and perhaps this is its potency) is elusive of definition. She danced moderately, sang rather plaintively, acted to the best of her small strength. Her face was rather bony and angular, so that she could look quite old and plain if she were not sympathetically lit."

The year 1930 brought an even greater hit for Harvey when she appeared in Die drei von der Tankstelle (The Three from the Filling Station). This escapist operetta, which was also released in a French version, once again paired Harvey and Fritsch as the innocent lovebirds. The story reflects the rapidly advancing Depression by telling the tale of three penniless young people whose lives are sustained on hope for a better future. In 1931, Harvey and Fritsch starred in Der Kongress tanzt (The Congress Dances), a film operetta set in Vienna in 1815 at the time of the Congress of Vienna. Instead of investigating the complexities of international diplomacy, the film focuses on Harvey as a modest little glove-maker dazzled by Tsar Alexander I of Russia. She delighted her audiences by singing the waltz tune "Das gibt's nur einmal, das kommt nie wieder" ("This only happens once in a lifetime, and never again") as her carriage slowly made its way through the narrow streets of Old Vienna.

As Germany's most popular film actress, Harvey almost inevitably was beckoned by Hollywood. Between 1933 and 1935, she starred in four Hollywood films, receiving mostly positive reviews, though the films themselves were of less than stellar quality. By 1935, when she appeared in Let's Live Tonight, she had decided that it would be prudent to return to Europe. Besides the rather mediocre screenplays of her American films, she doubtless took notice of the stiff competition in Hollywood which included several blondes who were at least as attractive and talented, stars such as Jean Harlow, Carole Lombard , and Ginger Rogers . After making the film Invitation to the Waltz in England in 1935, Harvey returned to Germany that same year.

Much had happened in Germany during Harvey's two-year absence. The Nazi dictatorship which now controlled the country boasted that it would exist for the next thousand years. Many of Harvey's colleagues in the German motion-picture industry, including Erich Pommer and Wilhelm Thiele, who had produced and directed several of her most successful films, had fled the country because they were Jewish. The entire intellectual and artistic life of Germany was now in the hands of Minister of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment Joseph Goebbels. Many in Germany felt vindicated when Harvey "returned home" from a "racially polluted" Hollywood. Harvey, who had little knowledge of or interest in political matters, discovered that far fewer musicals were now being made, and while many films appeared on the surface to be devoid of political content that was not often the case.

In the first film made after her return, Schwarze Rosen (Black Roses), a number of attractive musical selections were interspersed with an anti-Communist tale of the Finnish struggle against the oppressions of both Tsarist and Bolshevik Russia. Many of the film's viewers yearned for the days when a Lilian Harvey film meant music and dancing, and were delighted with her 1936 film Glückskinder (Lucky Kids), a frothy concoction directed by her real-life lover, Hungarian-born Paul Martin. This comedy, in which Harvey is once more paired with Fritsch, is set in New York City, and its mood is zanily escapist, seeming to prove that Goebbels kept his word when he noted in May 1933 that "one mustn't deal in ideology [Gesinnung] from dawn to dusk." Much of the film was plagiarized from Hollywood (including plot segments from It Happened One Night), but it pleased the film critics, including the Nazi Party's chief organ, the Völkischer Beobachter, which reported in September 1936 that "One hasn't been so amused in the Gloria-Palast for ages." The Berlin correspondent of the American entertainment journal Variety reported positively on the UFA Studios' "first serious attempt to go Broadway…. The film looks to be asmash." In his Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife, Eric Rentschler has characterized Glückskinder as a mass entertainment commodity made in Nazi Germany that "replicated a Hollywood film in a Babelsberg studio set, imitating a generic pleasure made in a foreign dream factory, in effect creating the illusion of an already illusory world, raising artifice to a higher power by frankly admitting its own derivation and desire."

By 1937, when Harvey starred in the film Fanny Elssler , her youthful beauty had started to fade, but she was determined to sparkle in a

lavish production that presented a highly romanticized version of early 19th-century Central European history. In this fairy-tale version of the life of Vienna's reigning ballerina superstar, Elssler is assigned by Prince Metternich to keep an eye on Napoleon's son, the Duke of Reichstadt, with whom she falls in love. After the failure of his political schemes, the duke dies, and Fanny goes on to a fabled stage career. Fanny Elssler was by far the most lavish of Harvey's film vehicles, boasting six beautifully choreographed and opulently staged production numbers, with a corps de ballet of almost 150 dancers. Another 1937 film, Sieben Ohrfeigen (Seven Slaps), continues the successful formula of Harvey and Fritsch, with pleasant songs and dances, a light-as-air plot, and a "they-livedhappily-ever-after" ending.

In her 1938 film Capriccio, Harvey retains some of her traditional "fairy-like" persona while taking on a Hosenrolle, a pants role. Harvey's cross-dressing performance allows her to include what Antje Ascheid has described as "an astoundingly liberal array of parodic references." Although Capriccio was released in the fifth year of the Nazi dictatorship, the outfits worn by its lead actress link this film to the liberal-minded Weimar Republic, when it was common to see women wearing men's clothing. Besides revealing many touches of Hollywood style, Capriccio also exploited for comedic effect several allusions to lesbian themes (in one scene, critically appraising the "girls" in a bordello, she chooses them all).

After shooting a 1938 film in Italy, Castelli in aria (Castles in the Air), which was poorly received, Harvey returned to Germany in 1939 to make what would turn out to be her last film in Nazi Germany. In Frau am Steuer (Woman at the Wheel), she is once again partnered with Fritsch, but this time the dream couple no longer displays a tenderly romantic relationship. In a socially reactionary and misogynistic Nazi German version of the Hollywood comedy of remarriage, Fritsch and Harvey are involved in a fierce power struggle that ends in defeat. Realizing that the film's script called for her to play an unsympathetic role, one that in fact heralded her demise as a romantic heroine, Harvey at first resisted performing in Frau am Steuer. But after her employer, the powerful UFA Studios, threatened a penalty of 1.5 million reichsmarks if she did not honor her contract, she felt she had little choice but to proceed. In this film, Harvey found herself transformed against her will into a strident career woman humbled and "made small" by Willy Fritsch, now decreed by German fascist ideology to be her naturally dominant partner.

Lilian Harvey went to Paris on the eve of World War II, hoping to rekindle her career. She had long been a star in France, a country where the eminent composer Charles Koechlin (1867–1950) composed two albums of piano music in her honor and named a movement of his Seven Stars Symphony for her. In order to finance two films, Sérénade and Miquette (both released in 1940 and not successful), she went into debt by selling her jewels and her lavish castle in Tetélen, Hungary.

When Germany conquered France in June 1940, Harvey fled to Spain and then to South America. Eventually she appeared in Los Angeles, believing that she could resume her film career there. But she received no offers and eventually accepted a job as a nurse. Fortunately, her old friend Noël Coward heard about her plight and offered her a leading role in his comedy Blithe Spirit, which enabled her to appear on stage for several months. In 1951, six years after the war, Harvey returned to Germany, but the aging star was unable to make a comeback. Willy Fritsch and others, including female film stars like Zarah Leander and Kristina Söderbaum , were able to reignite their careers after 1945. But Lilian Harvey was not so lucky. Considered a has-been, she began to live in a world of denial, and a brief marriage in 1953 to Danish impresario Valeur Larsen failed after little more than a year.

In 1960, the Berlin Film Festival gave a tribute to the stars of the old UFA Studios. Convinced she was still a star, Harvey insisted that she would attend the event only if contemporary stars like Maria Schell and Romy Schneider also attended, to avoid creating the impression that her career was in the past. Although the new stars did not appear, Harvey attended nevertheless, and the magazine Stern reproduced a photo of an aging Harvey, swirling around in a ballerina gown from her 1937 UFA film Fanny Elssler. The image recalled Gloria Swanson in the role of Norma Desmond in the 1950 classic Sunset Boulevard. Retiring to the French Riviera, Harvey returned a final time to Germany in the 1960s for appearances in small theater productions. She died at her villa, "Asmodée," at Cap d'Antibes, France, on July 27, 1968, having been affectionately cared for during her last days by an old friend, the famed dancer Serge Lifar.


Ascheid, Antje. "Nazi Stardom and the 'Modern Girl': The Case of Lilian Harvey," in New German Critique. No. 74. Spring–Summer, 1998, pp. 57–89.

Belach, Helga, ed. Wir tanzen um die Welt: Deutsche Revuefilme 1933–1945. Munich and Vienna: Hanser Verlag, 1979.

Borgelt, Hans. Das süsseste Mädel der Welt: Die Lilian-Harvey-Story. Munich: Heyne Verlag, 1976.

Cziffra, Geza von. Es war eine rauschende Ballnacht: Eine Sittengeschichte des deutschen Films. Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein Verlag, 1987.

Habich, Christiane, ed. Lilian Harvey. Berlin: Haude & Spener Verlag, 1990.

"The Harvey Girl," in The Times [London]. July 16, 1974, p. 7.

Harvey, Lilian. "Wiedergeburt des romantischen Films," in Tages-Post [Linz, Austria]. June 13, 1932.

Kreimeier, Klaus. The Ufa Story: A History of Germany's Greatest Film Company 1918–1945. NY: Hill and Wang, 1996.

Rentschler, Eric. The Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and Its Afterlife. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996.

Romani, Cinzia. Tainted Goddesses: Female Film Stars of the Third Reich. Translated by Robert Connolly. NY: Sarpedon, 1992.

Traudisch, Dora. Mutterschaft mit Zuckerguss?: Frauenfeindliche Propaganda im NS-Spielfilm. Pfaffenweiler: Centaurus Verlag, 1993.

Witte, Karsten. "The Indivisible Legacy of Nazi Cinema," in New German Critique. No. 74. Spring–Summer, 1998, pp. 23–30.

——. "Too Beautiful to Be True: Lilian Harvey," in New German Critique. No. 74. Spring–Summer, 1998, pp. 37–39.

Wulf, Josef. Theater und Film im Dritten Reich: Eine Dokumentation. Frankfurt am Main: Ullstein Verlag, 1989.

related media:

Koechlin, Charles. L'album de Lilian: deuxieme serie, Op. 149. Paris: M. Eschig, 1986.

——. L'album de Lilian: premiere série, Op. 139 (oeuvre posthume). Paris: M. Eschig, 1985.

——. The Seven Stars Symphony, Op. 132. [La Voix de Son Maitre LP ASD 1731391].

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Harvey, Lilian (1906–1968)

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