In the centre: Budapest – Vienna – Hollywood

What was the secret of successful expats in Hollywood? They integrated themselves into the Hollywood studio system but they also brought something with them, which generations of directors learnt from. But what exactly was this ability – and why exactly did they become successful? Budapest Classics Film Marathon attempts to uncover their secret of success with screenings and professional programmes, lectures and roundtable discussions.

Vienna and Budapest, Austria and Hungary at the end of the 19th century, first half of the 20th century was an exceptional social-cultural ‘little world’ where, to quote the words of Friedrich Hebbel, ‘the big world holds its rehearsal’. Great writers, from Franz Kafka to Robert Musil, and great filmmakers have analysed all this. They, Austrian and Hungarians, found fame and fortune chiefly as emigrants, chiefly in America. What was their secret? They integrated themselves into the Hollywood studio system but they also brought something with them, which generations of directors learnt from: the ‘human touch’. But what exactly was this ability – and why exactly did they become successful? Budapest Classics Film Marathon attempts to uncover their secret of success with screenings and professional programmes, lectures and roundtable discussions.

At heart, the mood of Hollywood films was generally one of optimism because immigrants and their offspring looked on the world from a practical point of view, openly. They had quit Europe and all those unresolvable contradictions straining against each other, all that dead weight that had accreted on the societies of their continent and homeland over centuries. Their desire was to prosper in the New World. They brought their own very different stories but they also wanted to be good American citizens, they wanted to fit into the community rapidly. Everything here was fundamentally different to the situation in Austria-Hungary.

Poles and Argentines, Turks and Chinese, Irish and Hungarians all sat together on the benches of penny arcades. In general, they all worked hard and after a day’s labour they were thirsty for entertainment. They gaped, entranced, at the moving pictures. In the early days, the verity of cinema made almost any topic fascinating. But after a while audiences began to yearn for something more. Directed, acted stories. Emotions. And the audience is never wrong. One person who knew this only too well was Adolf Zukor, who had emigrated to America from the eastern part of the Monarchy, as well as Vilmos Fried, who was born in Tolcsva around 50 km from Zukor’s home village, Ricse. The former became famous as the founder of Paramount Pictures, the latter, as William Fox, set up Fox Film Corporation, which later transformed into 20th Century-Fox.

American film spoke in the language of simple emotions comprehensible to all. It had to make itself understood: immigrants arriving from different continents and countries, who were in the process of learning English and adapting to their new homeland in an unfamiliar environment, desired, in the darkness of the cinema, to be touched by the stories they were watching. It was necessary to tell a story effectively but not simplistically. In a straightforward manner but full of the wisdom of life. The mission was to find that visual and dramaturgical language that everyone understood. Thus, show business was born of this demand. Entrepreneurs who established studios created the industrial framework but the formalistic elements that enabled the telling of stories also had to be developed. Once again, Hungarians were also involved in creating these elements and they infused American films with their own stories in the early decades of the 20th century. This is how the popular culture of Vienna and Budapest appeared – filtered and reformulated – in Hollywood, the American theatre of the world.

Oscar prizewinners: Michael Curtiz on the far left

Actors, writers, directors, set designers and composers arrived from Central Europe in several waves throughout the first half of the 20th century. They came via Berlin and Paris, some fleeing Hitler, they arrived – in the hope of a better life, or driven by a sense of adventure – to the homeland of boundless opportunities, desirous of a new promised land, some persecuted, some voluntarily, some under duress or out of ambition. Erich von Stroheim arrived even before the start of the First World War. Later on, America welcomed directors such as Billy Wilder and Michael Curtiz (born Mihály Kertész), and actors such as Vilma Bánky (we are showing
King of the Circus and The Son of the Sheik in which she has starring roles), Peter Lorre (that is, László Löwenstein) and Paul Lukas (that is, Pál Lukács, seen in Watch on the Rhine that won him an Oscar). Moreover, there was the three-times Academy Award-winner Austrian composer Max Steiner and his similarly three-times Oscar-winning Hungarian colleague Miklós Rózsa. And the list goes on.

They all played their part in creating the American dream with pure-hearted girls and courageous cowboys, with suburban houses and citizens fighting for justice without fear, with happy endings. In all this there were hints of Viennese and Budapest popular stage plays and operetta, archetypal characters and rapidly identifiable catchwords. In addition, there was no lack of wishful dreams of emigrants and refugees thirsting for peace and security but never finding it in the land of their birth. Their historical experiences and childhood memories – even their traumas – were of use to them. They had witnessed the horrors of war, revolutions, the collapse of an empire, a seething Central Europe that had become a dangerous place, breaking up into historical cataclysm. They had looked into the abyss. They arrived on the shores of America from a damaged social environment; quite often, they, too, were damaged. This made them sensitive and, however surprising it may sound, strong and resilient as well. They sensed, and they understood, many human phenomena, which a state that operates in a healthier way spares its citizens and artists. All this was partly resolved in humour; the subtitle of Szőke Szakáll’s memoir – the legendary comic known in America as S.Z. Sakall (who appears in three films at Marathon) – My Life Under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolf Hitler and the Warner Brothers suggests this particularly poignantly. Then there is the classic movie by Billy Wilder (also appearing at Marathon), one of the finest comedies of all time, Some Like It Hot: at the nadir of the Great Depression, acting becomes a matter of life or death for a pair of shabby musicians lightly dressed in the midst of a snowstorm (played by Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, whose parents were Hungarian) as they fled gangsters. Watch the film carefully and it is as if we are viewing the dilemmas and fate of the seven-times Oscar-winning director and his co-writer, I. A. L. Diamond. Two Central Europeans who saved their lives by leaving a continent engulfed in flames in time.

Directors such as Billy Wilder knew precisely the secret of the human touch: the almost unlearnable ways and codes of communication, which were the natural sin qua non of their everyday lives amongst the residents of Austria-Hungary of many different origins and languages. They spoke several languages – specifically and in the figurative sense. They came from the border regions, in frontier situations, at the meeting point of social fracture lines, peoples and cultures. This endowed them with a very special human and artistic perceptiveness. The best were able to create a common language comprehensible to all. They sensed what audiences desired, what their dreams were, who and what they identified with, when their hearts sank, when the thrill of the chase would transfix them, when and what they feared most and when they laughed out of sheer relief. They were able to speak in the language of the soul, in this rare and at the same time universal and particular language. And what they created spoke to nearly everybody in the same way. This new branch of art was born in the metamorphosis of adaptation, and its rules were fashioned in the course of continuous interaction with the audience, exploiting the repertoire of techniques of theatre, circus, fine art, opera and operetta. Those genres became crucial where audiences felt that the film was about them, and those artists became successful who sensed what audiences needed.

The very best – Billy Wilder, Michael Curtiz and others – integrated all this into their films. Universal film history is unimaginable without several enigmatic Central European actor-faces. The human touch and the secret of faces can be difficult to decipher, yet we still make an attempt at the screenings and accompanying programmes of Budapest Classics Film Marathon starting on 13 September.

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Lead photo: Studio shot in Vienna from the photo album of Mihály Kertész (later, Michael Curtiz), c. 1918-20. Standing: Iván Siklósi, Mihály Kertész, Oszkár Fodor, beside the camera: Károly Vass, seated: Petrovics Szvetiszláv, Lucy Doraine, Mihály Várkonyi.