Throughout the Golden Age of Hollywood many actors came from many countries, and for many reasons — not least to save their talented skins from wars, dictators and economic disaster.
Of course in the days of silent movies this was easy. They had FACES then, and faces were all that were necessary. Some of the biggest stars of the silent cinema spoke little, if any, English. There was Garbo (Sweden), Pola Negri (Poland, via Germany), Emil Jannings (Germany), and Eric von Strohiem (Austria).
Even after talkies arrived those who were stars in their own country still came to Hollywood to gain “real” international fame. Think of Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr (pictured above), Laurence Olivier, and even Carmen Miranda.
Before we get to Carmen, we should note that Lamarr’s introduction to Hollywood told volumes about the cultural hurdles faced by worldly wise Europeans seeking their cinematic fortunes in the less permissive (yes, less permissive) studio systems back then.
By the time she arrived in Hollywood office for the first time — at the age of 23 — Hedy had spent years leading the life of a sophisticated European aristocrat.
Born in 1914 to a solidly bourgeois Viennese family, she was by 16 already embarked on movie bit parts in silents produced at Vienna’s Sascha-Film Studio. Then that fateful journey to Prague in 1932.
She was offered a part in an Czech art film about a frustrated bride breaking free from a sexless marriage to an older man. The movie was title Ecstasy, and it involved full frontal nudity and scenes showing Hedy in the throes of intercourse with her young lover. The movie nearly shot down her Hollywood career before it even started.
On top of that Hedy — at the ripe age of 19 — had married an enormously rich Viennese arms merchant, and quit acting. Hedy was Fritz Mandl’s trophy wife, and the couple lived super-lavishly. There was the sumptuous 10-room Vienna apartment. Also, the seven servants, the nine chauffered autos and the the country home called Castle Schwarzenau.
Cut ahead years later to a luxury hotel suite in London. MGM boss Louis B. Mayer was sitting as tall as he could at his desk, opposite Hedy. By this time she was in her early 20’s, and had freed herself from the gilded but stifling marriage to Mandl. She wanted back into acting, and was interested in trying her luck in Hollywood.
You’re lovely, my dear, but I have the family point of view, enunciated Mayer. At MGM we make clean pictures. We want our stars to lead clean lives. I don’t know what people would think about a girl who flits bare-assed around the screen.
Bare-assed or not, Mayer wound up hiring Hedy (after trying to low-ball her with a financial offer she rejected out of hand). But now on to our South American import.
Carmen had been a huge star in Brazil, but knew she had to come to the States if she ever wanted to be truly internationally known. Hollywood called her “The Brazilian Bombshell” and later, “Lady With the Tutti Frutti Hat.” (Dig the chapeau she is sporting in the above photo.)
Miranda was actually born (in 1909) in Portugal but moved with her family to Brazil. She designed hats as a very young woman before exploiting her acting and musical talents. She migrated to Hollywood via the New York stage, appearing in the 1939 Broadway review, Streets of Paris.
She was short (topping out at five feet), feisty and a lot of fun to watch onscreen. Check her out in 1941’s Weekend In Havana, 1942’s Springtime in the Rockies and 1947’s Copacabana in which she shares top billing with Groucho Marx. She married badly but for religious reasons (she was Roman Catholic) she stuck it out until her death in 1955, at 46.
Hollywood was unusual in the day for its early and far-reaching international distribution apparatus, which allows its movies to penetrate foreign markets. No other national film industry could make that statement. Thus it drew so many “star” immigrants from abroad, a good idea at the time.