Once upon a time in Hollywood the notion that foreign actresses with a certain Mata Hari charm would offer multiple pleasures to domestic film audiences gained currency.
The result: the rare imported actress made the cut did but most didn’t.
German actress Hildegard Knef gave it a good try. But no cigar.
She starred in the first film made in Germany after the end of World War II. David O. Selznick brought her to Hollywood, hoping she’d be the next Bergman. (Remember, he’d brought Ingrid Bergman to Hollywood to be the next Garbo.)
But there were conditions. Selznick wanted Knef (pronounced Neff) to change her surname Gilda Christian, and that she should claim Austria — not Germany — as her native country. (Remember this was back in the immediate post World War II period.) Knef refused both requests.
Instead she returned to Germany and promptly created a Hedy Lamarr-type scandal by appearing nude in 1951’s The Sinner.
While wondering what all the fuss was about, Knef launched a second assault on Hollywood, this time with measurably better results. In 1952 she appeared with Gregory Peck in the 1952 screen adaptation of The Snows of Kilimanjaro.
But there were multiple setbacks. Because it was discovered that Knef had had an affair with a German officer during the war, she was dropped from 1950’s The Big Lift with Montgomery Clift. For reasons unclear she was also dropped from two other high profile productions: 1953’s Man on a Tightrope, directed by Elia Kazan, and the 1957 movie version of the Broadway hit Silk Stockings, in which Knef had starred on Broadway. The replacements were, respectively, Gloria Grahame and Cyd Charisse.
She managed to stay afloat, however, opposite Oskar Werner and Richard Basehart in 20th Century Fox’s 1951 war drama Decision Before Dawn. The movie wound up as a best-picture Oscar nominee.
By the late Fifties Knef and Hollywood were through with one another. Most of the films and tv productions she made over her career — some 65 credits in all — were made in Europe.
She spent her final years (she died in 2002 at the age of 76) on the stage or in personal appearances featuring vocals of her own compositions. Hollywood was a distant memory.