Tuesday, May 6

Lilli Palmer

Looking for a book in my library I came across Change Lobsters and Dance, actress Lilli Palmer's terrific mid-70s autobiography.  After reading a few pages, I knew I had my newest posting on an actress I have greatly admired for quite some time.  Her acting was always so engaging and intelligent and her book, by the way, was a total delight, written with style and humor, not written in the usual Hollywood way.

She has said that she owes her career to Hitler.  She was born in Germany in 1914 to a prominent German-Jewish surgeon father and an Austrian-Jewish mother who was an actress.  Her father was determined Lilli would follow in his footsteps but she knew from the time that she was a little girl that she would follow her mother's path.  She studied drama in Berlin and had just made her stage debut when Hitler came to power, causing the family to flee to Paris.  After a few years, she moved alone to England.

She made a few forgettable British films in the 1930s but fame came to her in the mid-1940s after she married Rex Harrison.  In 1945 they would work together for the first time in Notorious Gentleman, a fitting moniker for the man the Brits liked to call a cad or a rake.  I can think of some more colorful terms to describe him.  I never liked him as an actor or a human being and as much as I have always liked her, I certainly thought her weakness was her appalling taste in first husbands.

After having a son, the Harrisons moved to Hollywood to see if American films were right for them and they for American films.  She signed on with Warner Bros and immediately went to work with Gary Cooper (an actor she greatly admired) in Fritz Lang's 1946 Cloak and Dagger, a war film about the Americans getting wind that the Germans were building an atomic bomb.  Over the course of her career, Palmer would do a great many war films. 
The following year she played John Garfield's love interest in Body and Soul, a story of corruption in the boxing world.  Garfield's personality and acting style couldn't have been more different from Palmer's but together they clicked and the film was a success.

Rex Harrison was known to be mean-spirited, an insufferable bore, a championship philanderer and an abuser to his many women.  He was not at all discreet about his affair with actress Carole Landis and after he promised to marry her and then reneged, she committed suicide.  He was never well-liked by the Hollywood community nor by those in Britain but he was reviled after Landis's death.  Palmer was practically bestowed sainthood for putting up with him. They had battles royal but she stayed.  In fact, they would go on to do two more films, the murder mystery, The Long Dark Hall in 1951 and the delightful comedy, The Four Poster, 1952, which would one day become the Broadway hit, Same Time, Next Year.  Around this time they became as hot as stolen diamonds in Broadway's Bell, Book and Candle.  Lilli, however, had a devil of a time with the Siamese cat in the play because it hated her.

By 1954 she had come to loathe her empty marriage and left Harrison and Hollywood for Europe.  For several years she did no films in Hollywood.  She adored making movies in her native Germany and became a sensation across the entire continent.  While making the German film Between Time and Eternity, she met and fell in love with handsome costar Argentinian Carlos Thompson. Their marriage would last for the rest of her life.

Seven years later, living contently with Thompson in Zurich, she got a call to return to Hollywood for a film.  It was the first of three films she did for the directing/writing/producing team of George Seaton and William Perlberg.  She would work with her old friend Clark Gable and blonde newcomer Carroll Baker in 1959's But Not for Me, about a Broadway producer who is divorcing his wife to marry his secretary.  Palmer was witty and stylish as the wife who gets him back in the end.

More successful was 1961's The Pleasure of His Company about a daughter's impending wedding and her invitation to her long-lost father, much to everyone's consternation.  I thought it was delightful.  Debbie Reynolds was the daughter and Fred Astaire was Palmer's ex-husband.  She was every bit as classy as Astaire and it was a pleasure to watch them spar with one another.

The final Seaton-Perlberg film for Palmer was the well-made, exciting spy thriller The Counterfeit Traitor (1962).  She is a German resistance fighter who falls in love with William Holden as a reluctant spy.  She is executed by firing squad in one of the film's toughest scenes.

Traitor was based on a true story as was 1963's The Miracle of the White Stallions, the Disney WWII epic of the running of the Spanish Riding School outside Vienna, home of the famous performing Lipizzaner horses, which had to be moved to safety because of the war.  Palmer was married to Robert Taylor, the head of the school.

These four films, all of which I own, represent something special to me because of Lilli Palmer.  Whether doing comedy or drama (and I preferred her in the former), she always had a twinkle in her eye, a spirited demeanor, a divine voice and class.  She was a most enjoyable actress to watch.

She would never again enjoy a big Hollywood career although she  continued to work, mainly in German films, most of which were fairly routine.  I did manage to catch her in supporting roles in The Amorous Adventures of Moll Flanders with Kim Novak and with George Peppard and Sophia Loren in Operation Crossbow, both 1965.  Three years later she had a supporting role opposite Dirk Bogarde and Susannah York in Sebastian and a star spot as Christopher Plummer's mama in Oedipus the King.  In 1978 she played her friend Laurence Olivier's wife in The Boys from Brazil.  He was a Nazi hunter.  Those of her films that made it to American shores I am sure I have seen.  But I am dismayed to think of those that I missed.  Lilli Palmer was a very good actress.

She died of cancer at age 71 in Los Angeles in 1986.  Thompson was by her side and by all accounts they were devoted to one another.  At least she had one decent husband.  Four years after her death, Carlos Thompson committed suicide in his native Argentina.

The Directors


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