Friday, January 30

Maria Schell

I think Stephen Sondheim may have been right.  Maria.  Maria.  Maria.  It is a beautiful sound.  It has been a favorite female name of mine since childhood.  I was in the sixth grade with a pretty little blonde I fancied.  She smiled at me and told me her name was Maria.  It was inevitable that I would one day sit up and take notice of a certain gorgeous blonde actress arriving in America from Austria to make movies.  Her name, too, was Maria.  Maria Schell.

What she represented to me was genuine kindness but also a fragility.  And just as had happened with Marilyn Monroe, I had a great desire to protect Maria.  I wanted to bundle her in my arms and assure her all would be ok.  Where did that all come from?  I don't know and I am a bit surprised I was so taken with her because, as you know, I like my smart-assed actresses the best.  Maria was never that.

Aside from her fresh, clear-faced, blonde, Alpine beauty, she had the most remarkable eyes.  They too were kind and also soulful and she often teared up when she smiled. They bespoke great caring and perhaps that is why I felt a need to care for her in return.  I adored her slightly-accented voice... clear, soft, loving.  She could whisper entire paragraphs.  Like few others and no matter what character she was playing, I sense that Maria Schell's own values shone through in each of her roles. 

She was born in 1926 Austria into an acting family.  Her mother had been an actress and ran an acting school.  She adored her cultured pharmacist father, who dabbled in writing poetry, novels and plays but he kept her at a distance.  Perhaps it had something to do with a general melancholy that seemed to be her best friend.  She was the eldest of four... her sister Immy and her brothers Carl and Maxmilian all became actors. 

She went to a religious school in France for a time.  When she was 12 the family moved to Switzerland and at 16 she was discovered and put in a Swiss film.  She did not think she was very good and apparently no one disagreed with that so she began taking acting classes in Zurich.  She did not make another film until she was 22 and this was the German production The Angel with the Trumpet.  This time everyone was talking... at least everyone in Europe.

She began appearing regularly in films... her talent was no longer in question.  An English-language film, a British production, The Magic Box (1951), with Robert Donat, helped bring the actress some familiarity in places other than Europe.  She was good with Trevor Howard in an adulterous relationship in The Heart of the Matter (1953).  She began appearing regularly in German productions and one of them, The Last Bridge (1954), as a nurse on the front during WWII, won her the best actress award at Cannes. 

In 1956 she was acclaimed for playing the title role in the French production, Gervaise, directed by René Clémente.  The part was of a young, lame mother dealing with an alcoholic second husband.  Then she went to Italy to work for Luchino Visconti in Le notti bianche (1957, costarring Marcello Mastroianni and Jean Servais.  The three were involved in a love triangle.  It was based on a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky who would again figure in Maria's splashy introduction to American audiences.

Maverick director Richard Brooks felt shackled at MGM because, as a contract director, he didn't like to be told what to do or to have his creativity stifled.  But he was rather taken with the assignment he was given to steer a massive production of Dostoevsky's tale of a feuding family in The Brothers Karamazov.  Some fame was attached to the 1958 film because Marilyn Monroe waged a campaign to play the leading female role of Grushenka.  She was dying to get away from her sex kitten roles and to be taken seriously as an actress.  History shows it didn't work out for her or for Carroll Baker whom MGM wanted but Warner Bros wouldn't release.

Enter Maria Schell.  She breathed life into a role that was as different from any other role she would play in an American film.  Grushenka is a temptress who torments men because of past treatment.  She is the girlfriend of the Karamazov patriarch and is spirited away by one of the sons.  By the end of the story, she seeks redemption.  Her famous scene was a gypsy dance.  She got on very well with her difficult costar, Yul Brynner... and I mean very well.  I did not see The Brothers Karamazov until very recently.  It never interested me but I not only enjoyed it, I added it to my DVD collection.

The first film I did see her in was The Hanging Tree (1959), a western by director Delmer Daves and starring Gary Cooper in one of his last roles.  It concerned the lives of those in a small town during the Gold Rush.  As Elizabeth, Maria is a passenger in a stagecoach that overturns and she is left temporarily blinded.  She is nursed back to health by Cooper, a doctor, and stalked and nearly raped by a menacing Karl Malden.  Here I became so aware of the wistful quality to Maria that seemed to put her at the front of the line for playing beautiful victims.

The same year she was convincing in As the Sea Rages, but it belonged mainly to Cliff Robertson as a seaman returning from the war and settling in a small coastal town with the hope of peace and quiet.  It is a little-known film that was helmed by German director Horst Hächler, who would become Maria's first husband.

I loved her as the loving but lonely Sabra Cravat in the 1960 Anthony Mann-directed remake of Cimarron.  It was a big, lusty western, spanning decades as all of author Fanny Hurst's works do.  Its central theme was the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 but its emotional theme was the long but fractured marriage of Schell and Glenn Ford.  She suffers throughout because he is always leaving her for long periods of time to pursue other interests.  Cimarron has always been my favorite Maria Schell film.

It's worth noting that Schell fell deeply in love with Ford and wanted to marry him.  Although he loved her as well, he was suffering because his marriage to former dancer Eleanor Powell was ending and he couldn't commit in the way she wanted.  She always said it was one of the great regrets of her life.

Both she and Stuart Whitman were excellent in 1961s The Mark.  It was a compelling and very brave story for the times about child molestation.  Whitman's character is accused of the crime which he did not commit but the rub here is that he does have hidden issues in this area.  Schell, portraying the single mother, Ruth, of a young daughter, begins a romance with Whitman with dramatic results.  The emotional ranges of both Schell and Whitman are exciting to watch.

The Mark marked the end of Schell's leading-lady American career and she would not be seen again until the mid-70s.  Some have said that audiences this side of the Atlantic never really took to her.  If that's true, it certainly went way over my head because all I knew is that I sureinthehell took to her.  It's also been said that her growing jealousy of her younger brother's career, particularly in America, drove her back to Europe.  When Maxmilian Schell won a best actor Oscar for Judgment at Nuremberg (1961), it could certainly be said his popularity eclipsed hers.  

We heard little of her in these parts while she appeared in German movies and did a great deal of television and managed some stage work.  In 1974 she did appear in the thriller The Odessa File as Jon Voight's mother and interestingly, another costar was brother Max.  She resurfaced in the late 70s in smaller roles in 1976s Voyage of the Damned (a fine film as one of many doomed ship passengers returning to Germany during the war) and Just a Gigolo (an odd film with a fascinating cast that included David Bowie, Kim Novak and Marlene Dietrich) and Superman (astonishing, as Marlon Brando's mother), both 1978.

I rarely if ever heard about her again until 2002 when Maxmilian Schell produced a documentary about her called My Sister Maria.  By this time, she had fallen on hard times to be sure.  She had a series of disastrous love affairs (including a second marriage) and had attempted suicide after one of them.  It has been said she suffered greatly because of her drug-addicted son.  She became destitute, having recklessly spent her fortune.

She retired to an old family chalet in Austria while nursing a degenerative brain disorder.  Her brother said that it robbed her of discipline and judgment and even her looks.  She had long mourned her glamorous movie star past and usually spent her days watching her films on television. 

Reviews on Maxmilian's documentary have been mixed.  Many apparently found it illuminating and loving and have said it gave Maria a final taste of her former glamorous life.  But others criticized it for indulgence in showing her in such distressing situations, like falling down and injuring her face.

Maria Schell had several strokes but would die of pneumonia at age 79 in Austria in 2009.  After her passing, Maxmilian would say: Towards the end of her life she suffered silently and I never heard her complain.  I admire her for that.  Her death might have been for her a salvation.  But not for me.  She is irreplaceable.

The Austrian film critic, Alexander Horwath said she was one of the very few stars of post-war German-speaking cinema who had a lasting effect on the international film scene.  He's right.  And I am so glad.

A Karamazov costar


  1. That was a fun read for me as she was pretty much under my radar. I ma have seen Cimmaron but not sure. What a beauty.

  2. Foi uma grande atriz. Sua carreira não estava a altura do seu enorme talento.É uma das minhas preferidas. Sempre a amei! Fernando Antonio de Almeida


  3. The Last Bridge was the first film I saw and I still remember the impression given to me by the sweetness and the light of her face. I could make just a comparison : the beautiful close-ups of I. Bergman in For Whom The Bell Tolls. After the Bridge a few more films came to Italy and I suspect they had been made before.
    In a short time she became very popular and I believe that she reached the highest point of her art in Gervaise, a sad, cruel but beautiful movie.
    For some reasons I still do not understand why she accepted the role in Le Notti Bianche by Visconti.
    A boring story where Maria had as costars a bloodless Mastroianni and an eternally smiling Jean Marais as a sort of Prince Charming in the finale.
    Hollywood made her famous in the whole world mostly with Karamatzof. Then, little by little she faded away (in Italy) like a falling star. I am grateful that You swept away al the dust which covered my memory. Thanks again. Carlo

  4. Continuo amando a grande MARIA SCHELL, agora imortalizada pelas mídias digitais. Concordo om tudo que você escreveu. Meu amor por ela, é uma coisa transcendental !

  5. Thanks for writing, Fernando. So nice to hear from someone else who was so enamored of her.