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Marta Eggerth Dead at 101: The Jeanette MacDonald of German Operettas

Marta EggerthMarta Eggerth: Operetta and film star – a sort of Jeanette MacDonald of Central European cinema – dead at 101

Marta Eggerth, an international star in film and stage operettas who frequently performed opposite husband Jan Kiepura, died on December 26, 2013, at her home in Rye, New York. The Budapest-born Eggerth had turned 101 last April 17. (Image: Marta Eggerth ca. 1935.)

Although best known for her roles in stage musicals such as the Max Reinhardt-directed 1927 Hamburg production of Die Fledermaus, and various incarnations of Franz Lehár's The Merry Widow, Marta Eggerth was featured in nearly 40 films. The vast majority of those were produced in Austria and Germany in the 1930s, as the Nazis ascended to power.

Marta Eggerth films

Marta Eggerth films, which frequently made use of her coloratura soprano voice, include Max Neufeld's drama Eine Nacht im Grandhotel (“A Night at the Grand Hotel,” 1931); the Victor Janson-directed musicals Once There Was a Waltz / Es war einmal ein Walzer (1932) and The Blue from the Sky / Das Blaue vom Himmel (1934), both written by future Hollywood filmmaker Billy Wilder (the latter co-written by Max Kolpé); and Frederic Zelnik's romantic musical Emperor's Waltz / Kaiserwalzer (1933), apparently unrelated to the 1948 Billy Wilder comedy The Emperor Waltz, starring Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine.

Also of note is Das Hofkonzert (“The Court's Concert,” 1936), a comedy musical directed by another future Hollywood filmmaker, Douglas Sirk. Besides Marta Eggerth, Das Hofkonzert starred controversial Dutch actor and entertainer Johannes Meesters, who would be later accused of cozying up to the Nazi regime. Meesters, whose life inspired István Szabó's 1982 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar winner Mephisto, died on Christmas Eve 2011 at the age of 108.

By the mid-'30s, Marta Eggerth had become an international celebrity alongside fellow German film musical stars Lilian Harvey, Marika Rökk, and Zarah Leander (none of whom were German-born). Eggerth was a renowned performer throughout Europe, and according to the Washington Post she was the top box office draw in Brazil at that time. (German musicals were immensely popular in Brazil in the '30s; Eggerth was likely one of the most popular film stars of the decade in that country, though not necessarily the most popular.)

Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura

Marta Eggerth met her husband, Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, while filming My Heart Calls You / Mein Herz ruft immer nach dir in 1934. Four years later, Eggerth and Kiepura, both of whom had Jewish mothers, relocated to the United States. Their most famous collaboration in the U.S. was the 1943 Broadway production of The Merry Widow, with Robert Stolz conducting the operetta choreographed by George Balanchine.

The Merry Widow had been filmed twice at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: a 1925 silent version directed by Erich von Stroheim starred Mae Murray and John Gilbert, while a 1934 version directed by Ernst Lubitsch starred Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. A third version, released by MGM in 1952, would star neither Marta Eggerth nor Jan Kiepura, but Lana Turner and Fernando Lamas – neither of whom were known for their singing voices.

Coincidentally, Marta Eggerth's two American films – in which she had supporting roles – were both MGM releases: Busby Berkeley's For Me and My Gal (1942), starring Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and George Murphy; and Norman Taurog's Presenting Lily Mars (1943), with Garland and Van Heflin. (It's unclear if, as per rumors, Marta Eggerth's song “Spell of the Waltz” was cut out of For Me and My Gal because MGM was afraid that she would upstage their contract player Judy Garland. Other songs from the radically reedited film were also left out.)

Following World War II, Eggerth and Jan Kiepura returned to Europe, where they once again performed together as a sort of Central European Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, both on stage and in three films: Carmine Gallone's American-Italian co-production Addio Mimí! (1949), a modern-day adaptation of Puccini's La Bohème; Jean Boyer's French-made comedy musical Valse brillante (1949), in which Eggerth gets to sing a (purportedly) Brazilian song in Carmen Miranda-style; and Hans Deppe and Erik Ode's West German-made Das Land des Lächelns / The Land of Smiles (1952), with music by Franz Lehár. The last title turned out to be Kiepura's final film appearance.

Marta Eggerth would be featured in only one more movie: Arthur Maria Rabenalt's West German romantic comedy Frühling in Berlin (“Springtime in Berlin,” 1957), also featuring Walter Giller and Sonja Ziemann.

“So many people ask me lately,” Marta Eggerth told Capital New York's Zachary Woolfe following a November 2010 screening of The Blue from the Sky at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. “'Oh, you made films in France, in Italy, in Germany, in Austria. It's fantastic, must have been big fun, no?' I said, 'What? Fun?' I never had fun. It was hard work and responsibility and always in a different language. My language was Hungarian, and all these languages I studied and I learned later. You know what was fun for me? When my work on the stage or in films was successful, I was happy. But I didn't have fun. Never.”

Marta Eggerth: Later years

Following Jan Kiepura's death at age 64 in 1966, Marta Eggerth temporarily quit show business. She resumed singing in the '70s, and would continue to perform in the ensuing three decades.

Eggerth's last acting role in front of the camera was in the long-running German crime television series Tatort in 1999. According to reports, her last public appearance was at a career retrospective event for the Vocal Record Collectors Society in New York in October 2011.

MoMA's The Blue from the Sky screening provided Marta Eggerth with the chance to watch her 1934 vehicle for the first time. Capital New York's Zachary Woolfe wrote:

The opening credits began; the film was co-written by none other than “Billie” Wilder. When Eggerth's name came up, she whispered loudly to her neighbor, “That's me,” and, heartbreakingly, began to hum along to the music.

Marta Eggerth death

Marta Eggerth is the latest notable film personality to pass away in the last four weeks. Other recent deaths include those of actor Paul Walker (Fast & Furious 6), eight-time Oscar-nominated actor Peter O'Toole (Lawrence of Arabia, The Ruling Class, Venus, etc.), Oscar-nominated filmmaker Édouard Molinaro (La Cage aux Folles), actor-director-screenwriter-producer Tom Laughlin, Oscar-winning actress Joan Fontaine (Suspicion), three-time Oscar-nominated actress Eleanor Parker (Caged, Detective Story, and Interrupted Melody), and actresses Rossana Podestà (Helen of Troy), Jean Kent (The Browning Version), and Audrey Totter (Lady in the Lake).

Marta Eggerth and Joan Fontaine were both listed in a May 2013 article as two of the few surviving movie stars of the 1930s.


         
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