TCM after Christmas: Underrated Lilli Palmer in reported Soviet Union hit + right-wing ‘Bicycle Thieves’?
(See previous post: “Turner Classic: Dysfunctional-Family-Oriented Christmas Movies + Katharine Hepburn Double Dose.”) Recommended Turner Classic Movies presentations on Christmas 2010’s Day After range from the British drama Beware of Pity, starring Nazi Germany escapee Lilli Palmer, to a silent version of The Wizard of Oz and Vittorio De Sica’s “conservative” (!!) neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves. (Check out the TCM schedule further below.)
Directed by three-decade film veteran Maurice Elvey (The Wandering Jew, The Clairvoyant) from Stefan Zweig’s only full-length novel, Ungeduld des Herzens (“Impatience of the Heart,” published in 1939), the pre-World War I-set Beware of Pity (1946) tells the story of a paraplegic Central European baroness who learns a bitter lesson about the difference between pity and love.
Reportedly Elvey’s favorite among his films, Beware of Pity turned out to be a costly commercial flop that all but ended the filmmaker’s career. Somewhat surprisingly, its one bright box office light is supposed to have been none other than the now defunct Soviet Union.
In the cast: Albert Lieven (more on his alleged Soviet ties further below), Cedric Hardwicke, Gladys Cooper, Linden Travers, Ernest Thesiger, and, as the baroness, that most underrated of actresses, Lilli Palmer.
Busy international star
The same year Beware of Pity came out, Lilli Palmer, who had fled her native Germany for Britain in the 1930s (Palmer was Jewish), starred in her first American production, Fritz Lang’s spy thriller Cloak and Dagger, opposite Gary Cooper.
Palmer’s Hollywood career, however, never quite took off.
On the professional side, Cloak and Dagger and her follow-up star vehicles (My Girl Tisa, No Minor Vices) didn’t break any box office records (though Body and Soul was a sizable hit). On the personal side, husband Rex Harrison became romantically involved with actress Carole Landis (Topper Returns, I Wake Up Screaming), who killed herself at age 29 in 1948. A major scandal ensued.
Her Hollywood disappointment notwithstanding, in the next three decades Palmer would keep on working – in movies, on television, and on stage – on both sides of the North Atlantic.
Lilli Palmer movies
Notable Lilli Palmer films, some of which may pop up on TCM in the future, include:
- Kurt Hoffman’s pleasant circus-themed musical Fireworks / Feuerwerk (1954), in which Palmer – looking great in color – made her German cinema debut. One of the film’s highlights is her rendition of Paul Burkhard’s 1939 ditty “O mein Papa.” Romy Schneider and Karl Schönböck co-star.
- The Lovers of Montparnasse / Les amants de Montparnasse (1958), Jacques Becker’s depiction of the life of Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani (Gérard Philipe). Palmer plays London-born writer and poetess Beatrice Hastings, a “bohemian” – in real life, a bisexual one – who shared an apartment with Modigliani and posed for him.
- Géza von Radványi’s Mädchen in Uniform (“Girls in Uniform,” 1958), a remake of Leontine Sagan’s 1931 drama based on Christa Winsloe’s semi-autobiographical 1930 play Ritter Nérestan. Set in a strict boarding school for girls, Romy Schneider plays an adolescent who becomes deeply infatuated with Best Actress German Film Award nominee Lilli Palmer’s open-minded, kind-hearted teacher.
- George Seaton’s moderately enjoyable comedy The Pleasure of His Company (1961), chiefly notable for its stellar cast: Palmer as the epitome of elegance, Golden Globe winner Fred Astaire as her debonair and self-centered ex-husband, Debbie Reynolds as their daughter, Tab Hunter as Reynolds’ romantic interest, and Gary Merrill as Palmer’s current husband.
- George Seaton’s solid spy drama The Counterfeit Traitor (1962), with Lilli Palmer delivering a superlative performance as a deeply religious anti-Nazi fighter and eventual Nazi victim. William Holden has the title role.
- Alfred Weidenmann’s French-Austrian co-production Adorable Julia / Julia, du bist zauberhaft (1962), a German Film Award-nominated performance as an egomaniacal stage actress married to stage producer Charles Boyer while romantically attached to young and handsome social climber Jean Sorel.
- Roger Leenhardt’s Le rendez-vous de minuit (1962), featuring Lilli Palmer as both a suicidal woman watching Le rendez-vous de minuit at a movie theater and the equally suicidal heroine of the film-within-the-film. Michel Auclair is the young film critic who crosses paths with the troubled cinemagoer.
- Franklin J. Schaffner’s risible and quite successful thriller The Boys from Brazil (1978), in which Palmer has a supporting role as the wife of Nazi hunter Laurence Olivier. The villain of the piece is a deplorably miscast Gregory Peck as Josef Mengele.
Lilli Palmer awards & nominations
Never even nominated for an Academy Award, Lilli Palmer did receive some well-deserved recognition elsewhere.
She was the Best Actress winner at the 1953 Venice Film Festival for her portrayal of Rex Harrison’s wife through the decades in Irving Reis’ The Four Poster (which debuted in New York City in late 1952), and at the 1965 San Sebastián Film Festival for her murderous Nazi agent – actually a supporting role – in Michael Anderson’s World War II drama Operation Crossbow.
Additionally, in her native country Palmer won two consecutive Best Actress German Film Awards:
- As ambitious composer Curt Jürgens’ wealthy and neurotically jealous wife in Rolf Hansen’s Teufel in Seide (“Devil in Silk,” 1956) – an “excellent study of a psychopath,” according to the German-language Encyclopedia of the International Film.
- As Anna Anderson, who claimed to have been the Russian princess Anastasia, in Falk Harnack’s Anastasia: The Czar’s Last Daughter / Anastasia - Die letzte Zarentochter (a late 1956 release in the running in 1957), which also earned her a Best Foreign Actress BAFTA nomination in 1958.
In the United States, she was shortlisted for two Golden Globes: Best Actress in a Comedy or Musical for Walter Lang’s But Not for Me (1959), and, in the TV categories, Best Supporting Actress for Marvin J. Chomsky and Lawrence Schiller’s miniseries Peter the Great (1986).
Final movie role
Lilli Palmer’s final film appearance was in a supporting role in John Frankenheimer’s meandering 1985 thriller The Holcroft Covenant, starring Michael Caine. She died at age 71 in January of the following year in Los Angeles.
From 1957 to her death she was married to Argentinean actor Carlos Thompson, who committed suicide at age 67 on Oct. 10, 1990, in Buenos Aires.
Palmer’s autobiography, Change Lobsters and Dance, was published in 1975.
Another ‘Beware of Pity’-Soviet Union connection
Lastly, besides box office revenues Beware of Pity has another curious Soviet Union connection: German-born leading man Albert Lieven, who in 1937 fled to the United Kingdom with his Jewish, St. Petersburg-born wife Tatiana (1933–1944) – née Silberman to a well-to-do family. In the eyes of MI5, Tatiana, later known as Tania Lieven, was a possible Soviet spy.
As found in files released by the National Archives in the London district of Kew, Albert Lieven himself was suspected of being on his way to becoming a Communist Party member – and whatever that entailed. “Although Lieven himself does not share his wife’s extreme views,” reads one of the documents dated from 1941, “he’s in contact with communists and pro-communists and is too weak a character to remain uninfluenced by such contact.”
Yet there doesn’t seem to have been any concrete evidence that Lieven and/or his wife were actual Soviet agents.
Albert Lieven was seen in more than 70 features, ranging from Hans Steinhoff’s A Woman of No Importance / Eine Frau ohne Bedeutung (1934) in Germany to J. Lee Thompson’s Anglo-American, Oscar-nominated World War II drama The Guns of Navarone (1961). He died at age 65 on Dec. 22, 1971, in London. Rugby player Toby Flood is his grandson.
A few years after her divorce and 1946 marriage to actor Miles Malleson (Kind Hearts and Coronets, Murder Ahoy), Tania Lieven – according to MI5, “a dangerous woman and one who has been completely gripped by the communist mania” – became a television actress, director, and producer, handling episodes for, among others, the anthology series ITV Play of the Week and ITV Television Playhouse. She died at age 69 in November 1978 in London.
Silent ‘The Wizard of Oz’ & gay icon mystery
Back to Turner Classic Movies’ post-Christmas 2010 presentations: directed by and featuring silent film comedian Larry Semon (as the Scarecrow and a couple of other characters), the 1925 version of The Wizard of Oz is TCM’s Silent Sundays offering.
This lesser-known filmization of L. Frank Baum’s novel features Dorothy Dwan in the role that would become associated with Judy Garland – especially in the minds of some American gay men, a mystery that remains as unfathomable as the casting of Billie Burke as the Good Witch Glinda in MGM’s opulent 1939 release.
Really, why Judy’s Dorothy as a gay icon? Why Dorothy to begin with? Why not Toto?
It’s definitely puzzling, especially considering the movies’ myriad other gay icon possibilities, ranging from Barbara Stanwyck in Baby Face and Norma Shearer in Let Us Be Gay to (gay actor) Ramon Novarro in Ben-Hur and John Wayne in Ride Him, Cowboy.
‘Bicycle Thieves’ one the greatest ‘conservative’ movies ever made?
Leaving this baffling gay icon mystery behind, Albert Lamorisse’s Academy Award-winning short The Red Balloon (1956) will follow The Wizard of Oz, and then Turner Classic Movies will present Vittorio De Sica’s Special Academy Award recipient Bicycle Thieves / Ladri di biciclette (1948), considered by some to be one of the greatest cinematic achievements ever.
Now, one of the most bizarre commentaries ever about Bicycle Thieves was written by a right-wing magazine contributor who listed De Sica’s neorealist effort as one of the greatest “conservative” movies ever made.
Bicycle Thieves was labeled “conservative” because, according to the writer, De Sica’s socially conscious drama about the indignity of poverty, the obscenity of income maldistribution, the degradation of our human-fucks-over-human world is actually about a man’s inalienable right to own and keep material things – i.e., the lead character’s eventually stolen bike.
Back to reality and sanity: non-professional actors Lamberto Maggiorani and Enzo Staiola are flawless as father and son struggling to eke out a living in post-World War II Italy. In fact, they make most pampered, overpaid Hollywood performers – then and now – look like inept amateurs.
If you haven’t watched Bicycle Thieves, you must. And if you already have, well, it’s always worth another look. Who knows, you might be able to find some hidden “conservative” elements in it.
“Lilli Palmer in Soviet Union Hit + 1 of Greatest ‘Conservative’ Movies Ever & Silent Version of Curious Gay Icon” follow-up post: “TCM pays homage to Filmmaker Blake Edwards: From Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Victor Victoria.”
Turner Classic Movies’ schedule (PT): Dec. 26
9:00 PM The Wizard of Oz (1925). Cast: Larry Semon. Bryant Washburn. Dorothy Dwan. Virginia Pearson. Oliver Hardy. Charles Murray. Spencer Bell (as G. Howe Black). Josef Swickard. Mary Carr. Frank Alexander. Otto Lederer. Director: Larry Semon. B&W. 72 mins.
10:15 PM The Red Balloon (1956). Cast: Sabine Lamorisse. Pascal Lamorisse. Director: Albert Lamorisse. Color. 34 mins.
11:00 PM Bicycle Thieves (1948). Cast: Lamberto Maggiorani. Enzo Staiola. Lianella Carell. Elena Altieri. Vittorio Antonucci. Director: Vittorio De Sica. B&W. 89 mins.
1:00 AM Beware of Pity (1946). Cast: Lilli Palmer. Albert Lieven. Cedric Hardwicke. Gladys Cooper. Linden Travers. Ernest Thesiger. Emrys Jones. Gerhard Kempinski. David Ward. Anthony Dawson. Freda Jackson. John Salew. Ralph Truman. Jenny Laird. Godfrey Parker. Ronald Millar. Director: Maurice Elvey. B&W. 103 mins.
21st-century ‘Adorable Julia’ + ‘Anastasia’ 1956 competitor
 Adorable Julia is based on Guy Bolton and W. Somerset Maugham’s 1941 stage adaptation of the latter’s 1937 novella Theatre. Renamed Being Julia and starring Annette Bening, István Szabo’s 2004 version was officially an adaptation of the novella itself.
 Le rendez-vous de minuit is not to be confused with Rendez-vous à minuit, the French title of Lewis Seiler’s 1940 crime flick It All Came True, featuring Ann Sheridan, Jeffrey Lynn, and Humphrey Bogart.
Lilli Palmer German Film Award nominations + Susan Shaw
 Besides Mädchen in Uniform (at the 1959 ceremony) and Adorable Julia (belatedly, in 1966), Lilli Palmer’s two other Best Actress German Film Award nominations were for Harald Braun’s The Glass Tower / Der gläserne Turm (1957), as a frustrated married socialite eager to revive her stage career; and for the period drama The Dance of Death / Paarungen (1967), Michael Verhoeven’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s play.
Coincidentally, Shaw, who developed a serious alcohol problem, died at age 49 in the same month – November 1978 – as Tania Lieven.
 Bicycle Thieves’ Special Oscar was for the “most outstanding” foreign-language film released in the U.S. in 1949. Non-English-language movies would get their own regular Oscar category only at the 1957 ceremony.
Turner Classic Movies’ website.
Tania Lieven’s background is mentioned in Andrew Malleson’s Discovering the Family of Miles Malleson 1888 to 1969.
Albert Lieven and Lilli Palmer Beware of Pity images: Two Cities Films / Eagle-Lion.
Jean Sorel and Lilli Palmer Adorable Julia image: Production de l’Etoile / Wiener Mundus-Film.
Enzo Staiola and Lamberto Maggiorani Bicycle Thieves image: Ente Nazionale Industrie Cinematografiche.
“Lilli Palmer + Gay Icon Silent Treatment & 1 of Greatest ‘Conservative’ Movies Ever?” last updated in April 2018.