Sunday, March 8, 2015

Felix Bressart - A True Comrade

Even though some viewers may not know his name, Felix Bressart is a face that many will recognize. His performances were unmistakably unique and each and every one of them was genuine, humorous and heartfelt. We feel a particular fondness for this beloved actor because he reminds us so much of our late grandfather, Mathias Metzinger, both in appearance and character. Both men led simple lives, just doing their jobs with a quiet diligence common of European workers, and all the while leaving a profound effect on those around them through their kindness and good deeds. 

One of Bressart's endearing qualities was that he often portrayed true down-to-earth friends, always there to give you a helping hand or a shoulder to cry on in your hour of need. A good comrade through and through. Mr. Kralik and Klara ( James Stewart and Margaret Sullavan ) certainly thought so, and they valued his friendship and his humble opinions very much in A Shop Around the Corner ( 1940 )....especially when it came to deciding whether a cigarette box should play "Ochi Tchornya" or not. 

In Blossoms in the Dust ( 1941 ), Dr. Bressler ( Bressart ) brought Edna's ( Greer Garson ) child into the world and when this little boy tragically died, his friendship was pivotal in giving Edna hope and helping her fulfill her purpose in life. Even Shirley Temple benefited from Bressart's sage advice, when, in Kathleen ( 1941 ), she needed a kindly paternal friend to pour out her troubles to. 


For his Hollywood productions, Bressart played a wide range of European characters including Russians,  Hungarians, and Germans; not surprisingly since he bore the classic profile of an Eastern European Jew with that prominent hook nose, those soulful eyes that saw much persecution, and the timid stance of one accustomed to submitting to authorities. Felix was in fact born in Eydtkuhnen, East Prussia ( what is now Chernyshevskoye, Russia ). As a young man he qualified as a medical practitioner but somewhere along the way, turned his attention to acting. His wiry frame and bespectacled appearance were not leading man attributes and, like Mary Wickes, remained a character portrayer all his life.


In Berlin, Felix studied acting and honed his skills in musicals and comedies in the theatres of Berlin, Hamburg and Vienna. By the early 1930s he was a respected film personality, having performed in popular films such as Die Drei von der Tankstelle ( 1930 ) and Die Privatsekretärin ( 1931 ). 

When the Nazis came to power Bressart and his wife Frieda found safety in neutral Switzerland and, later, in Paris. While in Europe, he befriended Joe Pasternak and Ernst Lubitsch who both offered him plentiful work upon his eventual arrival in Hollywood. One of his first parts in America was that of Buljanoff in Lubitsch's sparkling comedy Ninotchka ( 1939 ) where he played with his Landsmann and frequent co-star, Sig Ruman. 


Because Bressart was himself a refugee, fleeing from the Nazi regime, he often portrayed men aiding others in their flight to freedom. During wartime it was difficult to determine friend from foe; Bressart's kind face and transparent nature made his character's undeniably trustworthy. When Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray were seeking an unknown contact in Salzburg in Above Suspicion ( 1943 ), it was Mr. Werner ( Bressart ) who passed on to them information needed to rescue a scientist from the hands of the Nazis. In The Seventh Cross ( 1944 ) Bressart was once again helping his fellow man as an undercover resistance fighter forging documents for a concentration camp escapee ( Spencer Tracy ). 


However, the tables were turned in Comrade X ( 1940 ) when Bressart portrayed a desperate father pleading to a reporter ( Clark Gable ) to take his daughter ( Hedy Lamarr ) out of Communist held Russia.

Felix had great depth in his acting ability and one can easily tell that his performances stemmed from personal experience. In his eyes and in the tone of his voice, he evoked pathos which made audiences sympathize with the plight of Europeans during the war. Even in comedies this naturalism came through. This was especially evident in one of Felix's greatest roles, in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be ( 1942 ), where he portrayed the hired Jewish actor Greenburg who yearns to perform his favorite role, that of Shylock from Shakespeare's "The Merchant of Venice", before a full house. The zenith of his performance is his delivery of the "Hath not a Jew eyes?" monologue which becomes one of the most poignant moments in a film strewn with scenes of light-hearted zaniness. 


Bressart's characters were often the pillars of strength for others to lean on for support and like most of the meek men of the world, they were the ones who were willing to defy authority and stand up to protect those whom they love. Just like all the other Jews in Germany at the time, he displayed the fortitude and cheerful optimism they shared amidst their surrounding hardships.  

Bressart also exemplified the "everyman"....the common hardworking bread-winner. He was an old trusted servant in Escape ( 1940 ), a fellow lab worker in Edison, the Man ( 1940 ) and a poor music maestro in Three Smart Girls Grow Up ( 1939 ), Ziegfeld Girl ( 1941 ), Greenwich Village ( 1944 ), and Without Love ( 1945 ). He always came across as a happily married man and a proud papa-bear of a large family, blissfully content. 

It is amazing that Bressart's career in Hollywood lasted but a decade, for by the end of the 1940s he was in failing health and during the production of My Friend Irma ( 1949 ), Felix passed away at the age of 57 from leukemia. 

We never had the opportunity to capture our "opa" Matthias on videotape before he passed on, but when we watch Felix Bressart in any of his films it is like seeing our grandfather come to life again and for that alone we are grateful that Bressart chose acting as his profession and shared his talent with so many.

This is our contribution to the Russia in Film Blogathon being hosted by Fritzi over at Movies Silently. This превосходный event celebrates Russian films, Russian-born actors and films with Russian settings. So rush-on over there and check out all the wonderful posts!

11 comments:

  1. Certainly an actor I'd seen in many roles but I never really paid as much attention to as deserved. I love this overview of his career, which really emphasises the breadth of the roles he undertook. Will watch them again with a closer eye!

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    1. Bressart really was a talent, and like most character actors, we take their skills for granted. Oddly enough, by many he is known as a comedian but even though he adds humor to all of his roles, we don't think he should be labeled a comedian. He just played happy sympathetic people...and I think that alone is what made him so special. All character actors have their own trademark "nature" which they bring to every film they are in.

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  2. Great character actor. Lovely tribute. I love him in Shop Around the Corner and The Seventh Cross.

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    1. He's also wonderful in Blossoms in the Dust. There really wasn't any other character actor that replaced him in his kind of roles once he passed on.

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  3. Such a comforting and familiar presence that I hadn't realized that his time in Hollywood was actually so limited. Felix Bressart made a lasting impression in our hearts.

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    1. That he did indeed...We're glad you enjoyed our post CW!

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  4. Thank you so much for joining in! I absolutely agree that there is this wonderful grandfatherly quality about Mr. Bressart. I just adored him in The Shop Around the Corner. Thanks so much for the details on his life.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the post, Fritzi. We were actually surprised to find out that Bressart was only 48 years old when he played in The Shop Around the Corner. Today, actors in their 50s are still playing romantic leads, while Bressart was doing grandfather parts!

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  5. Yes, he really is a good actor – and I never consciously thought about it until I read your post and saw all those images. Whenever he appears on screen, I always think, "Oh, THAT guy!" Well, now I have more info, and more appreciation, for our Felix.

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  6. Great tribute to Felix Bressart - I also had no idea that his Hollywood career was so short. He certainly packed a lot of great roles into that decade. I'm another one who likes him in 'Ninotchka' and 'The Shop Around the Corner'.

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  7. I have always thought Felix Bressart's roles seemed like a real person. He must have been a very humane person. You are lucky to have him to remind you of your grandfather. Thanks for sharing this with all of us.

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