Camp David

CAMP DAVID FEBRUARY 2007: ZITA JOHANN

By • Feb 1st, 2007 • Pages: 1 2 3 4

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QUEEN OF THE NYACK

Zita Johann, the legendary actress of THE MUMMY(1932), a landmark film made during Universal’s golden age of horror, left a lifelong impression not only with yours truly but an entire generation of admirers who never forgot her exotic performance as the reincarnated princess Anck-es-en-Amon a remarkable achievement resonating such otherworldly allure that she elevated the standard for all that followed in the genre. Her performance in the original 78 min cut included a tour-de-force of three reincarnations reflecting past lives allowing her scenes to develop into a three dimensional character steeped in mysticism and spirituality. “The love that outlasted the temples of our Gods” becomes the eternal obsession that condemns Boris Karloff’s Im-Ho Tep to a living death in the 1932 classic.

Zita’s performance should have catapulted her career towards stardom, yet circumstances during the filming of THE MUMMY lead the fiercely independent actress down a very different path. Zita was at the time a respected actress hailed by Broadway critics as “the white flame of the American theater”. The lady in question was unique by Broadway standards and steadfast in not forsaking her artistic standards to the studio system of the depression era Hollywood she came to loathe. “I have more respect for the whores on 42nd street than I did for the stars in Hollywood.”

My initial relationship with Zita began with a telephone interview in the fall of 1981; my ever reliable source for such encounters, Richard Lamparski, had already profiled her in his latest “Whatever became of” books, well aware that I would appreciate an introduction. The Karloff Mummy was one of my favorite horror films made during the era when Universal pictures rocked the film world with the success of DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN, setting into motion a series of films that set the genre standard for horror from 1931 until the end of WWII.

THE MUMMY was created especially for Karloff after FRANKENSTEIN had made Boris a star; in fact his fame reached such lofty heights that Universal billed him only by his last name, an honor till then afforded only to Garbo over at MGM. Universal, impressed with Zita Johann’s work on the film, and with her reputation on Broadway, offered her billing alongside the newly anointed super nova “KARLOFF.”

The casting of the mummy’s amorata almost went to a very young Kate Hepburn, however a previous commitment and fate decreed otherwise. Zita Johann made her screen debut in what would prove to be D.W. Griffith’s last motion picture, THE STRUGGLE, in 1931. Zita recalled “Griffith financed the film personally and we filmed it at his small Biograph studio in the Bronx. I admired him so much; he was a real gentleman, and he always told the press that I was an actress with a brain.” Sadly the film was roasted by the critics and Zita remembered how “it just broke his heart. He was a target of the envy and resentment of the critics over his exalted reputation with BIRTH OF A NATION.” Griffith went into a career decline that was further fueled by alcoholism, doomed to wander through Hollywood as a cruel reminder of just how fleeting fame can be. THE STRUGGLE deserves to be rediscovered not only to redeem its director’s reputation, but to appreciate the performance of the uniquely exotic Zita Johann at the height of her powers.

It was disappointing to discover that she had not seen the film in years, as she explained that the making of THE MUMMY was not a positive experience for her; in fact the film ultimately ended whatever chance Zita Johann might have had to become a Hollywood star. Zita possessed talent, beauty and intelligence – perhaps too much to suffer fools gladly. Zita was infamous at the time for asking MGM‘s “boy wonder” Irving Thalberg “Why do you make such rubbish?”. She was still being pursued by Hollywood in spite of the Griffith disaster, resulting in TIGER SHARK (Warner Bros 1932), a Howard Hawks potboiler starring a totally over-the-top Edward G. Robinson playing a Portuguese fisherman with a hook for a hand. Zita did not enjoy the experience as her old co-star from the theater guild days had, to her horror, “gone Hollywood with his ego.” She still managed to steal the film by just underplaying “Eddie’s hammy theatrics,” making Robinson angry enough to complain to the main office about her “having too many close-ups.” I remember reading about Robinson years later working on Orson Welles’ THE STRANGER. Orson always laughed about his vanity. “Eddie Robinson called me up the night before shooting to tell which side of his face was his “good side,” and to inform the cameraman to favor that side. I mean, looking like Eddie Robinson, I could only laugh and listen to his demands.” In spite of all the tempest in a teapot with “Eddie,” the film opened and RKO was impressed enough to offer her a contract and a film entitled THIRTEEN WOMEN. They had in fact made the offer while she was still at work on the Hawks film. Another factor in the mix was her marriage at the time to John Houseman. Zita had met the then-young businessman during her first triumph on Broadway, winning rave reviews in a play entitled MACHINAL, which featured a very young Clark Gable. Houseman won her over and they were married in 1929. Zita discovered that her Romeo was still tied to his mother’s apron strings, and soon mother and son were dependent on the income of Zita Johann’s acting career. This situation led to Zita accepting all these film offers in the first place. She told me when I got to know her better that “it was humiliating enough having to support the Houseman’s, but I soon drew the line when John moved his lover, Eric, a playwright, right into his bedroom. Even then I still did not grasp the situation. How I endured those days in Malibu I will never know, I had been so naïve.”

Zita was still under contract to Universal at this time and was to begin filming LAUGHING BOY, with a screenplay by John Huston. The film was cancelled when a leading man could not be found (she had suggested a then unknown Humphrey Bogart whom they rejected) so Universal offered her THE MUMMY. The director for this project was the famed cinematographer Karl Freund, who was making his directorial debut after photographing DRACULA and MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE (which by coincidence had a John Huston script). “The first words the three hundred and sixty pound Mr. Freund ever spoke to me with his heavy German accent were “In one scene you must be nood from the vaist up!” Knowing the censors would never allow it I called his bluff and told him “it’s alright with me if the censors allow it,” thus preventing a confrontation for the moment, yet Freund was determined to break her will one way or the other..

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