“Frič knows how to do the pictures; the art lies on me.”
When once Martin Frič was brought to our theatre by Eduard Bass to see the comedy “Další” (The Next One) (…) I had no idea I’ll make so many movies with this director in the future… Oldřich Nový1
If we should start this text with, in the Czech environment so popular, labeling and pigeonholing, we would have to here in the very beginning state that the uncrowned king of Czech film comedy is Martin Frič.
Despite the great variety of genres in Frič’s filmography, he is perceived by the majority of ordinary film viewers as director and screenwriter of many comedies that – despite their historical patina – still have freshness and in some cases even certain timelessness; they would never outdate even when rerun for hundreds of times.
Martin Frič loved good and intelligent humor and he respected people who have sense for it and who were able to entertain the audience. Therefore, right from the beginning of his filmmaking career, he cooperated with leading comedians of his time. With them, he made not only some of the key works for the development of Czech film comedy, but also in a creative way participated on the development of their comic talents; he let them, within the limits of film language, to communicate their unusual talent to a wide audience, and to pass via the celluloid some unique testimonies about the art of “making fun” to the future generations, for whom the names like Vlasta Burian, Hugo Haas, Voskovec and Werich, Eman Fiala and Ferenc Futurista or Oldřich Nový are nothing but empty terms until they meet them – often coincidentally – on the TV screen.
All the same in the in post-war era, when the “dramaturgical dictation from above” decreased; mainly in the 60s, he helped the generation of rising actors to free themselves from the category of “working-class professions” and, along with other filmmakers, proved to the viewers that there is enormous comedic potential residing in Jiří Sovák, Jiřina Bodalová, Vladimír Menšík, Miloš Kopecký, Jan Libíček and Vlastimil Brodský. The best possible testimony about Frič’s big artistic talent may give the answer of Jan Werich, who, in a friendly conversation, swept off the table Frič’s intention to shoot at the end of his filmmaking carrier a drama about the village Lidice: “You can never do a bad comedy and whence you have no right to do anything else, because people need comedies.”2
The topic of this study will be the insight into that stage of Frič’s career, when he made not only good comedies, but even some of the best comedies in the whole history of Czech cinematography. Success like this could not be achieved without the cooperation with actor Oldřich Nový. They made ten films together, from which A White Slide (Bílá spona) from 1960 is quite different from the rest of their films, mainly comedies.
Their cooperation took place between the years 1939 and 1942, i.e. in the Protectorate gloomy period, during which Nový was cast by Frič to star in comedies Kristian (Kristián), Eva Fools Around (Eva tropí hlouposti), Baron Munchhausen (Baron Prášil or Když Burian Prášil), The Blue Star Hotel (Hotel Modrá hvězda), A Charming Man (Roztomilý člověk), Valentin the Good (Valentin Dobrotivý). In 1949, The Poacher’s Foster Daughter or Noble Millionaire (Pytlákova schovanka) was shot – the climax of cinematography for both of them. It was a parody, and in fact their farewell to the comedy genre, because the last comedy Nový starred in, Leave it to Me (Nechte to na mně) from the mid 50s, was not even half as funny as Frič’s and Nový 1937 debut Lawyer Vera (Advokátka Věra).
Our attention in this text will be focused on the aspects of their cooperation in the case of the film Kristian.
ACTOR LOOKING FOR HIS DIRECTOR, DIRECTOR LOOKING FOR HIS ACTOR
Anyway, Nový covers with his skills exactly the space left out by his rivals, and on top of that he’s got something more. (…) Oldřich Nový is for me an ideal model actor by nature. While those three (V&W and Vlasta Burian – author’s remark) – and don’t take this as criticism – played mainly themselves, Nový does not lack such unique style like theirs and still, he is able to play also other parts. Because he is an actor who knows how to perform in a credible way. Martin Frič3
In the early days of his acting career, Oldřich Nový saw himself as an outstanding actor in big theatres. He went into the history of 20th century Czech theater as a propagator and leading representative of modern opera, esp. at the National Theatre in Brno where he as an actor, director and head of the local light opera worked for sixteen years (1919–1935).
In the biggest Moravian town, Nový (since 1924) established fruitful cooperation with local radio station Radiojournal and – as written in his biography by Ladislav Tunys – “was the first person in our country who created a radio show compiled from pre-recorded music and improvised spoken word”, whence “his biggest triumph and by then his most important directorial work for the radio, was the broadcast of revue From Brno to Brno” (1927), that was successfully played at the Brno Opera House, attracting great interest of the local audience.4
Partly due to his broadcasting activities, Oldřich Nový was not totally unknown to the Prague audience when he moved later on to Prague. When still in Brno, he tried playing in the film – that is in the 1922 silent comedy The Mysterious Beauty (Neznámá kráska) directed by Přemysl Pražský, where he played the part of the lady-killer Peter Stamati. This today-forgotten film from Lloydfilm Production Company is interesting perhaps only because it was shot entirely in Brno and its surroundings, with studio scenes shot on the stage of the Varieté theatre, and for it was the first film experience of Oldřich Nový.5
After this experience, Nový abandoned the tenth muse for the next twelve years and instead dedicated himself to the promotion of modern musical comedy based on the Paris model. His Brno era was closed by the performance of Freddy, the thief-gentleman, in the 1934 sound comedy Rozpustilá noc (The Playful Night) which was produced by Brno based production company Terrafilm. Nový after many years recalls his first contact with film as follows: “I made my first talkie in 1934 – and I like thinking back on it, it was the beginning of the most beautiful time of my life. (…) I came to my first part by accident. The swindlers were usually played by Čeněk Šlégl back then (…) But they somehow could not get him at the time so they entrusted the part to me. (…) I was handsome – but there was the danger present that I stick with playing imposters forever. It was like that back then: the role an actor introduced himself in stayed with him forever. Thanks mainly to Lamač and Frič, it was different in my case…”6
Interestingly, according to the testimony of a leading film architect Jan Zázvorka, Nový hadn’t any exceptional interest in filmmaking. In his opinion, Nový didn’t want to betray the theatre and the local scene, and therefore he was apparently quite often making excuses to the Brno film producers including the influential head of Prague branch of UFA Company Antonín Procházka on the poor level of scenarios presented to him as well as on the film directors’ personalities. According to Zázvorka, Nový preferred his theatre work, because “the interest in theatre must be build by the whole theater crew, by the honest work of the theater artist. Film means a competition to theatre, pandering to the audience. The theater can’t work this way. So why should I (O.N. – author’s note) be helping the film? If the viewer wants to see or hear me, so fill my auditorium then! And one more thing: I am not against the film – how could I, I am an actor – but I don’t cherish it.7
The quote of Nový’s attitude towards the possibility of film carrier wasn’t stated here without reason; it is paradoxical that he as one of the few actors of his era had no problem moving in front of the camera in very natural, non-theatrical way, he was one of the first to show modern, informal acting, and was (as will be shown on his famous film Kristian as an example) sensitive to the possibilities of the film narration through the dynamic editing and camera work. In this sense we can talk about fully-fledged authorial cooperation on the final outcome of the film work.
Before Oldřich Nový made his way into the memory of film viewers, there was five years ahead of him during which he was seeking for his director, looking for his film type, and waiting for his chance. After few small parts mostly in film adaptations of popular operettas such as On the Green Meadow (Na tý louce zelený, d. Karel Lamč, 1936), Delightful Story (Rozkošný příběh, d. Vladimír Slavínský, 1936), Minx (Uličnice, d. Vladimír Slavínský, 1936) and Camel Through the Eye of a Needle (Velbloud uchem jehly, d. Hugo Haas, 1936), Nový was starting having a breakthrough on the silver screen as a sparring partner of the actress star. If we leave aside the funny character of composer Bartl in Lamač’s comedy from 1937, Grounds for Divorce (Důvod k rozvodu), and his role in Sviták’s adaptation of the play The Third Ringing (Třetí zvonění, 1938), from today’s perspective, we can trace the beginning of imaginary battle between the two major directors of 1930s, i.e. Vladimír Slavínský and Martin Frič, for Oldřich Nový.
First was the premiere of Frič’s comedy Lawyer Vera (Advokátka Věra) starring Truda Grosslichtová, in April 1937.8 It was by no means a deep statement on women’s emancipation in the legal profession, but more likely another version of the same old story in which nice, beautiful and smart girl from good family finds her happiness in marriage. For Grosslichtová, this was her first and final major role in Czech film and through her acting co-operation with Nový her dream came true, as she revealed to the readers of popular film magazine Kinorevue: “(…) I have never seen so much responsibility and sophistication, sense of humor so cultivated in a man as in Oldřich Nový (…) He was not only my partner but also a mentor. In the friendly atmosphere the film was made, he gave me many instructions what to do at the scene, inspired me to many a dramatic detail, gesture or vocal accent (…)”9
Perhaps more interestingly for us, Nový created in this film character of Petr Kučera aka Petr Tiger, character of double identity, character from the rank of lovers but with good dose of humor and visible features of self-irony and distance from the part, that is so typical for all Nový’s later heroes in films by Martin Frič. In addition, he sings here the hit Na děvče mi nesahej (Don’t touch my baby), slow fox by duo Julius Kalaš and Karel Hrnčíř, that became very popular and remains to these days the most famous moment of this film comedy. Lawyer Vera was film made for profit that was supposed to bring money to the company and also some finances to Frič the director, so he could start working on other planned projects. Even though his first contact with Nový was successful and Frič was well aware of that, time for them to work together was to come later…
In the meantime, Nový had to be “satisfied” with building his carrier under the direction of Vladimír Slavínský. In 1937 there was a decision for Slavínský to make: Which men actor should star alongside the main “starlet” of his new film, Věra Ferbasová. And fore and foremost, who from the actors of young generation could, in a dignified way, fill the place left after Hugo Haas, with whom was Slavínský in the middle of 30s shooting successful comedies like Její lékař (Her doctor), Madla from the Brickworks (Madla z cihelny) and Okénko (Window) (all 1933), where Hasss starred in tandem with Lida Baarova, or, as in Three Men in the Snow (Tři muži ve sněhu, 1936), Věra Ferbasová. After Hass started his own career as a director and scarcely performed in films of other directors, Slavínský needed another strong personality to star in his movies, somebody who could play comedic as well as dramatic characters and whose esprit would be comparable to that of Haas. Slavínský therefore decided to ask Nový and, as his male sparring partner, another person from the circle of actors, František Krištof-Veselý, operetta singer from Bratislava, who replaced Vladimír Borský (stooge of Hugo Haas).
Nový made two adaptations of theatrical plays with Slavínský, The False Pussycat (Falešná kočička, 1937) and two years later The Reluctant Grandfather (Dědečkem proti své vůli, 1939). In both cases, Nový played wealthy old man, bachelor or man in his prime respectively, with grey-streaked hear, who is seeking his life partner only to while away the time and for the need of the playwright/screenwriter. Although in both cases it was a comedy, Nový never get enough space to fully show his rich range of expressions and stagnated instead on the melodramatic level. He is just a charm flowing figure here, not allowed to overshadow the comic characters – Ferbasová, Krištof-Veselý, Kohout, Nedošínská… No success then. Slavínský saw that it is impossible to make a new comic-melodramatic duo Ferbasová-Nový and gave a chance to Adina Mandlová and Raoul Schránil instead. Rather successfully, we shall add. The chemistry between Nový and Ferbasová just did not work, as Slavínský’s “premiere jeune” confirmed herself after years: “I think he did not like me personally. Probably since I spoiled a good shot once (…) He behaved like a gentleman. Except, of course, he didn’t talk to me.”10
1939: A KEY YEAR NOT ONLY FOR CZECH COMEDIES
Ah, Christian, everybody takes to him simply because in each of us there is this piece of desire for art and for an escape from everyday life. Everyone sometimes becomes Christian for a while to roam in their own fantasy to different words so as to experience dreamed adventures. Oldřich Nový 11
1939 meant a turning point in the case of a further development for both Martin Frič and Oldřich Nový. In the year which was well-known for the establishment of the Protectorate and the outbreak of the Second World War, both film-makers reached the very peak of their film careers.
During the year Martin Frič directed five remarkable films, including his best ones, namely Christian (Kristián), Eva Fools Around (Eva tropí hlouposti) and the drama Man from the Unknown (Muž z neznáma). Frič’s energetic ‘return’ to the forefront was very much appreciated by film critics because since Otakar Vávra’s debut in 1937, there had been a prevailing attitude towards them, such as Vávra was ‘young and talented’ and Frič became ‘an old hand overnight’.12 Oldřich Nový, on the other hand, successfully established himself on the theatre map of Prague with his own New theatre, but the changed political situation brought the infamous Nuremberg Laws and because his wife Alice was of Jewish origin, he was pejoratively branded as a ‘white Jew’ by the national fascist press. Whenever there was a successful film or theatre premiere, he had to face regular venomous attacks from those scribblers. In the second half of the year right after the premiere of Slavínský’s comedy and primarily after the enormous success of Christian, Nový became an eminent star and darling of the film audience but mainly he created a good name which was cast until 1944.
The film historian Ondřej Suchý states that Oldřich Nový signed the contract of Christian with Lucerna-film three weeks before 15 March 1939.13 We do not know when Martin Frič signed it but after the liberation, he stated in the text in which he tried to purge himself of the accusation of collaboration that film officer Herrmann Glessgen from the Office of the Reich Protector had wanted him to be removed from his position of director because of his communist attitude and former collaboration with Voskovec and Werich.14 It did not happen, anyway, and through the intercession of powerful people Frič together with Josef Gruss and Eduard Šimáček started working on the film rewrite of a theatre script written by the French author Yvan Noé. The play starring Bedřich Vrbský and Nataša Gollová was well-known at least for the audience in Prague because it ran for several seasons in the Komorní theatre. Maybe this was the reason why Miloš Havel decided to finance it and thought that it was a good opportunity exactly for Oldřich Nový. When speaking of this, there is the interesting testimony of the actor Svatopluk Beneš: ‘Oldřich Nový is an actor I have always admired. (…) His Christian captivated me, although I had already known it from the stage of the Komorní theatre where Bedřich Vrbský played Christian excellently. When I heard they wanted to shoot it with Nový, I told myself: It’s not possible! Of course, the surprise was much bigger when the film succeeded. Together with Frič they remarked it fantastically and gave it real film form, and so the brilliant and timeless film was created! In: Suchý, Ondřej: op. cit., p. 52.)) Initially, Lucerna-film considered directing a German version under the name Alfon der Sieger ((For a Czech version the filmmakers considered names such as Alfons, Vítězný Alfons, Ale dnes v noci…, Pan Kristian. Compare : Suchý, Ondřej, ibid., p. 56 – 57.)) but after the arrival of Germans at Barrandov, they left the idea. The theme went though a couple of modifications not only in the choice of a name for the central character which instead of Alfons alias Vincenc Neterda led again to Christian alias Alois Novák, but also in its story line. Suchý states that in a version kept in Frič’s estate, the story has a different plot: ‘In fact, Alfon’s name was Vincenc Neterda and he worked as an officer in car factories. His wife was not Marie but Julie. The only name that remained and appeared in the final script was Zuzana. However, she did not have one lover but three! The first one was the stock trader Stejskal, then the boxer Landa and the last one was the actor Klen (in the German version: Robert, Jack and Andreas). In the story, there was also Zuzana’s mother who was the widow of an Austrian general.’ Compare: Suchý, Ondřej: ibid., p. 56.)) The end of the comedy as we know it today was however written on the basis of Nový’s memories during shooting the film: ‘At the end of the film, I have a sequence with Adina Mandlová where I bid a farewell to her and she says: “Once I meet someone whom I will love, can I call him Christian?” And I tell her: “Yes, you can. I give you Christian, he will never appear again…” Then she leaves and I add quietly: “Farewell, Christian…” And that would be the end. Well what happened was that it became a tragedy and we realized it couldn’t finish like that. So, in a studio there was in a hurry written a different ending. The one you know today: Gollová becomes a beauty and after all, I leave with her…’15
Nový’s authorial approach in the course of the film-making had already begun during the consultations of the choice of appropriate women partners. According to Jan Zázvorka, Frič had a clear idea who would get the role of Mařenka. He wanted to assign this role to Nataša Gollová who as well as Nový began to appear in films more often in 1939. Though the crucial moment for her career was a meeting with Frič. ‘Mac Frič found me. He was brilliant at the ability to distinguish who was who and that he enabled actors to come out of themselves, of their temperament.16 Shortly afterwards the premiere of the comedy Příklady táhnou, there occurred a curious paradox in the case of both Gollová and Nový because considering all the films Gollová appeared in, there was a presumption that she would become the star of Miroslav Cikán’s films instead of Hana Vítová. As we know from the further successful collaboration of Gollová-Nový, it did not happen.
A problem arose with the question whom to choose for the character Zuzana. It is said that the director Frič was reluctant to cast Adina Mandlová, but Nový urged him until Frič gave his consent.17 We do not know the primary reasons which led Frič to refuse Mandlová. The director often cast her in his films. We should mention that Mandlová appeared regularly in Haas’s comedies, and likewise she acted in the film The World Belongs to Us (Svět patří nám) of the duo Voskovec & Werich. She also starred in Frič’s criminal comedy A Step into the Darkness (Krok do tmy). Today, it is hard to imagine someone else playing the character Zuzana. Moreover, Mandlová ended her friendship with Frič during shooting Christian and not before it. The reason was turning down a role in the crazy comedy Eva Fools Around (Eva tropí hlouposti) due to another role in the psychological drama The Magic House (Kouzelný dům) which was taken away from Frič and offered to Otakar Vávra.18 The actor Svatopluk Beneš indicated that together with the producer Miloš Havel they got into trouble during casting. It came out from a vague remark: ‘Some women just knew him very well. When he had some issues or sins, he usually and surprisingly confessed to the best and most beautiful of them. He trusted them (…)’19 And from the remark we can get the impression that a certain actress who was the most beautiful and successful at that time made him to cast her as Zuzana… There is another explanation that in politically irritating times, Mandlová according to her memories often appeared in right-wing groups and Frič whose views were left-wing did not want to work with similar people. We also cannot forget that the close friend of Frič’s family was the actress Jiřina Štěpničková who had a deep aversion to Mandlová, and vice versa.20 Though they are all only rumours.
Nový’s creative contribution was reflected also in crucial sequences, such as Christian’s first arrival in the Orient bar, which he consulted with the cameraman Ferdinand Pečenka. Nový also thoroughly considered the costume of his character and discussed decoration, but mainly the design of the Moka lounge in which took place maybe the most impressive dialog in Czech cinematography.21 And, last but not least, Nový’s performance of the song Jen pro ten dnešní den composed by S. E. Nováček with Josef Gruss’s lyrics enriched both the music of the film and the history of popular music. The song immediately became a hit and was completely characteristic of Oldřich Nový. In fact, when Nový in the role of the writer Herold in Ladislav Brom’s film Life Is Beautiful (Život je krásný, 1940) enters a restaurant, he is accompanied by this particular song! When the film was released, it met with success and film critics competed with one other in coming up with the best superlatives. We can find reviews which state that the film is at the European or even world level. In the opinion poll Večer, the viewers chose it as the best film of 1939. On the contrary, the editorial staff of Kinorevue under the leadership of Bedřich Rádl placed Vávra’s Humoreska before Christian with an additional comment that in 1939 there was not made any excellent film!!! While the rest of the film critics, by contrast, voted for Frič…22
Oldřich Nový was praised for his performance but a little more acclaim led to Martin Frič and Adina Mandlová. Both were awarded St. Wenceslas’ award for 1939 by Minister of Industry and Trade. Adina Mandlová devaluated the award with her own self-irony by the following words: ‘I think Oldřich did not get it only because his wife was a Jew. I didn’t considered it a great honour, though I knew I had not spoiled anything, but I told everyone that the award should have been given to Mrs Podolská who sewn all the dress for me. Maybe my only credit was that I knew how to wear it because I was a former female model and therefore Ferdinard Pečinka did not have any problems with taking photographs of me.23
Mandlová’s comment on not giving the award to Nový because of his wife’s racial origin was not misleading. Just reading brief information in the fascist journal Nástup červenobílých is sufficient: ‘From the article Filmový kurýr (…) we learn that our talented actor Oldřich Nový captivated us in the film Christian. Maybe it is possible to replace the word captivated with the rude word bamboozle since his acting of this interesting character cannot be evaluated in another way. He performed it simply and took away all psychology.’24 A further comment is not necessary…
However, Oldřich Nový gained much more by the role of Christian than only a problematic and arguable award. Christian brought him the opportunity to continue in creating roles which were comical or in which he could be a lover. Always the one contained the larger, the smaller pinch of humour, perspective, self-irony, exaggeration, unquestioned charm regardless of whether his protagonists were related to the men of the great world or they were rather ordinary timid officers who had to fight for their own place in the sun.
- Suchý Ondřej: Zavřete oči, přichází… Leccos kolem Oldřicha Nového. Prague: Melantrich 1993, p. 80. [↩]
- Liehm, Antonín J: Ostře sledované filmy. Československá zkušenost. Prague: National Film Archive 2001, p. 62. [↩]
- Mihola Rudolf, …byl to gigant. Martin Frič a jeho filmy. Prague: Petrklíč: 2005, p. 38. [↩]
- See Tunys, Ladislav: V hlavní roli Oldřich Nový. Praha: Ametyst 1996, p. 69. [↩]
- See Český hraný film 1898 – 1930. Praha: Národní filmový archiv, 1995, p. 126. [↩]
- See Suchý, Ondřej: ibid., p. 34. [↩]
- Comp. Suchý, Ondřej, ibid., p. 32. [↩]
- Český hraný film 1930 – 1945. Praha: Národní filmový archiv, 1998. p. 24. [↩]
- See Suchý, Ondřej: ibid., p. 42–43. [↩]
- Suchý, Ondřej. ibid., p. 45. [↩]
- Tunys, Ladislav: op. cit., p. 152. [↩]
- Liehm, Antonín J: op. cit., p. 60. [↩]
- See: Suchý, Ondřej: op. cit., p. 46. [↩]
- Compare: Fiala, Miloš: Martin Frič. Muž, který rozdával smích. Čechtice: nakladatelství BVD, 2008, p. 146 – 147. [↩]
- Suchý, Ondřej: ibid., p. 58. [↩]
- Cibulka, Aleš: Nataša Gollová. Praha: nakladatelství Sláfka, 2002, p. 65. During 1939, Gollová appeared in these films in chronological order based on their première date: Studujeme za školou (Miroslav Cikán), Lízino štěstí (Václav Binovec), In Versuchung (V pokušení, Miroslav Cikán), Příklady táhnou (Miroslav Cikán), Tulák Macoun (Ladislav Brom), Christian (Kristián, Martin Frič) and Eva Fools Around (Eva tropí hlouposti, Martin Frič). [↩]
- Compare: Suchý, Ondřej, op. cit., p. 49 – 50. [↩]
- Compare: Mandlová, Adina, Dneska už se tomu směju. Praha: nakladatelství XYZ, 2004, p. 91, 98 – 99, 110. [↩]
- Cibulka, Aleš: op. cit., p. 66. [↩]
- Compare: Fiala, Miloš: op. cit., p. 270. [↩]
- Compare: Suchý, Ondřej: op. cit., p. 50 – 51. [↩]
- See: Fiala, Miloš: op. cit., p. 156. [↩]
- Mandlová, Adina: op. cit., p. 91 [↩]
- Jiras, Pavel: Oáza uprostřed běsů. Barrandov III. Praha: nakladatelství Pavel Dobrovský-BETA, 2006, p. 73. [↩]