Carl Esmond

Debonair actor frequently cast as Nazis or cads

Suave and debonair, often sporting a pencil-slim moustache, the Viennese actor Carl Esmond fled the Nazis to continue his career first in England, then in the United States, where he worked for some of Hollywood's most distinguished directors, including Edmund Goulding, Howard Hawks and such fellow expatriates as Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur and Otto Preminger. Though he inevitably found himself playing a number of nasty Nazis, he also played several romantic roles, even if his smoothly charming exterior frequently hid a cad beneath.

Willy Eichberger (Carl Esmond), actor: born Vienna 14 January 1905; died Brentwood, California 4 December 2004.

Suave and debonair, often sporting a pencil-slim moustache, the Viennese actor Carl Esmond fled the Nazis to continue his career first in England, then in the United States, where he worked for some of Hollywood's most distinguished directors, including Edmund Goulding, Howard Hawks and such fellow expatriates as Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur and Otto Preminger. Though he inevitably found himself playing a number of nasty Nazis, he also played several romantic roles, even if his smoothly charming exterior frequently hid a cad beneath.

Born Willy Eichberger in Vienna in 1905, he was educated at Vienna University and at the State Academy of Dramatic Arts, but initially worked as a bank clerk before switching to acting. He was pursuing a successful career on the stage (as Willy Eichberger) in both Vienna and Berlin before seeking refuge in London from Nazi persecution in 1933.

The previous year he had appeared in his first German film, co-starring with Marta Eggerth in the popular Kaiserwaltzer ( The Emperor Waltz, 1932), and he followed this with Inge und die Millionen and Kleines Mädel - grosses Glück (both 1933), establishing himself as a matinée idol.

Max Ophuls' Liebelei (1933) was another triumph, a scintillating version of the Arthur Schnitzler play, in which he played a carefree, philandering army officer. The film, an international success, was the breakthrough for Ophuls as a movie director, but both his name and that of Schnitzler were removed from the credits in Germany because they were Jewish, and with the power of National Socialism growing at an alarming rate, Eichberger fled to England, where he launched a new career under the name Carl (sometimes Charles) Esmond.

He quickly found work on stage and screen, usually as dashing blades of royal or military stock. On the screen, he was seen in three operettas. In the first, Evensong (1934), he was a young archduke loved by an opera star (Evelyn Laye) whose unscrupulously ambitious manager ruins the romance. In Blossom Time (1934) he had a similar role as a dragoon whose rank forbids him marrying the commoner he loves (Jane Baxter) until Franz Schubert (Richard Tauber), in love with the same girl, achieves dispensation for them. He was yet another young officer in Invitation to the Waltz (1935), this time in love with a ballet star (Lilian Harvey) whom he wrongly suspects of infidelity.

On stage, Esmond appeared at the Lyric Theatre as Prince Albert in Laurence Housman's play Victoria Regina (1937), with Pamela Stanley as Queen Victoria. At the time, British statutes prohibited the depiction of royalty on stage for three generations, so the play had first been performed, in May 1935, at the tiny Gate Theatre, which operated as a private club. Vincent Price had played Albert to great acclaim, and was poached for the New York production, which opened in December 1935, with Helen Hayes as Victoria. When, on the occasion of the centenary of Victoria's accession to the throne, a commercial London production was allowed, Esmond was cast as Albert, and was praised for the elegance, bearing and authority that made Victoria's attraction to him totally credible.

Moving to Hollywood, he had his first notable role there when cast in Edmund Goulding's movie about British flyers in the First World War, The Dawn Patrol (1938). In this classic drama of both the camaraderie and the cost of war, Esmond played the feared German ace pilot Van Mueller, based on the legendary von Richthofen. (The film starred Errol Flynn, and ironically the last film made by Esmond was a television movie based on Flynn's autobiography, My Wicked, Wicked Ways, 1984.)

He was a U-boat captain in Thunder Afloat (1939), and in another First World War story, Howard Hawks's Sergeant York (1941), based on the true story of a combat hero, he was billed as Charles "Carl" Esmond, playing a German major. Other films displayed his charm and winning personality more positively. He was the kindly Professor Baer in the screen version of Louisa May Alcott's Little Men (1940), played one of the suitors of seven sisters in the musical Seven Sweethearts (1942), and he was a Dutch sea captain on board a vessel ferrying refugees in Cecil B. DeMille's The Story of Dr Wassell (1943).

But it was back to Nazis with his portrayal of a German spy in the musical Panama Hattie (1942), an aide to the German consul in New York in Preminger's black comedy Margin for Error (1943), and a Nazi major seduced by a member of the Norwegian underground (Merle Oberon) seeking information, in Dorothy Arzner's First Comes Courage (1943).

In Tourneur's intriguing and stylish period noir, Experiment Perilous (1944), he was an artist who paints a portrait of the beautiful heroine (Hedy Lamarr). He worked with Lamarr again in Her Highness and the Bellboy (1944), playing a baron who is infatuated with a vacationing princess (Lamarr). One of his finest performances was that of the personable brother of a patriot (Marjorie Reynolds), willing to put his own sister's life at risk to further his cause as a Nazi agent, in Lang's masterly spy movie Ministry of Fear (1944), a complex but compelling version of the Graham Greene novel.

After playing a Lothario who almost breaks up the romance of Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn in Without Love (1945), Esmond had a rare leading role, playing an amnesia victim wrongly accused of murder, in the "B" movie Catman of Paris (1946), receiving star billing over his co-stars Lenore Aubert, Adele Mara and Douglass Dumbrille. The following year he played a doctor trying to help an alcoholic singer in Smash-Up: the story of a woman, which won Susan Hayward the first of her five Oscar nominations.

Esmond had a good role as a cunning Tsarist peer trying to force a Russian princess, Ann Blyth, into an arranged marriage in the adventure tale The World in His Arms (1952), but film roles were becoming scarce in the early Fifties, and he was among the first Hollywood actors to move into live television. On the anthology series Lux Video Theatre he convincingly played the resistance worker Victor Laszlo in a production of Casablanca (1955). The many series on which he played guest roles included 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick, The Big Valley, Garrison's Gorillas and The Hardy Boys.

In 1955, Esmond had a poignant reunion with Max Ophuls, playing the small role of a doctor in the director's final film, Lola Montes, and billed once more as Willy Eichberger. Later features included From the Earth to the Moon (1958), in which he played the writer Jules Verne, Thunder in the Sun (1959), as the leader of a group of Basques travelling to settle in California in 1847, and Hitler (1962), as Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel. His final feature film was Morituri (1965), starring Marlon Brando and Yul Brynner, a Second World War melodrama in which he played a German seaman.

Tom Vallance



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