Kurt Kreuger

Actor cast as Nazis and cads
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The Independent Online

Kurt Kreuger, actor: born Mecklenburg, Germany 23 July 1916; married (one son); died Los Angeles 12 July 2006.

Handsome, blond and six feet tall, Kurt Kreuger was a Swiss-German actor who was prominently featured in movies of the 1940s. Inevitably cast as Nazis in several films, he also played occasional romantic roles or cads who tried stealing other men's wives.

His best roles were as a German pilot captured by Humphrey Bogart in Sahara, a Prussian officer/seducer in the Val Lewton production Mademoiselle Fifi and as a personal secretary wrongly thought by a conductor to be wooing his wife in Preston Sturges's delightful comedy Unfaithfully Yours. When his film career ended, he made a fortune in real estate.

Born to wealthy parents in Germany in 1916, he was educated at private schools in Switzerland, where he developed a lifelong passion for skiing. After attending the London School of Economics, he moved to New York, where he continued his education at Columbia University. When he dropped out of college in 1937, instead of following his father's wish that he major in medicine, his allowance was cut off. He taught skiing for a spell, and worked at a travel agency. When political developments caused a decline in European travel, he became a drama student at Provincetown Playhouse, paying his way by working as a cleaner and programme-seller.

An increase in films dealing with the international situation prompted a demand for actors to play Germans, and Kreuger made his screen début in Edward Dmytryk's Mystery Sea Raider (1940), starring Carole Landis as a passenger on a ship torpedoed by a U-boat in the Caribbean. The following year he made his Broadway début in Maxwell Anderson's Candle in the Wind, an anti-Nazi drama starring Helen Hayes, who said it had been written by Anderson "to shake America out of its complacency and to build support for Britain and France".

After America's entry into the Second World War Kreuger returned to Hollywood to play the part (often cited as his screen début) of a Nazi aviator in Lewis Milestone's tribute to Norwegian resistance, Edge of Darkness (1943), with Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan.

The film that first brought him recognition was Zoltan Korda's fine Sahara (1943), in which he was a German pilot who is shot down and taken prisoner by Humphrey Bogart, a tank commander. Bogart, he said, was "an extremely simpatico man and very helpful and open towards a young actor like me".

After he had been signed to a contract by 20th Century-Fox, his first film for the studio was another about the occupation of Norway, Irving Pichel's The Moon is Down (1943), based on John Steinbeck's novel. Kreuger also played Nazis in Hangmen Also Die (1943), None Shall Escape (1944), The Hitler Gang (1944), Hotel Berlin (1945) and Paris Underground (1945), which paired Constance Bennett and Gracie Fields as resistance workers.

Kreuger's handsome features brought enough fan mail to make him Fox's No 3 male "pin-up" after Tyrone Power and John Payne. His first leading role (and his personal favourite) was in one of the superior "B" movies produced by Val Lewton for RKO. Despite budgetary restrictions, Mademoiselle Fifi (1944) is a splendid work which skilfully combines two stories by Guy de Maupassant, "Mademoiselle Fifi" and "Boule de Suif". Kreuger played the "Fifi" of the title, a cruel Prussian officer during the Franco-Prussian War who is nicknamed by his fellow soldiers for his manner of saying "Fi, fi donc!" ("For shame!"). Simone Simon played a humble laundress travelling in a coach filled with her social superiors. Though, at their urging, she saves their lives by agreeing to the officer's salacious demands, they continue to look down on her.

Directed by Robert Wise, the film was, like its source, an attack on class and hypocrisy. The critic James Agee wrote,

I don't know of any American film which has tried to say as much, as pointedly, about the performance of the middle class in war.

Kreuger had another good role in Henry Hathaway's film noir The Dark Corner (1946), in which he was a society woman's lover whose murder is arranged by her husband.

In September 1946, he had a letter from the studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck:

I am going to instruct our producers and writers to again make a determined effort to find something worthwhile for you.

Unfaithfully Yours (1948) gave him a good role but was not tailored for him - it was a script that Preston Sturges had been trying to get produced since 1933 under the title The Symphony Story. When Zanuck agreed to make it at Fox, he stipulated that it be called something more commercial ("We must keep 'symphony' out of the title, he said"). Rex Harrison starred as a conductor who thinks that his wife (Linda Darnell) is having an affair with the charmer Kreuger. During a concert, he imagines dealing with the situation in ways that match the mood of the pieces he is conducting. Afterwards, he tries to execute the various scenarios, with increasing ineptness. Frequently hilarious, the film pleased critics more than the public, though it is now regarded highly. (Armand Assante played Kreuger's role in a 1984 remake.)

With nothing being offered by the studio, Kreuger played in theatres and spent much time skiing. In 1949 he and Fox parted company and he moved to Europe, where he married in 1951 ("three years of bliss, three years of hell") and made some minor German films (though the comedy Die Blau Stunde, 1953, displayed his fine singing voice on screen for the first time) plus an unsuccessful film for which he retained fond memories. Based on a Stefan Zweig story, La Paura (Fear, 1954) was the final film in which Roberto Rossellini directed his wife, Ingrid Bergman:

I have the nicest memories of working with the two great artists. Bergman was one of a kind, and Rossellini was terrific too, but he was not good at directing actors.

Kreuger's time in Europe was lucky in one respect - the German actor Fritz Kortner suggested to him that they buy land together near Munich. Returning to the US, Kreuger went through an acrimonious divorce, losing a custody battle for his son. He acted on such television shows as 77 Sunset Strip, Perry Mason and Barnaby Jones, and auditioned for the role of Captain von Trapp in the Broadway musical The Sound of Music, but was turned down for looking "too young". (Theodore Bikel was given the role.) He returned to films as a submarine navigator in The Enemy Below (1957), but acted mainly on television. His last film was The St Valentine's Day Massacre (1967).

Meanwhile, his talent for remodelling homes, then renting them out, had made him rich:

I take an old house and revamp it - do my own designing and decorating - then furnish and lease it. I paint them all the same putty colour. Friends joke that they can drive past a property of mine and recognise at once that it has been "Kreugerised".

The owner himself of a large house above Sunset Strip in Beverly Hills, he also travelled frequently, and until he was 87 skied every winter at Aspen, Colorado, where he had a second home. In 1976 he said,

I would have preferred success in acting to success in other areas, and with the right breaks at the right time I might have become a major star . . . Hardly anyone has complete happiness. You make do with what you have.

Tom Vallance