Obituary: Zita Johann
Thursday 07 October 1993
ZITA JOHANN was once described by Universal Studio publicists as 'Hollywood's latest enigma', and 'the olive-skinned Hungarian actress with the exotic brown eyes'. She will be remembered by all devotees of the horror film in The Mummy (1932), as the slender, sophisticated, dark-eyed Helen Grosvenor whom Boris Karloff, as the age-old Im-Ho-Tep, hypnotically transports back to Ancient Egypt where she originally lived, centuries before, as Princess Anck-Es-En-Amon. In the original version of the film, now lost to the dust of modern ages, Johann was reincarnated from age to age, via the Babylonian, Greek, Roman, barbarian, medieval and Napoleonic, involving 18 changes of costume and make-up, but this elaborate and expensive sequence was cut from the final released print.
Zita Johann was born in a small town on the Hungarian plains in 1904. Taken to New York as a child, she was educated as an American and showed an early interest in music and drama. After completing a course in dramatic arts she went on the stage at the age of 19. She toured the United States with the Theatre Guild Repertory Company, playing parts in such popular plays of the period as He Who Gets Slapped (1923), Peer Gynt (1924) and Aloma of the South Seas (1925). Her first big theatrical chance came when she was cast in Machinal (1928), a sensational play by Arthur Hopkins starring the young Clark Gable. This experimental piece brought her to Broadway in Tomorrow and Tomorrow, playing opposite the English matinee idol Herbert Marshall.
She was brought to the cinema screen by the 'father' of the American movie, DW Griffith. In Griffith's early talkie The Struggle (1931), filmed in New York, her large expressive eyes and willowy, sylph-like body echoed something of the great director's silent-movie style. From then on it seemed that the cinema would be her new career, and she was cast opposite Edward G. Robinson in Tiger Shark (1932), directed by Howard Hawks, followed by The Mummy, The Man who Dared (1933), Luxury Liner (1933), with George Brent, and The Sin of Nora Moran (1934). However, Grand Canary (1934), in which she played second string to Madge Evans for the love of Warner Baxter, proved to be her last picture.
Perhaps her desire for privacy, a passion not immediately obvious from her alluring screen portrayals, contributed to her surprisingly short film career. Publicists had to be content with proclaiming her preference for private pursuits at her home by the sea at Malibu la Costa, where, it seems, she would hie immediately after work to play her violin, read her books and paint her pictures. She returned to New York with her third husband, where from her country estate on the Hudson River she devoted herself to charitable works among the physically handicapped.
Johann, a self-confessed mystic who claimed to levitate, spoke late in life about her stage technique, and her opinion of Hollywood. Of the first she said, 'to me, the theatre was related to the spirit. Before every performance I sat alone in my dressing-room, said my prayers, died unto myself and became my character.' Of the second: 'The moguls created stars and sold them to the public, the way a grocer sold a 39-cent can of tomatoes to his shoppers.'
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