February 2, 2013

Women in horror during the 1920s - part 1

You know their faces, but do you know their names? That's the challenge which I will present to you every day during this "real women in horror" month.

Of course, it may be a little bit unfair of me to go right back to the 1920s to make a point especially as 99.9% of movie fans weren't even alive back then, but no matter what age you are, you should already be familiar with Robert Weine's "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" (1920), F.W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922) and Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" (1927). They turn up in so many budget DVD compliation packs that you have no excuse for not having them in your movie collection several times over. Arguably, the latter isn't a horror movie, but that really depends on your point of view. There's certainly a lot more to "Metropolis" than sci-fi.

Isn't it funny how the names of the directors fall so easily from everyone's lips? But can you name who played Jane Olsen, Ellen Hutter (Mina Harker depending on the version) or Maria without looking them up? I wonder why that is. Could it be that you just don't care? Well, you're not leaving this blog without the answers so keep your pudgy fingers away from that Google search button!

The 1920s were a time of more artistic freedom and sexiness than ever before or since. If you have some strange idea that the 1920s were much like the puritanical Victorian era, think again! Although all the drug taking, sexual perversions and prostitution barely made it from real life onto the silver screen, those elements were certainly in the background of every European movie production. In America, not so much, but then America has always been puritanical and at least 50 years behind the rest of the world anyway. Americans who went overseas during the 1920s to the "Sin Cities" of Paris, Shanghai and Berlin didn't want to return. Those who did certainly spiced things up for a while, but I'm not here to give you a political history lesson. Just watch the documentary which I've embedded below:

Thus, it's no surprise that the three big German horror movies of the 1920s contained the sexiest women of the time. Sex always sold well and men flocked to these movies to see such beauty. It wasn't just the dirty mac brigade who would go to sit with their bowler hats on their laps either. The audience for horror movies was made up of a far more diverse movie-going public than some clique of perverts. Horror was respectable entertainment back then and not a grubby little secret.

But that's enough introduction, let's get to the girls...

Lil Dagover in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)

Lil Dagover as Jane Olsen

Lil Dagover (born as Marie Antonia Siegelinde Martha Seubert in 1887) was one of the biggest stars in German cinema. To have some idea of how popular she was, she made 139 movies from 1916 until a year before her death in 1980. 139 real movies, ladies and gentlemen, and not one of them a crappy camcorder job!

Say her name as many times as you can to get it established in your mind: LIL DAGOVER... LIL DAGOVER... LIL DAGOVER... If she appears in a mirror behind you, you're doing it wrong.

As Jane Olsen, the "frail, menaced heroine" of "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari", Lil Dagover was the world's first silent scream queen. Think about that for a while.

At least in Germany, Lil Dagover was an "A-list" celebrity actress. She never needed to hang out at conventions signing autographs for $20 a pop or panhandle the crowds to raise cash for the next low-budget nasty. Okay, so she got many of her roles because she was briefly married to a director, but let's not got there. Lil Dagover was an accomplished stage actress before (unlike Sheri Moon Zombie) which guaranteed her a career with UFA.

Did I mention that Lil was Hitler's favourite actress? I have now.

Want to know what an A-list German actress from the silent era looks like in action? Just watch her:

Tomorrow: Greta Schröder in "Nosferatu" (1922)

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