Revisiting Paul Henreid

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By Maureen Lee Lenker, Classic Film Correspondent

This week, January 10th marks the occasion of the 108th anniversary of Paul Henreid’s birth (the actor passed away at age 84 in 1992).  The tall, aristocratic European actor had the looks and gravitas of a matinee idol, but he never quite reached the heights of his most famous costars Bogart, Bergman, and Bette (Davis, that is).  He’s best remembered for two films, both made in 1942… Casablanca and Now, Voyager. He’s stunning in both.  A freedom fighter for the French Resistance as Victor Laszlo in Casablanca, he proved a worthy adversary to Bogart in one of the most iconic love triangles ever put to the silver screen.  Henreid came to stand as a symbol of the idealism, hope, and tenacity of all those who fought the scourge of the Nazis.  The scene where he leads “La Marseillaise” still stands as a moving image of bravery and patriotism. 

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In Now, Voyager, he finds himself in another love triangle as Jerry Durrance, the unhappily married man who woos the newly independent and awakened Bette Davis.  Opposite Davis, he created one of the most indelible onscreen romances (though he’s inspiring in Casablanca, he plays second fiddle to Bogie’s Rick Blaine) and was responsible for creating one of the most memorable cinematic romantic gestures – when Jerry famously puts two cigarettes in his mouth to light them both and hands one to Davis’ Charlotte, Henreid was implementing his own method of cigarette lighting he used at home with his wife.  It’s become a perfect 1940s expression of eroticism, sensuality, and barely concealed longing.  The dual cigarette lighting was Henreid’s personal contribution to the film.  The scene is so iconic that Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz) referenced it in the “Adagio” episode of I Love Lucy.

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Though he never achieved the same status and celebrity as his most famous costars, Henreid’s achievements, even beyond his performances in Now, Voyager and Casablanca bear revisiting.   Henreid was born in the city of Trieste (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) to an aristocratic Viennese banker -- his elegance and carefully cultivated accent were not products of the Hollywood system, so much as byproducts of his upbringing.  Henreid (born Hernreid – he later dropped the extra “r”) began his career in German and Austrian theatre and cinema but he was so virulently anti-Nazi that he was named an “official enemy of the Third Reich.” He emigrated to England in 1935 to escape the rising tide of fascism.  Knowing this, it’s easy to understand why his Victor Laszlo resonates with the courage of his convictions – they reflected Henreid’s own experiences and beliefs on a deeply personal level.

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He relocated to the US in 1940 (becoming a citizen as early as 1941) and made his English-language film debut in Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).  Having worked his way into a Warner Brothers contract where he made his two best films, he appeared as a series of romantic leads opposite Warner Brothers leading ladies including Ida Lupino and Eleanor Parker.  He reteamed with Bette Davis and Claude Rains in 1946’s Deception where he played a loyal husband to Davis’ Christine who faces threats from her former lover (Rains).  He also reinvented himself shifting from his suave European image to a swashbuckler appearing in films such as The Spanish Main (1945) and Last of the Buccaneers (1950).  With his privileged upbringing Henreid was well-versed in fencing, fighting, and horse-riding, which meant he performed the majority of his own stunts.

He continued to shake up his congenially romantic image in the late 1940s with noirish, atmospheric films like Hollow Triumph (1948)and Rope of Sand (1949), which found him playing against type as an escaped murderer and a sadistic military commander respectively.  He also produced Hollow Triumph, and its low-budget take on a criminal assuming a false identity with unintended consequences (he does double duty playing the original man he impersonates as well) presented Henreid with one of his greatest acting challenges.

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With the rise of McCarthyism, Henreid saw his acting career derailed with the Hollywood Blacklist – his career stalling after his participation in the Committee for the First Amendment and his outspoken protests against the House of Un-American Activities Committee.  But he reinvented himself yet again – this time as a successful director.  Though his feature films remained mostly “low-budget” beginning with 1952’s For Men Only, he made a name for himself as a television director, most notably on Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1957.  Hitchcock hired him in defiance of the Blacklist and helped launch him to a career in television directing where he went on to direct hits like Maverick and Bonanza.  On the film side he also reunited with Bette Davis capitalizing on her late career camp, directing her in 1964’s Dead Ringer.  The film is a melodrama that makes use of the single actor playing dual lookalike roles trope and it was a juicy role for Davis as her onscreen career began to wane.

Henreid’s career as a television director continued well beyond this into the 70s, but it’s a lovely thought to bookend two of his greatest career successes with collaborations with Bette Davis – a woman notoriously difficult to get along with, she and Henreid formed a warm and lifelong friendship (after she recovered from his rebuff of her half-hearted seduction attempts).

In the week of his birth, it’s great to remember Paul Henreid for Victor Laszlo and Jerry Durrance, but even more worthwhile to highlight his often untapped versatility as an actor and his second act success as a director.  On top of his professional success, his anti-Nazi and anti-HUAC efforts are a testament to a man with sterling core values and the courage to defend what he believed was right.  A happy birthday to Paul Henreid indeed.

Want to chat more about Now Voyager? Tune in LIVE to Chillin' with Larry Magen this Thursday, January 5th at 11pm EST to talk about the movie with me!

Addendum: Join us on April 20th on Chillin' with Larry Mange at 11pm EST when Iwill be chatting LIVE with Monika Henreid to talk more about her father's legacy and Monika's upcoming documentary "Paul Henried: Beyond Victor Laszlo"!


Maureen Lee Lenker

Classic Film Correspondent, Chillin' with Larry Magen

Maureen Lee Lenker is a writer, actress, and freelance journalist. She has written for The Hollywood Reporter, Turner Classic Movies, BitchMedia, LA Weekly, and more.

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