I was helping my sister move and, among her papers, I came across some correspondence between my father and one of his classmates, Miklos Rozsa, a child prodigy, who learned to play the violin at the age of five and read music before he was able to read words. Rozsa was born in Hungary in 1907 and emigrated first to London and from there to Hollywood where he wrote music for countless movies.
His letter made me curious about Hungarians involved in the world of English-language movies. I did not suspect that I would find over one hundred and fifty significant connections.
But I did.
It seems that Hungarians on the whole were, are and will always be fascinated with film-making and, of course, film watching.
My sister and I became seriously addicted to film watching at a very young age.
Allow me to explain.
In 1947 I was 13 and she 10, both of us still traumatized by the events of World War Two during which we often had to fend for ourselves. We were deemed to be old enough to attend my grandmother’s formal family Sunday lunches and we did, obligatorily. My parents and grandparents were in attendance, as were a number of aunts and uncles. The two of us were the only kids present, and, as such, condemned to sit alone at the very end of a very long table. Needless to say, we were expected to be on our best behavior throughout the meal which, at times, dragged on for a couple of hours.
The signal for our liberation was the arrival of coffee – espresso, of course – to be served with great ceremony by the butler. We would rush over to kiss Grandma on the cheek and then skedaddle out of the room at speed, heading to the movies with the grown-ups’ blessing. We didn’t need to ask for money: my ten-year old sister always had some. (She was already on the payroll as an extra, dancing in the Opera’s corps de ballet as a child performer.)
With me, she was a very good sport about money. Having been taught that, on a date, it was always the ‘gentleman’ who paid, she would slip me the money as we approached the theatre so that it would be me, the ‘gentleman’, who would actually hand the money to the cashier.
During the year (the last that we would spend in Hungary) we saw more than a dozen films: mainly Hollywood productions, one or two films created in the UK and, unfortunately, some propaganda movies made by our ‘glorious liberators’, the Soviet Union.
I remember seeing Casablanca, Destry Rides Again, Sergeant York, The Four Feathers, It’s a Wonderful Life, and “Pimpernel” Smith among others.
In retrospect I cannot understand how come nobody tried to stop us, a thirteen-year-old boy ‘escorting’ a ten-year old girl, from entering a movie theatre – but nobody did. I guess that ‘then was then’ and ‘now is now’.
For those of you interested in who is of Hungarian descent in the English-language film business, here is a partial list:
In England there were the Korda Brothers (Alexander, Vincent and Zoltan) who became well-known for epic films like The Thief of Baghdad and The Third Man. The famous actor Leslie Howard’s father was Hungarian.
In Hollywood, Béla Lugosi is probably the most well-known Hungarian actor of all time, known for his ornate, grandiose, almost otherworldly acting style, and for defining the role of Dracula onscreen in Tod Browning’s 1931 Universal classic.
The Gabor family (Zsazsa, Magda, Eva and their mother Jolie) lent spice and a little salaciousness to the Hungarian acting contingent in Hollywood with their multi-marriages.
Adolph Zukor (Queen Elizabeth, featuring, in 1912, the French actress Sarah Bernhardt), Michael Curtiz (Casablanca), Andrew Vajda (Evita), George Cukor (My Fair Lady), Charles Vidor (Gilda), and Joe Pasternak (Destry Rides Again, featuring, in 1939, Marlene Dietrich and James Stewart) are just a few of the outstanding Hungarian producers and directors.
A short cross-section sampler of actors with Hungarian blood in their veins might consist of Harry Houdini, Vilma Banky, Maria Corda, Johnny Weissmuller, Ilona Massey, Eva Bartok, Paul Lukas, Mickey Hargitay, Tony Curtis, Cornel Wilde, Kathleen Gati, Catherine Schell, Ernie Kovacs, Adrian Brady, Alanis Morissette, Drew Barrymore, Debra Winger, Goldie Hawn, Paul Newman, Janos Prohaska, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jerry Seinfeld, Peter Falk, Kate Hudson, and Mariska Hargitay.
The pioneering Hungarian giant of the industry, as far as studio owners go, was William Fox (Fuchs Vilmos), born on January 1, 1879, in Tolcsva, Hungary, who founded the Fox Film Corporation in 1915 and the Fox West Coast Theatres chain in the 1920s. These became “20th Century Fox.” His partners were Darryl Zanuck and Joseph Schenk. (Neither was Hungarian.)
In Canada Robert Lantos (In Praise of Older Women), George Mihalka (My Bloody Valentine), John Kemeny (The Apprenticeship of Dudy Kravitz), George Katzender (Indiscretions of an American Housewife), Tibor Takacs (The Gate) Andre Link (Meatballs) produced and/or directed very successful and, sometimes, meaningful films.
Link also co-founded Cinepix and then became Board Chairman of Lions Gate Films.
Only English-speaking films ‘travel’ well, which means that Hollywood still retains its overwhelming influence over what films we see, though Netflix Amazon Prime and other such organizations have begun challenging its position by turning out a plethora of movies of decidedly poorer quality.
The magnificent halls of the 1920s in which so-called ‘motion pictures’ flickered have been replaced by utilitarian, modern-looking structures capable of accommodating reclining fauteuils, super-sound, thundering loudspeakers and 3D-capable equipment. To boot, going to a movie theatre nowadays also means inhaling the delicate smell of overcooked hamburgers being eaten by the person sitting next to you, courtesy of the cafeteria operating in the lobby. Overall, the number of theatres showing movies is rapidly declining. No wonder!
The minimum admission age for unaccompanied children is governed by local regulations, but this concept is an illusion – any child who knows how to turn on a computer or television set has access to whatever film he or she would like to watch.
My sister and I need no longer worry about how to sneak into a movie theatre: the years have gone by and we are both over eighty.