This feature was published in conjunction with the screening of Varieté at SFSFF 2016
Photos of actress Lya de Putti from the 1920s show a smoldering beauty with heavy-lidded eyes, bee-stung Clara Bow lips, and a severe black Louise Brooks bob. She rarely smiles. In one full-length portrait, she’s clad head to toe in a fetishistic high-necked, long-sleeved dress made of clinging black leather. In the 1972 film musical Cabaret, set in Weimar-era Berlin, Sally Bowles, played by Liza Minnelli, name-checks Lya de Putti as her favorite actress and imitates her style, what Bowles calls “divine decadence.” Although de Putti made her last film in 1929 and died in 1931, the already-forgotten actress was evoked as the epitome of a German movie siren and of Weimar excess. As film historian Christian Rogowsky writes in The Many Faces of Weimar Cinema, “impish Lya de Putti projected the image of the ‘naughty child.’” In a brief but dazzling career that declined even before the arrival of talkies, Lya de Putti’s descent cannot be written off to lack of talent, but rather an excess of temperament, typecasting, changing tastes, and spectacularly bad luck.
Amalia de Putti was born to aristocratic parents in 1897 in the village of Vécse, in what was then Austria-Hungary and is now Slovakia. Married off to a wealthy judge at sixteen, she later gave birth to two daughters. Bored with provincial life and dreaming of a career onstage, she fled to Budapest, where she found work as a dancer and singer in a musical and made her film debut. Soon after the war ended Budapest was swept up in revolution and she escaped to Bucharest with the help of a much older lover, a Romanian general. There, she studied ballet, had some success in the theater, and appeared in one film. But political turmoil and a scandalous private life forced her to flee again in 1920, this time to Berlin, aided by yet another lover, a Norwegian diplomat who became her second husband in 1922. Somewhere along the way, she began to use a variation of her given name, billing herself as “Lya.”
In Berlin, de Putti danced and acted in shows at the city’s top theaters and music halls, including the Wintergarten, where much of Varieté is set, and had supporting roles in a few films. She was also a regular at the city’s trendiest clubs and cafés. Her biggest break came when director Joe May cast her in an important role as a temple dancer in a two-part adventure film, Das indische Grabmahl (The Indian Tomb) in 1921. It was a huge hit in Germany and was also seen in America, giving de Putti’s movie career a boost. Soon after, she landed a prestige project, a supporting role in a film version of Othello starring superstar actor Emil Jannings as the tortured Moor. Jannings was impressed and introduced de Putti to director F.W. Murnau, who cast her in two of his films.
De Putti was on her way. She was in demand—the top German film studio Ufa wanted her under exclusive contract, but Hollywood had also noticed her, so she accepted only a three-picture deal with Ufa. By 1925, when she costarred with Jannings in Varieté, she was a big star. She made two more German films, including Manon Lescaut, directed by Arthur Robison, about the scandalously tragic love affair between a noble and a commoner, before signing a Paramount contract and sailing for New York in 1926. The Hollywood publicity buildup began immediately. An article in an American movie magazine, written while she was still in Berlin, refers to her “strong energy and restless temperament,” both qualities on display in Varieté, and maybe harbingers of future problems. “She is known to be the life and death of every party,” the same article warned. Movie magazines also made much of her noble lineage, though they often got the details wrong.
De Putti’s first American film, The Sorrows of Satan, seemed at first glance like a prestige project—a Faustian story directed by D.W. Griffith. The legendary American director, however, was past his prime and de Putti was again typecast as a vamp, this time a Russian princess. She and Adolphe Menjou, as the “Satan” character, got the best reviews. Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review called it “A marvelously beautiful film,” and added, “Lya de Putti depicts the siren with a sinuous ease … She is not pretty, but she is striking and somewhat exotic.” The public did not agree with Hall’s opinion, and the film flopped at the box office. She vamped again in her next two pictures, and, when she played a peasant girl in her fourth American movie, she was criticized as being too worldly for the role.
After another American film that was little seen, she returned to Germany for one film, a comedy she hoped would redefine her image. While in Berlin, de Putti was injured when she fell from a window. Some press accounts speculated that the accident was actually a suicide attempt, but those rumors were denied and she returned to Hollywood. When her American film career failed to ignite, she went to England for The Informer (1929), a part-talkie based on Liam O’Flaherty’s novel. She played an Irish girl and her dialogue was dubbed by a British actress.
With her English-language movie career on the skids, de Putti decided to try the stage, making her Broadway debut in the comedy Made in France. That too was unsuccessful, closing after only five performances. In late 1931, she was hospitalized after swallowing a chicken bone. She underwent surgery to remove it but developed an infection and pneumonia and died a few days later. It was a bizarre end for one of the iconic figures of 1920s German cinema, who flared up brilliantly then faded out just as quickly.