Katalin Karády in the films of Lajos Zilahy
Few Hungarian writers during the first half of the 20th century enjoyed as much popularity and success as Lajos Zilahy (1891 - 1974). He was a man of prodigious literary talents: he wrote poetry, short stories, plays, and novels. Journalism was another area which drew his attention and he served as the editor of several influential periodicals and newspapers.
Zilahy was among the first of the Hungarian writers to recognize the potential of the cinema as a creative medium. Popular and scholarly writings recounting the history of Hungarian film industry invariably credit Zilahy as the country's first writer-producer-director. It was he who introduced Katalin Karády into the movies, the actress who remains one of the most iconic figures in the history of Hungarian cinema.
Zilahy's name and fame as a versatile writer of par excellence extended far beyond the borders of Hungary. Throughout his life he was accorded international acclaim and his major works have been translated into many languages. The passing of time has not diminished his reputation as a man of letters.
Zilahy was born at Nagyszalonta on March 27, 1891. Educated as a lawyer, he soon turned his attention more and more to literary pursuits. He saw military service during World War I, an experience which left a profound impression.
While Zilahy received accolades for his poetry during World War I, his literary career began in earnest after the end of the conflict. Halálos tavasz [usually translated as Fatal Spring and sometimes as Deadly Spring], his first novel, appeared in 1922. It was an instant success.
The plot revolves around Iván, a young man, who becomes infatuated with Edit, the beautiful but fickle and flirtatious daughter of a prominent man. Problems arise as they conduct their tryst. After they go their separate ways, Iván finds solace with Józsa, a pretty and more stable but far less glamorous young woman. When Edit re-enters his life, Iván cannot resist her. Unable to resolve his conflicting emotions, he commits suicide.
Zilahy also started writing plays and quickly attained widespread popular success. His plays became a staple of the National Theater, as affirmed in the monumental 1940 tome celebrating the 100th anniversary of that venerable and revered establishment. Among these works, Süt a nap [The Sun Is Shining] is the one most fondly remembered.
A magyar társadalom lexikonja [The Lexicon of Hungarian Society] dating from the end of the 1920s referred to him as one of the best known and most talented members of the younger generation of Hungarian writers. On a personal note, Zilahy married in March 1930, taking as his wife Piroska Bárczy, the daughter of István Bárczy, a former mayor of Budapest who played a major role in modernizing the city. Their union was soon blessed with a son, Mihály, born in June of the following year. By all accounts, he was a serious, well-mannered and extremely brilliant child.
Even though Halálos tavasz was a resounding success, Zilahy's reputation as a novelist was solidified by Két fogoly (1927) [Two Prisoners], the fictionalized story of his sister Ilona and her husband (my paternal grandparents) set against the turmoil of World War I. It became one of the great Hungarian best-sellers of all time.
The book also attracted considerable attention abroad. When an English-language translation became available to the reading public, the verdict of critics on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean tilted toward the favorable. The Times (London) Literary Supplement, July 9, 1931, found it "remarkable" and declared that "there is hardly a dull moment first to last." "It possesses that almost stern purposefulness characteristic of Tolstoy," enthused the Boston Transcript, May 2, 1931.
By the early 1930s Zilahy was not only a celebrated author but also a well known public figure, deeply immersed in a myriad of social and political issues. He was one of the delegates from Hungary at the International Art Convention in Venice in 1934.
Like other writers, Zilahy was keenly aware of the power of motion pictures, a relatively new medium which was experiencing a spectacular rise in popularity and undergoing constant technical innovations. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he traveled to the United States to participate in the filming and staging of several of his works. A tábornok [The General] was made into a movie entitled The Virtuous Sin, starring Walter Houston, Kay Francis and Kenneth McKenna. His popular play, A tűzmadár [The Firebird], opened on Broadway, November 21, 1932, with a sterling cast which included Judith Anderson, Henry Stephenson, Ian Keith and Montagu Love. However, it did not garner the acclaim it received in London and Berlin. In 1934 Warner Brothers brought the drama to the screen with Ricardo Cortez, Verree Teasdale, and C. Aubrey Smith in the principal roles under the direction of William Dieterle.
While continuing to write, Zilahy turned much of his attention towards the movie making. He wrote the screenplay for his enduring novel Két fogoly [Two Prisoners], which was filmed under the same title in 1937. Directed by István Székely, an internationally respected figure, it starred the famed actress Gizi Bajor and Pál Jávor, the country's most popular romantic leading man. With another outstanding director, László Kalmár, Zilahy transformed Süt a nap [The Sun Is Shining] into a film.
Having gained all this experience in the film industry, Zilahy decided to establish his own production company. He did so in 1938, naming it Pegazus. My father and a relative, Tibor Buday, were also nominal owners but Zilahy was the exclusive power and creative force behind the venture.
As the first release of the new concern, Zilahy decided to draw upon his popular Halálos tavasz [Fatal Spring]. While he wrote the screenplay and produced the film, he did not feel ready to assume full directorial duties, entrusting this assignment to Kalmár, but retaining much of the artistic control.
Zilahy realized that he had to have a leading actress who was not only talented but also attractive, possessing a pronounced feminine mystique. One of the candidates who auditioned was a relatively unknown, but pretty and sultry actress named Katalin Karády.
Born in 1910 or 1912 (sources vary on the date), Karády studied privately before embarking on a modest career on the stage. She possessed a captivating voice; indeed, many who questioned her thespian abilities applauded her performances as a chanteuse.
Karády herself was tremendously excited by the opportunity to star in Zilahy's film. Several interviews and biographical sketches contain her vivid recollection of the decisive interview which won her the coveted role. Arriving at the movie theater where the audition was held, she was brimming with elation and nervous anticipation. It was a sweltering hot summer day and air conditioning was not yet a common fixture. Awaiting inside the darkened auditorium were Zilahy and some of his colleagues. As she recited the given script she felt her voice becoming strange and remote as if it were emanating from another person. When she finished, absolute silence enveloped the place. As her anxiety mounted while time seemed to have stopped, Zilahy broke the stillness. In a matter-of-fact tone he said: "You are very talented. You'll play the principal part in my film."
The aforementioned Pál Jávor was cast as her tragic lover. Józsa was played by Eva Szörényi, a rising young actress destined to become one of the great figures in Hungarian theatrical circles. The cinematographer was Árpád Makay, one of the very best in the country. The film's haunting music was composed by Tibor Polgár, a pupil of the great Zoltán Kodály and a distinguished figure in musical circles despite his youth.
The movie premiered in December 21, 1939. It was immediately embraced by the public, playing to packed houses and becoming the most sensational film of the season. Demand for tickets was frenzied; they were sold weeks in advance. The film was also screened in several other countries; in France it played under the title Printemps Mortel, with subtitles prepared by the poet Paul Geraldy.
While the film's enormous appeal can be attributed to several factors, including the taut narrative, the memorable music, and the highly-charged, crisp imaging, it's power derives mainly from Karády's performance as the femme fatale. Her screen appeal has been likened by some to the careers enjoyed by Marilyn Monroe and Brigitte Bardot: a reasonable amount of acting talent augmented by physical beauty and a powerful sexual aura.
Not everyone was enamored by the movie. As a matter of fact, it precipitated considerable adverse reactions, most of them centered around the compromising situations and erotic scenes, extremely daring for the times. Also coming under vociferous attack was the suicide of the vacillating lover. Zilahy himself compared the film to the book in the April 12, 1940 issue of Független Ujság in an article entitled "Vihar a legnagyobb sikerű magyar film, a Halálos tavasz körül" [Storm around the Most Successful Hungarian Film, Fatal Spring].
The film propelled Karády to the forefront as an actress and made her not only a star but a legend in the history of Hungarian cinema. She went on to star in a number of films, including three more written, directed and produced by Zilahy: Hazajáró lélek [Homecoming Spirit] in 1940, A szűz és a gödölye [The Virgin and the Fawn] in 1941, and Valamit visz a víz [known in English as Adrift] in 1943. The last of these three paired her with Pál Jávor while the leading man in the other two movies was Antal Páger, another towering figure of the Hungarian cinema. All of these films were favorably received by critics and moviegoers; however, none created the reaction generated by Halálos tavasz. Áráad Makay's superb camera work on Valamit visz a víz evokes admiration to this very day. Tibor Polgár, again demonstrating his originality and skill, composed the music for Hazajáró lélek.
What direction and what heights Zilahy and Karády, separately or together, would have achieved in later films will forever remain a mere conjecture due to global political events.
The terrible destruction wreaked upon Hungary during World War II was followed by the Soviet occupation of the country and the imposition of a Stalinist-style dictatorship, plunging the nation into its darkest moments. The Communist Holocaust, particularly the vicious persecution of all political opponents, the denial of the most basic human rights, compounded by unbearable economic hardships, prompted hundreds of thousands to emigrate, among them Zilahy and Karády. Zilahy settled in New York as did Karády after a short sojourn in Brazil.
The defection of Zilahy and Karády did not please the Stalinist stooges. Both were quickly declared officially non grata, labeled counter-revolutionaries, and arch-enemies of the Red Paradise. Their works were withdrawn from the public eye and blacklisted as lacking "social realism," that most exalted of Communist gibberish.
Zilahy continued his literary endeavors in the new homeland. His massive and controversial book The Dukays was published in January 1949 by Prentice-Hall. It immediately unleashed a torrential reaction. Most of the reviews were favorable but there were several virulent criticisms. This controversy undoubtedly helped to keep the novel on the New York Times best-seller list for several weeks.
However, for Zilahy, positive and negative
opinions about the work were dwarfed by the tragic death of his son, a
freshman at Harvard University, who succumbed to a fatal accident in
November of that year. His death had a devastating effect on Lajos and
Piroska. They carried their sorrow stoically and inwardly.
While Zilahy may have slipped into obscurity as far as the general public was concerned, the literary establishment remained very aware of his presence. His entry in the Penguin Companion to European Literature (1969) stated that "of living Hungarian authors his works are the best known in the West." On the other hand, the Új magyar lexikon (1962) [New Hungarian Lexicon] denoted Zilahy as residing in New York City where he is conspiring and hatching plans against the Hungarian Democratic People's Republic. Such ludicrous and preposterous ravings - possible only from the followers of a gutter ideology - have been wonderfully and accurately satirized in Péter Bacsó's cinematic hit A tanú [The Witness].
Although Zilahy and Karády did not enjoy the good graces of Hungary's tyrannical rulers, their popularity remained undiminished among expatriates throughout the globe. For example, movies screened at Toronto's Hungarian Canadian Cultural Center [Magyar Ház] often featured the creations of Zilahy and other old-time favorites, starring Karády. For some reason, Hazajáró lélek has been one of the most often shown of these films.
In September 1971 Czech director Jan Kadar's film Adrift, based on Zilahy's play, premiered in Beverley Hills, with American model-actress Paula Prichett starring in the role played by Karády in the original movie. Zilahy was duly credited as the writer of the original story. The response of the American public to the film was similar to that extended to other highly touted foreign works.
In the early 1970s Zilahy decided to remake Halálos tavasz, shooting the film in Spain and Yugoslavia. He asked Tibor Polgár, who composed the music for the original movie, to do the same for the new version. Tibor, then residing in Toronto, accepted and with his wife Ilona Nagykovácsi, a renowned singer whose popularity equaled if not exceeded that of Karády as a chanteuse in their heyday, went to Spain. At this time I was enrolled in graduate studies at the University of Toronto and was a frequent guest at the Polgár household.
When Tibor and Ilona returned from Spain, they regaled me with endless anecdotes and showed a vast number of publicity photos taken on the set. As for the movie itself, neither of them was enthralled by the finished product. As a matter of fact, they deemed it decidedly inferior to the original, attributing the shortcomings mainly to the low budget and the little known performers in the starring role who lacked the charisma of Karády and Jávor. Virtually everyone shared Tibor and Ilona's assessment.
Despite their disappointment with the remake, Tibor and Ilona frequently thumbed through photographs taken on the set. On these occasions, Ilona never failed to recount the tragic demise of one of the cast members, American actor Bruce Pecheur. During the night of August 16, 1973, while he and his wife Lucy were sleeping in their apartment in the Greenwich Village section of New York City, they were confronted by a knife-wielding intruder, later identified as one Edward Garcia, a drug addict with a long rap sheet. After tying up Bruce, the brazen robber, with Lucy in tow, began ransacking the apartment for money and other valuables. Bruce meanwhile managed to extricate himself and grab a handgun. Seeing Bruce holding the weapon, the criminal lounged at him, stabbing him several times. But before succumbing to the wounds, Bruce managed to pump several bullets into his assailant. Both men died within moments of each other.
Already in frail health due to advanced years, Zilahy died in December 1974, near Újvidék [Novi Sad]. His remains were cremated and the ashes taken to the Farkasréti cemetery in Budapest. His obituary in the December 3 edition of the New York Times was brief and perfunctory; it simply gave a few personal details and enumerated several of his most notable works.
As Communist dictatorships throughout Europe began to crumble due to their inherent contradictions and absurd policies, Zilahy, Karády and many other "unpersons" experienced a revival. Recordings of songs by Karády sold briskly, Zilahy's novels once more lined the shelves of bookstores, and countless thousands - like back in 1939 - lined up at the movies to see Halálos tavasz. The 1980s saw a spate of books published about Karády, including: A Halálos tavasztól a Gestapo fogságig (1987) [From Fatal Spring to Gestapo Captivity] by Károly Kristóf; Karády Katalin (1983) [Katalin Karády] by László Kelecsényi; and Karády mítosza és mágiája (1989) [Karády's Myth and Magic] by Jenő Király.
This "rebirth" of interest in Zilahy and Karády re-ignited old controversies and sparked new ones. As before, divergent views proliferated concerning Karády's thespian talents, the impact of Halálos tavasz, and the relevance of the movie for today's audiences.
Reflecting on Halálos tavasz in an article published in a 1986 issue of Magyarország, István Karcsai Kulcsár wrote that the film brought to the screen not only a fresh dialogue, effortless handling of the theme, and sensitive imaging, but also a critical and faithful cross-section of the era's Hungarian world. The June 5, 1986 edition of the Magyar Nemzet was less enthusiastic, deeming the film rather antiquated in light of modern tastes, but was moved by Karády's singing.
Musing over questions about Karády's career and the popular appeal of Halálos tavasz on moviegoers over the years, László Kelecsényi in his book Karády Katalin concludes that there are no simple answers and the only certainty is that the film was the most sensational of its era.
Criticizing the film as being dated and old-fashioned for today's tastes is a moot and rather irrelevant point. It was made 70 years ago and much has changed during this time span besides the political landscape. A vast multitude of classic movies, dubbed "golden oldies," despite their age, continue to delight millions of people throughout the world.
The very mention of literary criticism raises an issue that cannot be ignored. Under the Communist rule every facet of life came under state scrutiny. The printed word and the movies were no exception; censorship in these areas was most rigidly enforced. Straying from the politically correct path was a crime of the greatest magnitude. And of course criticism of Party leaders was a definite no-no in a society where the cult of personality reigned.
These repressive measures were also persistent in reviews and critiques of books and films. The artistic merit of the work under consideration was secondary to the propaganda and gratuitous remarks inserted. Paeans to the wonderful conditions prevailing under Marxist-Leninist ideology are ubiquitous and there is the obligatory nod to the Soviet occupation of Hungary, exalted as the "felszabadulás" [The Liberation] in accordance with Communist double-talk. The popular uprising in 1956 against Red tyranny is ignored or belittled as a counter-revolution by capitalist flunkies.
While it is difficult to single out one such writing because there are so many to choose from, the No. 7, 1975, issue of the journal Filmtudományi Szemle is typical. Devoted entirely to "socialist realism, socialist film," the subtitle summarizes the contents as a study of the Hungarian cinema now basking in its 30th year of "Liberation." Indeed, the word "felszabadulás" occurs with conspicuous frequency on the cover and the contents page. The entire issue is an outstanding example of abject sycophancy and warped, debased and perverted scholarship. Its contents can be safely dismissed as a mixture of blatant propaganda and an exercise in delusion.
One of the most respected and prolific exponent of the Hungarian cinema in recent times has been István Nemeskürty. A profound scholar with an impressive array of academic qualifications, he has written extensive on diverse historical subjects in addition to his treatises on films. Nemeskürty is also one of the few Hungarians writers who has had some of his books translated into English. Consequently, English-speaking movie critics and historians have relied on Nemeskürty as their primary source of information when describing, analyzing and judging Hungarian films. Referring to one of Nemeskürty's works, British author Bryan Burns in his World Cinema: Hungary readily admits this reliance and indebtedness: "Like all other Western writers on the Hungarian cinema, I acknowledge a great debt to Nemeskürty's book, especially for the period prior to 1956."
Nemeskürty was personally acquainted with Zilahy, and Piroska publicly praised his relationship with her husband on several occasions. During the celebrations commemorating the 100th anniversary of Zilahy's birth, Nemeskürty was among those who delivered a touching eulogy.
Yet several of Nemeskürty's writings dating from the years of the Communist regime contain less than flattering remarks about Zilahy, Karády, and Halálos tavasz. For example, the English-language A History of the Hungarian Literature (1982), authored by Nemeskürty and three others, dismisses Zilahy with a few curt words as "one who achieved great success with his novels and plays in middle-class circles. His novels were professionally skillful, but false in their social comment."
Therefore, it's not altogether surprising to read the following statement about Halálos tavasz in Nemeskürty's 1974 book Word and Image, History of the Hungarian Cinema: "Students and undergraduates of today who have grown up in a socialistic atmosphere shake their heads when they watch the meaningless situations and burst into uncontrollable laughter in the most dramatic moments of the film . . ." This assessment is taken at face value by Bryan Burns and rephrased as: "For Nemeskürty, Fatal Spring is frivolous and unauthentic, and its appeal almost incomprehensible today."
In a rather sharp turnaround, Nemeskürty and co-author Tibor Szánto in their A magyar filmművészet képeskönyve (1985) [The Illustrated Book of Hungarian Cinema], recognize Zilahy as one of the most significant film producers of the times, and acknowledge that the movie Halálos tavasz has enjoyed unparalleled and uninterrupted success from its premiere.
Hence, criticisms of books and movies dating from the Communist era must be approached and treated with extreme caution and must not be taken at face value.
Karády was fortunate enough to see her name back in the limelight and once more bask in public adulation. Reportedly she was contemplating a return to the stage, but death overtook her on February 7, 1990.
Upon the 100th anniversary of Zilahy's birth, numerous ceremonies were held in Hungary in his honor. On the morning of April 13, 1991, writers and admirers gathered in the Farkasréti cemetery and listened to László Rónay, who addressed the assemblage on Zilahy's significance and impact as a Hungarian author. On the following day the activities were continued at the City Hall of Szentendre. Paying tribute to his memory, the newspaper Új Magyar Hírek called him one of the most eminent figures of the Hungarian literature between the two world wars.
Due to ill health, Piroska was unable to attend these festivities. She doggedly spent all her time and energy on safeguarding and promoting Lajos's literary creations and artistic reputation even when adverse financial circumstances and a multitude of health problems - notably virtual blindness - overtook her. During the last decade of her life, she was practically a total invalid. She died on August 7, 2005, aged 98.
Scrutinizing and assessing Zilahy as an author and filmmaker will undoubtedly continue to evoke lively debates in the years ahead. Likewise, conflicting opinions about Karády and her performances in plays and movies will not diminish. Valid arguments on any of these aspects must keep in mind the circumstances of their era. They cannot be understood without having a firm grasp of the historical background. Regardless of future judgments, Zilahy and Karády will forever retain a cherished niche in the hearts of readers and moviegoers. No political ideology or regime can tarnish or erase their memory.
Notes: There are many books about the Hungarian cinema, but, as mentioned above, only a few are available in English. One of the most comprehensive and informative of the recent publications is Magyar hangosfilm lexikon, 1931-1944 [Hungarian Sound Film Lexicon, 1931-1944]. Lavishly illustrated with a multitude of color and black & white photos, this thoroughly researched and thoughtfully composed book, released in 2006, is a particularly excellent source on the Zilahy-Karády era.