Felix Bressart

This post is part of the “What a Character” blogathon hosted by Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled, Aurora at Once Upon a Screen and Paula at Paula’s Cinema Club; go check out the many other great character actors spotlighted this weekend.

Felix Bressart was easily one of the most endearing character actors that ever worked in the movies; though he was in Hollywood only for a short time—ten years—he made so many interesting films that the more you see him in the harder it gets to choose your favorite role of his. Felix could be as cartoonish, ridiculous, awkward and scatterbrained as a lost Marx Brother or as serious, sweet, shy and gentle as a favorite uncle. He was a friendly fuddy duddy, a sheepish geek, a barely slicked down mustache-flapping flabbergasted stiff, and played every manner of doctor, intellectual and artistic virtuoso. As was common for talented European actors, they could and did get cast as pretty much any citizen of the continent or beyond—German, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, even Icelandic, from Fritz to Igor to Ladislaus, you name it, Felix played it. Despite having different accents and looks in all these roles, he’s one of the most instantly recognizable, unforgettable and unmistakable faces in classic movies.  Born in East Prussia (today part of Russia) in 1892, as he entered his 20s Felix was already on stage, busy touring the region, and as the decade ended, landed in Berlin where he perfected his comedic touch on stage and in film starting in 1930. Felix had firmly established himself as a popular actor, playing musical comedy, political farce and slapstick, but by 1933 with Hitler assuming power and the widespread persecution of Jews, Felix went into exile, moving first to Switzerland, then Vienna, then Budapest, Amsterdam and Paris, while he continued to work. Finally in 1938, like so many film personnel, he went to America. He was in Swanee River with Don Ameche, and Felix’ old friend Joe Pasternak got him into Deanna Durbin’s movie Three Smart Girls Grow Up, where Felix was simply “the music teacher” and from then on, Felix became a staple of the MGM stock company. His first big movie was Ninotchka, where he was comrade Buljanoff, one of the trio of Soviets sent to sell off jewels looted by the Bolsheviks, who end up falling so completely in love with freedom and its fruits and comforts that they are aspiring entrepreneurs by film’s end. Along with Sig Rumann and Alexander Granach, Felix was so good in Ninotchka that although Garbo’s laugh may have been the main attraction, it is Felix and his comrades that provide the funniest moments.

The Shop Around the Corner is a great Christmas movie; Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullavan are pen-pal sweethearts who don’t realize it for most for the movie, sniping at each other during the day in the store where they both work. It’s one of Felix’s best parts, the lovable senior shop clerk, a dependable people-pleaser and family man so meek he flees, just evaporates whenever he senses he’s about to be called on to say what he really thinks. He may not speak up much, but with his horn rimmed glasses and Groucho mustache he says plenty with just a look or eyeroll. As Stewart’s confidante about the romantic letters and his ideal girl, Felix works some mild mannered magic to get Sullavan to buy Stewart the wallet he actually wants for Christmas, instead of the cigarette box she’s intent on –“when I open [the wallet], it says, ‘Papa, and not Ochi Tchornya.” He’s a peace-maker and a trusted opinion, when he does frankly express it. He’s kindness and common sense personified, delivering great lines like (when advising Stewart on how many rooms in the perfect flat) “entertain? What are you, an ambassador? If someone is really your friend, he comes after dinner.” He listens intently, but you can see him reflecting on some choice memories of his own while doing so. It’s a great role with lots of screen time to enjoy Felix at his best.

In Escape, he helps Robert Taylor do what else, that’s right, escape the Nazis, and then was with Jeannette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Bitter Sweet. In Comrade X Felix played Hedy Lamarr’s father, Clark Gable’s valet who resorts to blackmail to help his outspoken Hedy get safely out of the Soviet Union. He was fatherly with Hedy again in Ziegfeld Girl, as the disheveled maestro who tells classical violinist Philip Dorn “it’s a disgrace to your wioleen to play jazz music,” but always caves and sacrifices to help in the cause of true love.  I love the moment in Ziegfeld Girl where he practically steps out of the scene to laugh at his own crack about divorce. In Blossoms in the Dust, the story of an orphans’ aid pioneer starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, Felix got a juicy role as the first available doctor to arrive and attend to the difficult birth of Garson’s baby; after the boy’s tragic death Felix advises Garson to dedicate herself, not to socializing and partying her pain away, but instead to share the love she believes no longer has an object, by raising orphans. It was a role he often played in real life as well, because according to The Concise CineGraph: Encyclopaedia of German Cinema, Felix had qualified before World War One to be a medical practitioner and often dispensed free advice to colleagues about treatments and medicines.

In To Be or Not To Be, Felix plays the spear-carrying bit player who dreams of and is forever preparing for the role Shakespeare obviously must have written just for him, Shylock from The Merchant of Venice. Major credit must go to Tom Dugan not just for the Hitler impersonation but possibly more for keeping a straight face when Felix emphasizes that ‘P!’ in “Poison us” right in Dugan’s face, blowing his viking wig asunder. When Felix finally gets his chance to play the “most important part” in the plot, he gives the “Hath not a Jew eyes?” monologue with such intensity and emotion that it’s a bit of a shock, coming from the silly man in a zany movie, but once toned down and delivered without comic effect, it becomes the powerful moment that brings home the reality of the horrible situation in which the movie is based and placed.

With Felix playing so many foreigners and working in the 40s, he’d inevitably end up in stories about the events in Europe, but I find it especially interesting how, in two notable comedies about joyless, soul crushing dictatorships —  Soviet Russia in Ninotchka, and the Third Reich in To Be or Not to Be — Felix brings so much humanity and warmth to his roles, doing his part to remind you how much of value there is in an individual, which is primarily and ultimately the most precious treasure suppressed and looted by such destructive systems. To practically every role, and especially to abused or overlooked “nobodies,” Felix brought a quiet dignity and wisdom.

And just as Felix was a valued member of the “troupe” in To Be or Not To Be, he was also, as you’ve gathered by this point, a valued player in three movies with director Ernst Lubitsch, whose famed and much analyzed “touch” gives us moments sharply satirical yet sad, unexpected and loaded jokes elegantly pulled off, all things for which Felix seemed so well suited, for he was able to deliver equal parts joy and melancholy.

In the noirish Crossroads with William Powell as an amnesiac diplomat, Felix was a professor, again appearing with Hedy Lamarr. In Above Suspicion with Joan Crawford and Fred MacMurray, he played a bookshop owner who’s one link in a chain that helps the couple find a certain scientist. It was similar to his role the next year in The Seventh Cross, where he was a helpful deli owner/ resistance member who provides travel instructions and fake documents for concentration camp escapee Spencer Tracy. He appeared with Tracy again in Without Love, where he was Professor Ginza, assisting with Tracy’s war department research experiments in Katharine Hepburns’s basement. Incidentally, Without Love was the first onscreen pairing of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy.

In the second half of the 40s, Felix worked less and was called on to repeat his most comfortable characterizations: again a professor in A Song is Born, the Danny Kaye, Virginia Mayo remake of Ball of Fire; in I’ve Always Loved You as pianist Catherine McLeod’s father; and in Portrait of Jennie, his second to last film, he’s a former song and dance man visited by Joseph Cotten, and it’s a bit sad in that Felix not just plays but really looks unwell, gaunt. His spaciness adds to the surreal feel of the movie, further heightened by the fact his mustache is clearly peeling off. His last completed film was the William Powell suspenser Take One False Step, where he played yet another professor.

In 1949, at the end of a highly productive decade in Hollywood, Felix died of leukemia, leaving a wife, Frieda, and an uncompleted film, My Friend Irma. Felix was but one of the many great talents who escaped from turmoil across the Atlantic and lives still in movie fans’ minds and hearts as one of the most lovable misfits ever seen in movies.

hit the “you look familiar” tag to see other entries in this series

13 thoughts on “Felix Bressart

  1. Kristina, you really did Felix Bressart proud in your moving, detailed blogpost! It’s horrible that Bressart and so many other talented character actors had to flee their homelands, but at least we can be thankful that many of them were able to find work and success in Hollywood. (I for one would never complain about Danny Kaye and Virginia Mayo working with Bressart, even if some folks don’t love it as much as the original BALL OF FIRE. Eh, ya can’t please everyone!) I was especially moved when I read your remarks about the inevitability of Bressart and other sought-after refugee character actors ending up in NINOTCHKA and TO BE OR NOT TO BE, and the resulting humanity and warmth in his performances. BRAVA on an affectionate, thought-provoking post!

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    • thanks so much! I learned so much about him, even though I loved him in so many movies, it’s amazing how little I knew about him and the other characters. He was really a nice mix of silly & endearing– had the best laugh rewatching his TO BE OR NOT TO BE scenes.

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  2. Kristina, loved this piece. His Shylock speech in “To Be Or Not To Be” always make me tear up a bit. It’s a clever performance that, in many ways, anchors the film. It makes you realize the serious intent beneath the laughter. Bravo!

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    • Thanks so much! Really enjoyed researching this one, despite him being in so many of my fave movies I didn’t know so much about him. I agree it’s definitely his Shylock speech that drives home the serious part of To Be… thanks

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  3. An excellent piece on a gifted actor able to amuse and break one’s heart. I agree with Kristina about Bressart’s rendition of Shylock’s speech, which resonates even deeper when one knows that Adolf Hitler, a documented film fan, had a favorite comedic actor: Felix Bressart. In Konrad Heiden’s biography of the Fuhrer, the historian reports that Hitler sighed “Pity that this Bressart is a Jew,” after seeing one of his films in the early ’30s. How chillingly ironic.

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    • well isn’t that fascinating? thanks for stopping by to add that–chilling is right, and ironic on a more shallow level, how such a film fan managed to drive away his most talented people. thanks for the visit Moira- been reading /enjoying your stuff for a while now!

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  4. Lovely tribute, Kristina!

    This was one of the ones whose name I saw on the blogathon list and it didn’t register. But he was in so many great films – a very familiar face and scenes that are unforgettable. I’m shocked to know his film career lasted only a decade. So impressive and fascinating when one puts that into perspective – all the work, so much left behind to admire in a mere ten years.

    Really enjoyed reading this!

    Aurora

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  5. I loved this actor especially in the movie, Larceny Inc. I always seem to get Bressart mixed up another with the other fine character actor, John Qualen.

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