Oscar Actors: Jannings, Emil–Background, Career, Awards

Emil Jannings (born Theodor Friedrich Emil Janenz, July 23, 1884–January 2, 1950) was a German actor, who was popular in the 1920s in Hollywood.

He was the first recipient of the Academy Award for Best Actor for his roles in The Last Command and The Way of All Flesh.

Jannings is best known for his collaborations with F. W. Murnau and Josef von Sternberg, including 1930’s The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel), with Marlene Dietrich. The Blue Angel was meant as a vehicle for Jannings to establish his stature in the new sound film era, but Dietrich stole the show.

Jannings later starred in a number of Nazi propaganda films, which made him unemployable as an actor after the fall of the Third Reich.

Jannings was born in Rorschach, Switzerland, the son of Emil Janenz, an American businessman from St. Louis, and his wife Margarethe (née Schwabe), originally from Germany.

Jannings held German citizenship; while he was still young, the family moved to Leipzig in the German Empire and further to Görlitz after the early death of his father.

Jannings ran away from school and went to sea. When he returned to Görlitz, his mother finally allowed him to begin a traineeship at the town state theatre, where Jannings started his stage career. From 1901 onwards he worked with several theatre companies in Bremen, Nuremberg, Leipzig, Königsberg, and Glogau before joining the Deutsches Theater ensemble under director Max Reinhardt in Berlin.

Employed since 1915, Jannings met with playwright Karl Vollmöller, fellow actor Ernst Lubitsch, and photographer Frieda Riess.

After World War I, they all were at the center of Weimar Culture in 1920s Berlin. Jannings made his breakthrough in 1918 with his role as Judge Adam in Kleist’s Broken Jug at the Schauspielhaus.

Co-Starring with Pola Negri

Jannings was a theater actor who went into films, though he remained dissatisfied with the limited possibilities in the silent era. Having signed a contract with the UFA production company, he starred in Die Augen der Mumie Ma (The Eyes of the Mummy, 1918) and Madame DuBarry (1919), both with Pola Negri in the main female part.

He also performed in the 1922 film version of Othello and in F. W. Murnau’s 1924 film The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann), as a proud but aged hotel doorman who is demoted to a restroom attendant.

Jannings worked with Murnau on two other films; playing the title character in Tartuffe (Herr Tartüff, 1925), and as Mephistopheles in Faust (1926).

Hollywood

His increasing popularity enabled Jannings to sign an agreement with Paramount Pictures, following his acting colleagues Lubitsch and Negri to Hollywood.

He started his career in 1927 with The Way of All Flesh directed by Victor Fleming (now lost) and in the following year performed in Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command. In 1929, Jannings won the first Best Actor Oscar for his work in both films.

He and Sternberg also cooperated in Street of Sin (1928), though they actually had major differences.

His Hollywood career came to an end with the advent of talkies–his thick German accent was difficult to understand. His dialogue was initially dubbed by another actor in the part-talkie The Patriot (1928) directed by Ernst Lubitsch, although Jannings’ own voice was restored after he objected.

Returning to Europe, he starred opposite Marlene Dietrich in the 1930 The Blue Angel, which was shot simultaneously in English with its German version Der blaue Engel.

According to Susan Orlean, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend, Jannings was not actually the winner of the first best actor vote, but the runner-up. While researching her book, Orlean thought she discovered that it was in fact Rin Tin Tin, the German Shepherd dog who won the vote. The Academy, however, worried about not being taken seriously if they gave the first Oscar to a dog, chose to award the Oscar to the human runner-up.

In 1960, Jannings was posthumously honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

After the Nazi Machtergreifung in 1933, Jannings continued his career in Nazi cinema. During the Third Reich, he starred in several films intended to promote Nazism, particularly the Führerprinzip by presenting unyielding historical characters, such as Der alte und der junge König (The Old and the Young King 1934), Der Herrscher (The Ruler 1937) directed by Veit Harlan, Robert Koch (1939), Ohm Krüger (Uncle Kruger, 1941) and Die Entlassung (Bismarck’s Dismissal, 1942).

He also performed in his famed role in The Broken Jug directed by Gustav Ucicky.

Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels named Jannings an “Artist of the State” (Staatsschauspieler)

The shooting of his last film Wo ist Herr Belling? was aborted when troops of the Allied Powers entered Germany in Spring 1945. Jannings reportedly carried his Oscar statuette with him as proof of his former association with Hollywood. However, his active role in Nazi propaganda made him the subject to denazification, ending his career.

Ironically, in the same period Dietrich became a US citizen and influential anti-Nazi activist, entertaining troops on the front lines and broadcasting on behalf of the OSS. Dietrich particularly loathed Jannings for his Nazi ties, and would later refer to her former co-star as a “ham.”

Jannings retired to Strobl near Salzburg, Austria, and became an Austrian citizen in 1947.

He died in 1950, aged 65, from liver cancer.

His Best Actor Oscar is now on display at the Berlin Filmmuseum.

Four Marriages

Jannings was married four times. His first three marriages ended in divorce, his last with his death. His last three marriages were to German stage and film actresses, Hanna Ralph, Lucie Höflich, and Gussy Holl.

He had a daughter, Ruth-Maria, though some sources say Ruth-Maria was actually his stepdaughter, and that her real father was Conrad Veidt, Holl’s first husband.

Cultural Impact

Hilmar Eichhorn portrayed a fictionalized version of Jannings in Tarantino’s 2009 WWWII Inglourious Basterds, who dies at the end of the film.

In the 1972 film Cabaret, singer Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is at a high-society dinner party. and trying to impress her audience she says she’s a friend of Emil Jannings.

 

Emil Jannings Career Summary:

Occupational Inheritance: No

Nationality: Father, American; mother German

Social Class: Upper-Middle; father businessman

Race/Ethnicity/Religion

Family: Early death of father

Education:

Training:

Teacher/Inspirational Figure:

Radio Debut:

TV Debut:

Stage Debut:

Broadway Debut:

Film Debut:

Breakthrough Role:

Oscar Role: 2 films; aged 43

Other Noms:

Other Awards: First Oscar winner

Frequent Collaborators: Directors Murnau; Von Sternberg

Screen Image:

Last Film:

Career Output:

Film Career Span:

Marriage: 4 marriages; some actresses

Politics: Goebbels named Jannings an “Artist of the State”‘ his career over after WWII

Death: age 65