Zita Johann: The White Flame of the American Theater Was Extinguished by Hollywood
By Susan Doll
Of all the films in the original Universal horror cycle, Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy feature the most memorable female characters. Elsa Lanchester’s turn as the title character in Bride is now a history-making performance in an iconic film. But, more interesting to me is Zita Johann as Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnation of Princess Anck-es-en-Amon in The Mummy. Johann’s raven hair, huge eyes, and underlying eroticism set her apart from the dull, virginal leading ladies of the other Universal films from this time frame. With their blonde bobs and tailored clothing, the Helen Chandlers, Mae Clarks, and Julie Bishops all run together into one Anglo-looking archetype.
Born in 1904 in Temesvar, Hungary (now Timisoara, Romania), Johann grew up in New York City. She was so captivated by the culture and sophisticated lifestyle of her adopted city that she applied to be an understudy with the Theater Guild while still a teenager. By age 20, she had already made her Broadway debut in Man and the Masses. I was struck by how often her path crossed that of actors, writers, or directors destined for stardom or fame in Hollywood. A very young Clark Gable appeared opposite Johann in Machinal at the Booth Theatre, while Edward G. Robinson played alongside her in several Theater Guild productions. Osgood Perkins, Tony Perkins’s father and later a character actor in Hollywood, costarred with Johann in Uncle Vanya.
Johann used a technique for getting into character that reminded me of method acting in its intensity, but it was based on an almost spiritual approach to her roles. She called it “theater of the spirit.” Before a performance, she sat alone in her dressing room, said a few prayers to tap into her spirituality, pulled herself into the part, and then walked onstage. In an interview, she remarked, “Most of the time, I live in the mood of the character I am portraying. If I play a role for a long time, it is difficult for me to get out of that mood when the engagement is over.” Her performances were known for their burning intensity, which earned her the nickname “White Flame of the American Theater.”
Few knew until after her death that Johann had a keen interest in spiritualism, the occult, and reincarnation. According to the actress, her forays into the latter helped her tap into the emotions and spirits of the characters she played. She was so interested in the occult that during the 1920s, she went on a spiritualist retreat. She claimed that during one of the group exercises, she actually levitated.
By 1929, the major studios came courting, but Johann was not that eager to jump on the Hollywood bandwagon. In 1929, she signed a short-term contract with MGM. Despite getting a voice in selecting her film roles, she could not seem to find a role or a director to her liking. According to film historian David Del Valle, she marched into producer Irving Thalberg’s office and exclaimed, “Irving, why do you make such rubbish?”
RKO courted the selective actress, and according to the entertainment columns, David O. Selznick himself signed her to “Radio,” as the studio was called in the trades at the time. After two years in Hollywood, Johann finally made her screen debut as the wife of a hopeless alcoholic for D.W. Griffith in his last film, The Struggle.
In 1932, Johann landed the female lead in Universal’s The Mummy. Director Karl Freund, the great German Expressionist cinematographer-turned-director, tended to treat actors as elements in his mise-en-scene. They interacted with his detailed sets or were swallowed by the shadows of his chiaroscuro lighting. The moody lighting and evocative sets were designed to immerse viewers in an exotic tale of lost desire in a storybook Egypt. The film is most often lauded for its exquisite visual design, but Boris Karloff as Ardeth Bey and Johann as his reincarnated princess offer stellar performances.
Freund was hard on Johann, reportedly bullying her on the set. He forced both Johann and Karloff to work 12 to 16-hour days, and at times did not let the actress sit down. Unlike other principle figures on the set, she did not have a director’s chair with her name on it as was the custom. Freund insisted she lean back on a standing board all day so as not to wrinkle her costume.
By the end of production, she was exhausted and underweight from the stress of the shoot. Freud waited until the last few days to shoot several flashback scenes of the reincarnated Helen Grosvenor. In one scene, Johann played Grosvenor as a Christian offered to the lions. A real lion was used for the scene, and when Johann walked on the set, she was surprised that Freund and the crew were behind barriers (“cages” as she called them) to protect themselves from the lion, but there was no cage for her. She was expected to act her scene with no barrier between her and the big cat. And, so she did.
Johann passed out while filming the shot in which Ardeth Bey shows her the reflecting pool that reveals Helen’s past lives. Years later, she claimed she was so exhausted and undernourished at the time that she had an out-of-body experience while unconscious. Johann did not watch The Mummy until the late 1950s when it began turning up on television. She held a get-together with friends so they could watch the movie together because she didn’t want to see it alone. Much to Johann’s disappointment, most of the flashback scenes had been cut.
The experience with Freund combined with her observations of the decadent Hollywood lifestyle disgusted Johann. She was particularly appalled after an evening out with the young John Huston. Rip-roaring drunk, Huston got behind the wheel of a car with the beautiful actress in tow. He wrecked the car, seriously injuring Johann. While she recuperated, the industry pulled strings with authorities to cover up the seriousness of the accident, mostly to protect the high profile of Huston’s father, character actor Walter Huston, a highly respected figure in Hollywood. John was whisked out of the country until all was smoothed over. “I hated Hollywood,” Johann told the New York Post in an interview. “It was no more than a personality and sex factory.”
She made only five more films before returning to the New York stage. The best is the least known, The Sin of Nora Moran. A Pre-Code melodrama featuring adultery, rape, and murder, the film is remarkable for its intricate nonlinear narrative that includes flashbacks within flashbacks, dream sequences, and hallucinatory scenes. It was produced by Phil Goldstone of Majestic Pictures, a Poverty Row studio active during the 1930s. The film’s Poverty Row status was likely responsible for its disappearance after release. Without a major studio to preserve and store the negative and prints, it lapsed into obscurity. Only recently has The Sin of Nora Moran surfaced for home viewing.
Back in New York, Johann starred in several major stage dramas of the day, including Panic (1935), Flight into China (1939), The Burning Deck (1940), and The Broken Journey (1942).
After retiring from the stage, Zita Johann purchased a pre-Revolutionary War house in West Nyack, New York, where she lived out the rest of her days. On occasion, she attended movie conventions, where film buffs sought out her autograph and photos. Inexplicably, at age 82, Johann came out of retirement to play a tiny part in a perfectly awful horror film called Raiders of the Living Dead by exploitation director Samuel M. Sherman. After a respectable if brief film career, and a stellar stage reputation, why she decided to return to films after 52 years to appear in something so marginal remains a mystery.
A graduate of Northwestern University’s film program, Susan has been an instructor of film studies at several universities and colleges. She currently teaches at Ringling College of Art and Design. Parallel with her teaching career, she has worked as a researcher and writer in pop culture-related topics for Encyclopedia Britannica, Publications International, Facets Multi-Media, Field Museum of Chicago, and Turner Classic Movies. She is the author of Elvis for Dummies, Understanding Elvis, The Films of Elvis Presley, Marilyn: Her Life and Legend, an interactive children’s book titled I Love Lucy, and Films in Florida (co-authored).