Remembering two wonderful and underrated actors

German actor and comedian Eddi Arent died last week aged 88. Eddi Arent was one of the biggest stars in the German entertainment cinema of the 1960s and was known mainly for variations of a single role, that of the bumbling comedy Brit with the dead-pan face and stiff upper lip. He played this role in some of the biggest successes of the 1960s, namely the Edgar Wallace adaptions and the Winnetou adaptions, both produced by Horst Wendlandt, and brought some much needed comic relief to the rather grisly going-ons of the Wallace films and the melodrama of the Winnetou films. In the adaptions of Karl May’s Winnetou novels, he played Lord Castlepool, a British aristocrat stumbling through the Wild West (shot in Croatia) while collecting butterflies. In the Wallace films (21 altogether), he played a variety of roles from dead-pan butlers via roving reporters and bumbling police sergeants to a fellow with the unfortunate name Lord Selwyn Moron.

The Wallace series include some of the IMO best films of German postwar cinema (and a few duds) and the Winnetou films, while clearly dated (How could they not see the slashiness?) and no longer politically correct (lots of white actors playing Native Americans), are still highly watchable. Alas, the official line of German movie criticism is that Weimar Republic cinema was good, Nazi cinema was evil and German postwar cinema was mostly crap, until a bunch of young directors got together in Oberhausen* and declared “grandpa’s cinema” (i.e. entertainment cinema that actually attracted viewers) dead in favour of the New German Cinema peddled by the likes of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Volker Schlöndorff, Alexander Kluge and others.

This official narrative is wrong. Because the German cinema of the postwar era is a lot better than its abysmal reputation and indeed resulted in a lot of very good films. And while a lot of them were escapism, I don’t think anybody could accuse films such as Rosen für den Staatsanwalt, Wir Wunderkinder, Das Mädchen Rosemarie or Nacht fiel über Gotenhafen of being escapist. And even the escapism was often surprisingly good and surprisingly critical. Nonetheless, the “German postwar cinema was a load of escapist bullcrap made by people who did not want to reflect on the Third Reich” narrative continues to go strong. Even I believed for the longest time that German films of the 1950s and 1960s were crap, even though I had seen the good films (and never liked New German Cinema at all). I just thought the good German films of the era were outliers, until I realised that there was a whole lot of outliers.

Nonetheless, the obituaries for Eddi Arent like this one from Die Welt reflect the established narrative. Good actor, but the films were silly genre crap. It makes me wonder whether whoever wrote this ever watched a single Edgar Wallace film.

Never mind that Eddi Arent’s stock character of the bumbling Brit often had hidden depths. In the very early films, he usually did play the pure comic relief character, though I challenge anyone not to feel a certain chill at the final scene of The Red Circle (1959 – theatrical trailer here), when Eddi Arent – playing a police sergeant – escorts a villain, who had previously escaped justice due to a malfunctioning guillotine – to the gallows and replies to the villain’s question what will happen if the rope breaks, “Then we’ll simply take a new rope” in his typical dead pan delivery. From approx. 1963 on, Eddi Arent’s characters – while still bumbling comic relief figures – did fall under suspicion of being the master villain on occasion. Nor were they always quite as innocent as they seemed.

Take one of my favourite Eddi Arent roles – Archibald Finch, the cleptomaniac butler in The Ringer (recently reviewed here). Finch insinuates himself into the inner circle of the villainous lawyer Maurice Messer and inevitably manages to unsettle the villains with news of the vigilant known only as the Ringer, who’s trying to kill the whole gang. At the climax, it is revealed that the bumbling cleptomaniac butler was just an act and that Finch is the Ringer’s trusty assistant. The delightful trio infernale of the Ringer (Rene Deltgen), his beautiful wife Cora Ann (Margot Trooger) and trusty secretary Archibald Finch (Eddi Arent) is reunited in New Adventures of the Ringer.

In The Sinister Monk (1966 – theatrical trailer here), the unthinkable finally happened. For when the hood of the bullwhip wielding killer monk was finally lifted, the man under the hood was none other than… Eddi Arent. Turned out that his character – the harmless and bumbling janitor at a girl’s boarding school – had been kidnapping female students, including such future stars as Uschi Glas, Dunja Raiter and Susanne Hsiao, for a human trafficking operation and eliminated the members of a treacherous family because of his unrequited love for Karin Dor, the doe-eyed star of many Wallace films. I’ve always viewed The Sinister Monk as the revenge of the Eddi Arent character for always having to play the bumbler and never ever getting the girl.

Eddi Arent played villains in two more Wallace films, another human trafficker in The Hunchback of Soho and a knife throwing killer in The Mystery of the Silver Triangle (both 1966). The latter film is remarkable, because it has Christopher Lee as a good guy and Eddi Arent as a killer.

Finally, I’ll leave you with two clips of Eddi Arent in the Edgar Wallace films of the 1960s, namely interviewing Wolfgang Völz in the middle of a firefight in The Green Archer (1961 – yes, that is Gert Fröbe sitting in the chair about to to shot by the archer), belittling Heinz Drache’s inspector in The Squeaker and playing ping pong with Siegfried Schürenberg in The Squeaker (1963). The Squeaker is another film where Eddi Arent’s character turns out to be not nearly as bumbling as he appears, for his roving reporter character Joshua Harris is constantly berated by his boss for not getting the hot scoops that his mysterious rival “Jos” gets for a competing paper. In the final scene, he informs his boss that he has been “Jos” all along and that he has finally gotten a fixed contract – at the rival paper.

So rest in peace, Eddi. You will be missed.

And just because she deserves to be remembered as well, swimmer and actress Esther Williams died June 6 aged 91. Unlike the German postwar cinema, Esther Williams’ films were pure escapism, watery extravaganzas that bore as little resemblance to actual water shows as Busby Berkley routines bear to Broadway stage productions.

But oh, they were gorgeous to look at: For proof, I give you this delightful underwater dream sequence of Esther Williams swimming with antique statues in Jupiter’s Darling (1955), a water ballet from Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and a water-skiing spectacular from Easy to Love (1954). Ms. Williams also shared an underwater sequence with Tom and Jerry (not online unfortunately), which is pretty damn awesome. Plus, she was romanced by none other than Ricardo Montalban, the only and only Khan, in Neptune’s Daughter (1949) and shared a still famous duet, Esther Williams singing “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” with him.

Her obituary in the New York Times reveals the price Ms. Williams paid for shooting those amazing scenes – she was repeatedly injured during the filming work.

Golden Age Hollywood – they don’t make ’em like that anymore.

*Little known fact: George Lucas – yes, that George Lucas – actually won the Oberhausen short film festival in 1968 with the original version of THX 1138 – take that, New German Cinema bores.

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13 Responses to Remembering two wonderful and underrated actors

  1. Sherwood Smith says:

    Thanks for this. It continues to make me mad that I never got to see any of the postwar films, bad or good–by the time I was in college, studying German, all we got were the ‘New Cinema’ incredibly depressing films. If I’d had any idea of the others I would have been going to old movie houses as often as I could (er, assuming there was such a thing) in 1971-2!

    The first clip is repeated in the second clip. I’d love to see both.

    • Cora says:

      I’ll never understand the reverence for the New German Cinema films, since most of them simply weren’t very good (exceptions like Angst Essen Seele auf notwithstanding, but then Brigitte Mira was incapable of making a bad film). But by the 1970s, even good directors like Alfred Vohrer who made a lot of the Edgar Wallace films, where making depressing stuff about the Third Reich and our cinema culture was down the drains. Jürgen Roland is the only one of the postwar directors who continued making good films throughout the 1970s, mostly local colour stuff set in Hamburg St. Pauli. Vier Schlüssel (guest stars the Rolling Stones and Oddjob from Goldfinger, really!) and Polizeirevier Davidswache (both from the 1960s though) are really examples of the St. Pauli crime movie genre pioneered by Roland.

      By the early 1970s, the tail end of the Wallace series was still being made, though the films were no longer near as good as they had been ten years before. Not sure where one might have watched the old ones (as well as the many other wonderful films of German postwar cinema) at the time. A few were probably already on TV, but most were either in old movie theatres or – since cinemas were struggling and dying in the early 1970s – just stuck on a shelf in a warehouse somewhere.

      I’ve changed the link so it shows the correct clip (and it’s a great one). I’ve also added another Eddi Arent clip as well as the theatrical trailers for some of the Wallace movies. If you can find any of them – though old German films are hard to come by in the US – pretty much all of them are well worth watching. Winnetou, too, if you can get past white actors pretending to be Native Americans and the fact that they were obviously shot nowhere near the actual West.

  2. Estara says:

    Eddi Arendt, Joachim Fuchsberger and Klaus Kinski, those are basically all I remember in any way from watching all those Wallace movies on TV.

    • Cora says:

      As a kid, those films terrified me. And even as an adult, they’re still very good, especially the better entries of the series. Most of the actors are excellent and even the occasional weak link (such as Elfie von Kalkreuth as the hapless heroine in Der Frosch mit der Maske, where you just want to strangle her at times) is lifted up by a great ensemble cast.

      • Estara says:

        Yes, terrifying. I’ve never watched harder crime or mystery stuff, that was quite enough for me. But I was drawn in and anyway my dad wanted to watch them so there was no choice, heh.

        • Cora says:

          Compared to Derrick or Der Alte or whatever else was on at the time, Edgar Wallace or Dr. Mabuse were truly a revelation of spine-chilling terror. They’re still surprisingly effective today and much better made IMO than latter horror films.

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