Gustav Von Seyffertitz
The True Hollywood Aristocrat
individuals in the early days of Hollywood had the gall to give themselves a name that
would imply a noble European background. This air of grand mystique would give many of
those struggling to be noticed in the industry the edge over the numerous number of
foreigners arriving in the sunny state of California at this time.
Out of this identity crisis only a few could lay rightful claim to a double-barrelled
title. The megalomaniac Erich Oswald Hans Carl Marie Stroheim von Nordenwald, known simply
as Erich von Stroheim, is one person who used his name to good effect and cloaked his past
with an air of ambiguity that could suggest royalty.
Besides being a consummate actor, Gustav von Seyffertitz also exploited his Thirteenth
Century name for his own benefit.
He was born Gustav Carl Viktor Bodo Maria
von Seyffertitz in Haimhausen, Bavaria on August 4th 1862, (other sources mistakenly list
his birthdate as August 15th 1863), to a family who all held high ranks in the Austrian
Army. Although Gustav's elder brother Theobald (1856-1926) upheld this family tradition,
Gustav's path took a different road, and we can only surmise that this must have met with
a considerable degree of disapproval from his proud, militaristic family. His father Guido
von Seyffertitz, born in Innsbruck, was a well respected politician whose family lineage
impressed his wife-to-be Anna
Butler Clonblough, a native of Haimhausen, but whose own family descended from a good name
Gustav's father died when he was only three years old, and his mother remarried in Vienna
after her husband's death.
Gustav first married at the tender age of 24 in Strasbourg to a theatrical actress named
Katharina Hoffmann, suggesting that he had already toured throughout Europe with perhaps a
succession of performing troupes by this time. Katharina gave birth to two sons, Wilhelm
who was born in Copenhagen in 1882 became a professional juggler in Berlin and Adolar.
Gustav's granddaughter is presently 89 years of age and sadly only recalls one meeting
with Gustav when he was living in a rather palatial apartment in Berlin, before he
emigrated to the east coast of America in 1912.
It has also been suggested that he worked on the English stage during the 1880's, but
although there is no evidence to refute this claim, the reality is more likely to have
been an extensive number of tours throughout Europe including Britain and never dwelling
for long in any one country.
Gustav later married another actress named Toni Creutzburg in Koburg during 1894, a union
that gave birth to one daughter who sadly died at the age of fifteen. After marrying
Frieda and Eugenie von Mink, two other actresses who provided him with no offspring,
Gustav's fifth and final marriage took place sometime during the Great War to an American
actress named Nelly Thorne. Their only daughter Joan Goodridge may still be alive today.
On the strange new continent of America,
Gustav continued his theatrical activities including four plays listed in "The
History of the American Theatre" that he directed soon after his arrival.
The Argyle Case was produced at the Criterion Theatre from a story by
Harriet Ford and Harvey O'Higgins on Christmas Eve in 1912. Warner Brothers would later
adapt the same story for the screen in 1929 starring Thomas Meighan, H.B. Warner and Lila
Elevating a Husband appeared at the Liberty Theatre in 1912 with Louis
Mann, Conway Tearle and Edgar Everett Horton, Polygamy in December 1914
at the Playhouse Theatre with Ramsay Wallace, Chrystal Herne and Katherine Emmett in the
cast, and Mister Antonio produced at the Lyceum Theatre in September
1916, a play by Booth Tarkinton that was also adapted for the screen by Tiffany Studios in
1929 starring Leo Carillo.
As the horrors of the First World War were
still being fought in the trenches, there was a reluctance on the part of theatre and film
producers to employ anyone from Eastern Europe. For this reason Gustav temporarily changed
his distinctly Teutonic name to his mother's maiden name and became C. Butler Clonblough.
Under this moniker he continued to work and used it as late as 1919 when he directed an
early screen version of Francis Hodgson Burnett's story THE SECRET GARDEN for Famous
Players/Lasky Studios. Gustav's screen credits began in 1917 when he appeared as Stephen
Densmore in Cecil B. DeMille's The Devil Stone
with Wallace Reid, Geraldine Farrar, Raymond Hatton and Tully Marshall who also carved himself a niche playing a succession of
devious villains during the Twenties. That same year Gustav appeared in Mary Pickford's
LITTLE PRINCESS for Paramount Pictures; HIS MAJESTY, BUNKER BEAN with Jack Pickford,
Mary's younger brother; OLD WIVES FOR NEW for Cecil B. DeMille. In 1919 he appeared in THE
DARK STAR with Marion Davies and LESS THAN KIN with Wallace Reid and Annie Little.
In 1921, following a role in Vitagraph's
THE SPORTING DUCHESS with Percy Marmont and Alice Joyce, he remained at the studio to
direct three other properties starring the now forgotten actress Alice Calhoun in PRINCESS
JONES, CLOSED DOORS and PEGGY PUTS IT OVER.
Gustav's roles continued with the Marion Davies vehicle WHEN KNIGHTHOOD WAS IN FLOWER as a
Soothsayer, but in 1922 he was afforded his biggest assignment as the miscreant Professor
Moriarty in Goldwyn's SHERLOCK HOLMES directed by Albert Parker and partially shot in
England and Switzerland. Gustav shined as Sherlock Holmes' nemesis opposite John Barrymore who had established his
reputation a couple of years earlier with his success in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). For this reason Barrymore was also
attributed for portraying Moriarty because the character has more than a passing
resemblance to his Hyde portrayal of the previous film. Barrymore again played on this
fact by masquerading as Gustav in DON JUAN (1926) for his brief role as Nehri the
Torturer. Despite a deviation from the original Sherlock Holmes story by having the
celebrated sleuth fall in love with the heroine played by Carol Dempster, Conan Doyle
fully endorsed the film upon its release.
The Twenties proved to be Gustav's busiest
period with a quick succession of parts all varying in size and content including a walk
on part in THE EAGLE (1925), as a butler in THE GOOSE WOMAN (1925) and DIPLOMACY (1926).
In 1926 Mary Pickford lured Gustav back to her studio to feature as the
evil Mr. Grimes, resident of the swamps in Sparrows.
At 32, Mary Pickford was unsuitable to play girls half her age, so this was her last
attempt at the pretence.
The film opens poignantly
with "The Devil's share in the world's creation was a certain Southern
swampland...a masterpiece of horror. And the Lord, appreciating a good job, let it stand.
And then the Devil went one better and had Mr. Grimes live in the swamps!"
Mary Pickford's little friends are a motley collection of urchins whose parents
were either too poor or ill to care for them, naively entrusting the parenting to Mr.
Grimes. In the swampland, the children labour under terrible conditions in the surrounding
potato fields in return for a meagre meal and the shelter of a dilapidated barnhouse.
Overseen by Mr. Grimes and his bullying son Ambrose ("Spec" O'Donnell, so named
for possessing an inordinate amount of freckles), the life for these children is a living
nightmare. Their only defence against their guardian is Mollie, (Mary Pickford), whose
plucky spirit and strong faith finally gives them the upper hand. As the children attempt
their escape through the swampland they encounter ravenous reptiles and the ever threat of
being sucked down into the mire, but this fate is reserved for the pursuing Mr. Grimes who
dies in the gurgling bog.
Director William Beaudine created a fine film, but unfortunately his good work of the
Twenties has been overshadowed by his plethora of weak Hollywood "B" Features of
the late Thirties and Forties. Monogram Pictures frequently relied on him to quickly churn
out cheap films and come in under budget. These included the Bela Lugosi vehicles The Ape Man
(1943), Ghosts on the Loose (1943), Voodoo Man (1944) and the lamentable Bela
Lugosi Meets the Brooklyn Gorilla. The only comment that has been recorded on
Beaudine's involvement in these dismal films was when Monogram asked him to rush the
completion of a film to which the director dryly responded "You mean someone
out there is actually waiting to see this?" His later offerings were even
worse including Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966) and Jesse
James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter (1966) made four years before his death at 78
years of age.
Under the right conditions, Sparrows
exemplifies what Beaudine was capable of. His technical colleagues on the film were some
of the best in the business including cameramen Karl Struss, Charles Rosher and Hal Mohr
who skilfully framed each shot with the detail of Harry Oliver's superb sets that added to
the foreboding morass and emphasised the squalid conditions of mud, storms, hunger and
Gustav's portrayal of the skeletal Mr. Grimes is undeniably the high point of the
production and knowing of his thick German accent it is peculiar to see him attributed
with dialogue cards that read "Them veg-tables is wuth money. Quit
a-tramplin'em or I'll run the lot of yer in the swamp!" In a tremendous
establishing scene Mr. Grimes is shown reading a note from a concerned parent who has left
her offspring under his care with a little money and her favourite doll. "I
read of a baby farm where they was mean to children, but I know you treat my Amy
good". An evil smile spreads across Grimes' face as he pockets the cash,
crushes the doll's head and watches as the mutilated effigy slowly sinks into the swamp.
One can only imagine the nervous bewilderment on the faces of the parents who had dragged
their children out to see a wholesome Mary Pickford movie...
next appeared in a screen adaptation of Erkman and Chatrian's The Bells (1926), a popular play that had seen many stage
presentations, including several performances by Sir Henry Irving.
This story of a guilty conscience involves Mathias, (Lionel Barrymore), an opportunist who kills a travelling merchant for
his gold and is tormented by visitations of his victim's ghost announced by the ringing of
the man's sleigh bells. Gustav portrays sneering moneylender Jerome Krantz, a figment of
the guilty man's mind who threatens to kick Mathias into the gutter until he comes up with
the repayment of 6,000 francs. Gustav also appears as the judge at a trial in Mathias'
mind, all of which forces the murderer to confess his heinous crime.
This lavishly mounted film is capably directed by James Young with the aid of Perry
Harris' lighting effects. The cast also includes a young Boris Karloff in his first large role as a carnival mesmerist.
In 1927 Gustav appeared in a succession of roles specifically
tailored to his talents. In Ernst Lubitsch's THE STUDENT PRINCE he portrays the King of
Karlsburg in a tale from 1902 involving love versus duty among a high-born Ruritanian
family, however, it is for his role in The Wizard
that he should be best remembered by horror fans. Unfortunately the film is lost and is
second only to Chaney's London After Midnight as
the most sought after horror film from the silent era. Like the popular old-dark-house
thrillers of the '20's and '30's, the injection of comedy elements into the plot were
relied on to soften any shocks to the viewing audience. Only the film's original shooting
script has survived that contains no comic relief, suggesting that these were added during
Gustav portrays Dr. Paul Coriolos, an
insane scientist whose revenge for those he feels are responsible for his son's execution
is all embracing. To this end he grafts a human head onto a giant ape, (George
Kotsonaros), and orders it to kill both the judge and jury who convicted his son of
Based loosely on Gaston Leroux's serialised novel Balaoo ou des pas au Plasfond,
the story had previously been adapted for the screen in 1913, promoted by the tag-line "This tragedy of
footprints on the ceiling will jam any theatre!", however
this popular theme was not remade until 1942 with a
"B" Feature titled Dr. Renault's Secret
and starring George Zucco who transforms a
gorilla played by Ray "Crash" Corrigan into a sympathetic creature played by J. Carroll Naish.
Reviews of The Wizard were generally favourable,
praising the film's excellent eerie camerawork by Frank Good of the ape-creature's shadow,
clutching hands and cobwebs. Frank Good was a skilled cinematographer who found his
talents being used on a number of shabby second features during the Thirties.
Writer Harry O. Hoyt deserves equal merit for his screen adaptation as does its director
Richard Roosson who favoured a streamlined approach to filmmaking and condensed all the
action into six reels of film. Unfortunately, not being able to see Gustav in one of his
more full-bloodied performances is a tragedy that it seems will now never be remedied.
1928 was another good year for Gustav von
Seyffertitz beginning with a role in THE RED MARK, a largely forgotten film directed by
James Cruze and based on a novel by John Russell.
At a French penal colony in New Caledonia, Gustav portrays the island's sadistic
executioner about to hang for the manslaughter of a young pickpocket, (Gaston Glass), who
he regards as his rival for the affections of the heroine, (Nena Quartero). At the last
possible moment, he discovers the young boy to be his own son.
as a haunting study of the penal colony system, one reviewer reported "Remarkable,
forceful appeal and the excellence of the various artists". Also featured in the
cast is Rose Dione, memorable for her later role as Madame Tetralleni in Tod Browning's Freaks.
MGM's THE MYSTERIOUS LADY directed by Fred Niblo sees Gustav as General Alexandroff, the
head of a Russian spy network whose undercover agent Tania, (Greta Garbo), double crosses
him to save her lover Karl, (Conrad Nagel), of the Austrian Army.
Meanwhile Josef von Sternberg's celebrated DOCKS OF NEW YORK, a seedy waterfront drama has
Gustav billed last as Hymn-Book Harry, a priest from a nearby harbour mission who is
called to a tavern to perform the marriage ceremony between "A Girl", (Betty
Compson), and "The Stoker", (George Bancoft). Amongst the drunken revellers is
the ever flirtatious Olga Baclanova giving only her fourth film appearance since
emigrating to America. The unwholesome scenes of decadence at the tavern filled with
hard-nosed drunken hoodlums and salacious women, all resorting to fisticuffs at the
slightest provocation is met with great disdain by the venerable man-of-the-cloth.
One of Gustav's remaining silent films, von Sternberg's Esther Ralston vehicle THE CASE OF
LENA SMITH (1929), is yet another lost film in which he plays Herr Hofrat. Ralston
portrays a woman who desperately attempts to keep her child fathered by a young Hungarian
officer, only later to watch her boy enlist for the battlefields of the Great War.
The first screen adaptation of S.S. Van Dine's fictional hero Philo Vance appeared in 1929
with THE CANARY MURDER CASE and audiences were able to hear Gustav's deep resonant, almost
rhythmic delivery, for the first time. As Dr. Ambrose Lindquist,Gustav is one of many
people suspected of strangling a goldigging showgirl, (Louise Brooks). The socialite and
amateur detective Philo Vance, (William Powell), is soon on the real culprit's trail.
Originally made silent during the Autumn of 1928, the cast were recalled for sound
retakes. Only Louise Brooks failed to return due to a strained relationship with director
Malcolm St. Clair. Even Paramount's offer of $10,000 failed to entice her and the studio
was forced to substitute her voice with actress Margaret Livingston.
Entering the new decade Gustav was 68 years
old and there would be no more starring roles. He was largely reduced to playing character
parts for the remainder of his career, but he was still a popular choice for these roles.
After a brief stint at Paramount with DANGEROUS PARADISE and THE CASE OF SERGEANT GRISCHA
starring Chester Morris, Gustav landed a substantial part in Roland West's delightful The Bat
Whispers (1930). Gustav is Dr. Venrees, renamed from the original Dr. Wells of the
play presumably to explain Gustav's enunciation. His slow emphatic delivery of such lines
as "Because something is liable to happen...in this house...at any
time" are tinged with a great sense of foreboding and dramatically adds
weight to the film.
A veritable flood of
character parts came Gustav's way with DISHONOURED (1931), SHANGHAI EXPRESS (1932), Rasputin and the Empress (1932) starring the entire
Barrymore family, DOOMED BATTALION (1932), QUEEN CHRISTINA (1933) and THE SILVER CORD
Occasionally Gustav was lured to the smaller studios to appear in some
of the mystery thrillers that were turned out twenty-to-the-dozen from the industry's
assembly lines. For Monogram he appeared in Mystery
Liner (1934) billed as von Kessling in a story based on The Ghost of John
Holling by Edgar Wallace. The cast are an assortment of characters intent on
obtaining the US. Government's new war invention. Monogram's low budget was unable to
deliver more than an adequate thriller, but the company of skilled character actors play
their parts well. Noah Beery, a distinguished actor of long standing takes the lead role
of Captain Hollings with Astrid Allyn as the ship's nurse Lila and Cornelius Keefe as the
hero, Second Officer Cliff Rogers.
Another Monogram offering is an above average
gothic mystery The Moonstone (1934) from
Wilkie Collins' novel of 1868. Gustav is billed third as Septimus von Lucker, a nefarious
moneylender who arrives at Verinder Manor in the dead of night to collect a debt of
£5,000. At the same time Franklin Blake, (David
Manners), returns from his trip in India with his servant Yandoo carrying the precious
Moonstone Diamond, now the property of Anne Verinder. Soon enough the gem goes missing and
Inspector Cuff, (Charles Irwin), begins his interrogations. Von Lucker is not surprisingly
found to be the culprit and the Inspector intercepts Von Lucker's hasty getaway.
The film benefits from a predominantly British cast including Dracula's David Manners, Olaf
Hytten and Elspeth Dudgeon whose chief
notoriety in the horror genre is appearing as Roderick Femm's sister in James Whale's Old Dark House (1932). Gustav appears with a
close-cropped hairdo, and in many of his close-ups he is photographed with a bottom light
to accentuate his bony features.
In 1935 Gustav played a
pivotal role in James Whale's REMEMBER LAST NIGHT? for Universal. This comedy mystery
ranked as one of Whale's personal favourites with a plot that involves a wild party with
the guests waking the next day to find a dead body and not remembering anything about the
night before. Gustav portrays Professor Jones, a hypnotist summoned to help jog the
memories of the potential witnesses. During a seance, the Professor is also murdered by
Gustav can also be seen as the High Priest in RKO's She
(1935), a stylish adventure starring Randolph Scott as a handsome Englishman whose
fascination for the legendary Eternal Flame of Life leads his intrepid expedition to the
mysterious kingdom of Kor ruled by the beautiful Queen Ayesha, (Helen Gahagan), who
although is 500 years old, is kept youthful by the magic flame.
In the years that followed, Gustav
continued to ply his trade in a wealth of assignments for all the major studios. He
appeared with Gary Cooper in MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936), in Twentieth Century Fox's IN
OLD CHICAGO (1937), MGM's extravagant MARIE ANTOINETTE (1938) with his old friend John
Barrymore, for Paramount's KING OF ALCATRAZ (1938) and Warner's JUAREZ (1939) starring
Bette Davis and Paul Muni.
Gustav also appears briefly in Son of Frankenstein
(1939) as one of the council members in the town hall and is only afforded a few lines of
1939 marked the end of Gustav's film career. At the ripe old age of 77 he retired from the
screen. In the intervening years until his death we can only assume his retirement may
have been more of a necessity than of choice. Four years later Gustav was pronounced dead
on Christmas Day, 1943 at his Woodland Hills home in California.
From doctors and generals, to lawyers and
religious leaders, Gustav von Seyffertitz displayed a remarkable talent in his films for
the major and minor studios of Hollywood, but let us not forget his memorable portrayals
of menacing figures which he played with equal aplomb. Gustav's failure to follow in the
lines of his noble family may have been met with family disapproval, but ironically he
would frequently find himself in roles that both honoured his family tradition and provide
us with a measure of his talent.
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