Wednesday 13 August 2014

The New Dietrich: Sari Maritza and Lauren Bacall Tribute

Touted by Paramount Pictures in 1932 at the “New Dietrich”, Sari Maritza was as beautiful, exotic and captivating as her acting counterpart but without the dedication and longevity. Maritza was a Paramount acquisition groomed and educated like no other with the company’s executives waiting months before committing her to a picture. However, this highly anticipated and talented actress only appeared in pictures for four years, retiring to engross herself in her many and sadly short-lived marriages. Like so many Hollywood hopefuls, despite talent, good-looks and the backing of a large production company, Maritza’s acting abilities were never fully realized.
 Born Dora Patricia Detering-Nathan, on March 17, 1910 in Tientsin, China, Maritza’s early life – according to early media reports – was something out of a fairytale. The daughter of a mining company owner and British Army Major, Walter Nathan, and an Austrian noblewoman, she reportedly lived in a medieval castle surrounded a moat. Similar to most wealthy foreign girls born in China, Maritza was educated at a number of elite boarding schools in England, Germany, Austria and Switzerland. This upbringing gave her brains as well as deportment with the actress reportedly able to speak at least four languages. After graduating, newspapers commented, “she suddenly decided after loafing at European spas for several years at the expense of her wealthy parents, that she’d like to go onto the stage.” While in England, Maritza caught the attention of theatrical manager, Vivyan Gaye, who stated, “here was a gal with a future.”
Accordingly, Maritza and Gaye decided to change her name to suit her exotic, European appearance. The pair resolved on Sari Maritza (pronounced SHA-ree MAR-ee-tsa) a combination of two popular Viennese musical comedies Sari and Countess Maritza. However instead of beginning on the stage as Gaye instructed, Maritza chose to utilize her almost perfect English diction on the new medium of talking pictures. Her first screen credits were unexceptional playing secondary roles in three low budget British films, Bed and Breakfast (1930), Greek Street (1930) and No Lady (1931) with Lupino Lane.
Chaplin with Maritza (far right) and Vivyan Gaye (second from left)
Her breakout into the American popular conscious occurred the same year while filming UK/ Germany film Monte Carlo Madness (1932) in Berlin. Maritza met legendary actor and filmmaker, Charlie Chaplin, during his world tour promoting the film City Lights (1931). He apparently became infatuated with the actress and appeared at a number of prominent society events and parities together. The couple made headlines at the opening of the film at the London premiere when Chaplin walked in with Maritza on his arm and famously danced the tango during the night. The media went wild assuming she would become his leading lady in his next two pictures. Although, this never occurred the publicity spring-boarded Maritza into the eyes of Hollywood studio bosses and later that year signed a contract with Paramount studios.
Paramount spent months perfecting Maritza’s acting style and publicity machine before starring her in her first picture. The company originally planned for their star to appear in The Girl in the Headlines, which was to be directed by George Cukor but never eventuated. Her first film for Paramount became the Forgotten Commandments (1932) a sort of accompanying piece to Cecil B. DeMille’s silent epic The Ten Commandments (1923). The final cut even included mostly recycled or left-over footage from DeMille’s film. The movie had mixed reviews; however, Maritza was received well with The New York Times reviewer stating she did a “competent performance.”

Maritza completed only six more films before her early retirement. Most were second rate properties that Paramount’s more popular star, Marlene Dietrich, turned down. Although she had a short career, Maritza worked with several first-rate and legendary actors. She appeared opposite W.C. Fields in wacky, slapstick comedy International House (1932), Eric von Strohiem in World War I drama Crimson Romance (1934) and The Right to Romance alongside Ann Harding and Nils Aster. The low budget Crimson Romance would prove the last on screen role for Maritza who believed that she couldn’t act and was sick of the façade producers made her enact.
In 1934, she shocked Hollywood by eloping Phoenix, Arizona with MGM producer, Sam Katz. They divorced ten years later with Maritza claiming Katz called her “stupid” and “left her alone while he took evenings out.” Sometime later she remarried, George Clother, an economics student in Washington DC. Maritza stayed mostly out of the public eye until her death in July, 1987. During the resurrection of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the prevalence of film historians and preservers, rumours appeared claiming Maritza and, her friend and long term roommate, were secret lesbians. This was probably due to the friendship Maritza shared with actors Cary Grant and Randolph Scott, also thought to be in a homosexual relationship. The rumours claim the foursome would act as beards for each other at public events. Newspaper reports from 1934 – before Maritza’s retirement – even assert Maritza and Scott had a secret engagement and marriage when they were seen holidaying alone together. These reports are most likely false as Gaye was married to director, Ernest Lubitsch, from 1935 to 1944 as well as Maritza’s two known marriages.  
Maritza was never featured in newspapers nor appeared at Hollywood functions again. She died in July 1987 aged 77 at her home in the US Virgin Islands. She was another example in a long line of Hollywood starlets that never reached their screen or stardom potential. Although Maritza believed she had no acting talent, like many other actors of the studio era it was probably the pressure to live a glorified and false existence that ruined her chances at a long term career. Her beauty was otherworldly and voice, crisp and elegant; however, because of her relatively small body of work she will not be remembered today.          
Lauren Bacall Tribute
Before I finish for the day I have to acknowledge the recent death of actress, legend and overall great lady, Lauren Bacall. On film and in life she was a gem and someone I will always look up to as the pinnacle of charm, grace and talent. Every interview I have seen of her, she is engaging, funny and revealing. She will be sadly missed and I encourage everyone to check out her autobiography By Myself, which I found a wonderful read both for film lovers and novices and will always be close by me wherever I go. R.I.P Betty/ Lauren.  


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