Max Reinhardt – music, theatre, circus

Max Reinhardt magazine article

Max Reinhardt (1873-1943) was probably too much of a pathological optimist to have viewed as tragic the manner in which his career ended in Hollywood. According to Otto Friedrich’s entertaining and highly informative ‘City of Nets’ – any pretty girl picked up at the ‘soda fountain’ or good-looking farmhand with aspirations of becoming a film star was ‘sent to Max’ for training. The idea that the world’s greatest theatrical wizard would spend his final years teaching semi-literate eye-candy how to deliver lines would have sent anyone less ebullient into a black-dog depression. His school in Hollywood however would become an indispensable part of the industry’s landscape.

An extraordinary exhibition on Max Reinhardt at Vienna’s Theatre Museum a few years ago, was ‘extraordinary’ because it studiously avoided any mention of Reinhardt and music. It even went so far as to present a model of the set for ‘The Enternal Road’ and bill it as a ‘play’ by Franz Werfel, making no mention of Kurt Weill, or the fact that most of this so-called ‘play’ consisted of music; indeed enough so, that many would refer to it as ‘an opera’. In fact, Reinhardt probably did more to develop music and drama in the early 20th century than any other stage director. Though born outside of Vienna, his big breaks came in Berlin with the cabaret ‘Schall und Rauch’ – which translates less literally but more accurately as ‘Wind and Froth’ – in the sense of ‘all-talk-and-no-action’ or perhaps more succinctly as ‘claptrap’. Once let loose, there was no stopping him. Thomas Mann recalled a parody of Schiller’s ‘Don Carlos’ that left him laughing so hard he thought he would stop breathing. Reinhardt moved on to ‘serious theatre’ and was soon running several of Berlin’s most prominent venues. In 1905 he established his own school of acting, which later, against all expectations, would provide him with his meal-ticket in Hollywood exile.

Perhaps Reinhardt’s fusion of theatre and circus was what made him stand out from the others. This was a time when such concepts as the theatrical ‘Revue’ were coming of age. Operettas took on gigantic dimensions and cabaret covered every aspect of stagecraft from something similar to today’s ‘rap-poetry’ improvisations to singing and mime along with political satire and juggling or high-wire antics. He saw more clearly than others how Operetta should divide the spoils of spoken word and music and, in my opinion, paved the way towards a European version of the American musical. An example of this was his recreation with Erich Korngold of Johann Strauss’s ‘Fledermaus’ and Offenbach’s ‘La belle Hélène’ in which many of the operatic roles were replaced with actors. ‘Fledermaus’ obviously captured the American imagination to the extent that it managed a run of 520 nights on Broadway in 1942. His success during his Berlin years allowed him to purchase the Magnushaus, one of the city’s grandest palaces. In the 1920s, he returned to Vienna where he ran the Josephstadt Theatre and created an ensemble that even today makes the mind boggle that so much talent was available under a single roof: Otto Priminger; Wilhelm Dieterle; Tilla Durieux; Egon Friedell; Oskar Homolka; Oskar Karlweis; Peter Lorre; Alexander Moissi; Hans Moser; Max Paulsen; Helene Thimig (his second wife); Paula Wessely and the composer Mischa Spoliansky. In 1920 and together with Richard Strauss, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Alfred Roller (Mahler’s set designer), he founded the Salzburg Festival with Hofmannsthal’s ‘Jedermann’ (‘Everyman’) performed annually to this day.

The relationship with Korngold was especially interesting. Together they would make a fortune and Reinhardt would purchase Schloß Leopoldskron in Salzburg, better known today as the setting for the von Trapp home in the film ‘The Sound of Music’. He also became the much needed father-figure and advisor Erich desperately wanted in place of the embittered and professionally compromised Julius Korngold. It was the intervention of Reinhardt that would save all of the Korngolds, including parents, from Hitler. His invitation to make a film version of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ was under the condition that Korngold be brought over to supply the musical arrangements of Mendelssohn’s incidental music. The film was a visual feast, but a financial flop, leaving local moguls hiding the keys to their safes and clutching their chequebooks close to their chests. Disingenuously, they agreed to follow up ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ with Georg Büchner’s ‘Danton’s Death’ for which Korngold would supple original music. It was not to be. The moguls were determined that ‘Danton’ would never draw breath, let along die at their expense. Reinhardt was seen as a financial black-hole and no amount of prestige could compensate for the losses the studios knew they would face. ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ would be Reinhardt’s only Hollywood film. Korngold on the other hand, went on to become one of the film industry’s biggest musical assets. As an interesting footnote, I stumbled upon a letter from a German studio shortly after the completion of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (around 1935) to one of Reinhardt’s assistants, extolling the virtues of the young Leni Riefenstahl as someone who could take on the synchronisation an adaptation of the film in preparation for distribution in Nazi Germany. The idea of the then unknown Riefenstahl adapting Reinhardt’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’, a project in which the only notable ‘Aryan’ was William Shakespeare, seemed an amusing historic paradox. Needless to say, it didn’t happen. Why it didn’t happen can be left to other scholars to research, but I would speculate that Warner Bros. was the first and most adamant studio to come out against Nazi anti-Semitism. But who knows – maybe the film was seen as such as flop that it wasn’t worth trying to flog abroad. With all of Reinhardt’s wealth and possessions in Austria, he and his wife Helene Thimig had no choice but to return to teaching. As a result, many of America’s prettiest girls and boys learned how to act from a man giving them instruction in a language that was not his own. Whatever it was they offered, it certainly achieved results as Otto Friedrich makes clear in ‘City of Nets’. The moguls’ instruction of ‘send’em to Max’, meant that Reinhardt could keep in work, though finances were obviously fraught. I have a copy of a letter in which Korngold agrees to hand over all of his royalties from his Reinhardt collaborations to Helene Thimig, following Reinhardt’s bizarre death from a dog-bite in 1943. Despite the disappointment of ‘not making it’ – he became an integral part of the film industry. He brought skills to countless untrained amateurs and in many cases, turned them into accomplished artists and finished actors. If Max Reinhardt hadn’t existed, someone would have had to have invented him – and the history of cinema should surely be indebted that he ended up in Hollywood: ‘a failure’ perhaps but actually, not really.