Muráti, Lili (1911–2003)

The sharp-tongued actress who fashioned capricious modern female characters found a new home in Spain.

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Teodóra Aurélia Muráti (birth name), Lili Muráti, Lilí Murati, Lily Murati
actress
22 July 1911 Oradea, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy
17 April 2003 Madrid, Spain

Beginnings worthy of a novel

Lili Muráti's fitness training (Színházi Élet, 1936/52)

Right from her childhood, the life of Lili Muráti was surrounded by a romantic aura of remarkable stories. For many years, the precise date of the birth of the actress, born Teodóra Aurélia Muráti, was unclear, thus permitting her to knock off a few years when she spoke in public. After the Oradea city archive was engulfed in flames, even the place of her birth was shrouded in mystery. For example, Muráti herself claimed in several interviews that she was born on a train speeding towards Paris. One thing is certain, however: she travelled a great deal in the early years of her life; until the age of four she lived in Paris, where she and her family were interned following the outbreak of the First World War. They were included in family exchanges during the war, thus they ended up back home, but not before spending some time in Bulgaria where her father was a harbourmaster. Later on, another job meant the family moved to Germany where the girl was enrolled at the Congregation of Jesus boarding school in Simbach. During this period, given her athleticism and adventurous, vigorous nature the girl most desired to be a swimmer.

She started elementary school in Szeged, where she was a very popular performer in school productions. However, she did not shine academically so the family sent her to Marienhöhe to be brought up by nuns. Instead of disciplining her, the nuns enthusiastically reported to the family about the girl’s success in a performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream. This was enough for her parents to allow her to attend the Rákosi Szidi school of acting in Pest. She recalled the initial privations of those years in the capital through rose-tinted spectacles: “The two of us rented a room, which was on the top floor of the house. It was an austere, cavernous room. We transformed this place into an artist’s studio. How? We cut out photos of actors, actresses and naked dancers from newspapers and magazines and we glued them on the walls using acacia honey sent from home. We begged empty Cinzano bottles from the delicatessen on the ground floor and we lined these bottles up along the wall. This is how we wanted to let everybody think that we were two hard drinkers and true bohemians! We never heated the place. There was no money for that.”1

The first breakthrough: Firebird

In 1932, director Artúr Bárdos, back in his homeland from Berlin, noticed the young Muráti at the Rákosi Szidi school of acting. She became an overnight sensation in Lajos Zilahy’s work Tűzmadár (Firebird) with critics praising her performance free of mannerisms and soon after the debut they were comparing her personality and acting to that of Greta Garbo.2 According to theatre historian Tamás Gajdó the actress’s performance was so restrained because in her agitation she avoided all grand gestures and instead played her part with both hands clasped tightly behind her back.3 Soon thereafter, the young actress was on the stage of the Comedy Theatre, but film was to bring her true fame and fortune.

Lili Muráti in the 40s (source: MTI)

In 1935, she started with Béla Gaál’s A csúnya lány (The Homely Girl) as the first significant Hungarian actress of the screwball comedy genre. In this genre, the lovers’ bickering is more an amusing battle in its tension than a tête-à-tête. The actress always shrewdly outsmarts the men and carries the plot forward. Naturally, an essential element of screwball comedy is a happy end, the eventual meeting of man and woman, thereby reinforcing societal expectations of the day.

Another of her films made at the same time, Elnökkisasszony (Miss President, director: Endre Marton, 1935), shows similar genre traits, but whereas in the former she is an employee, here – as the wealthy daughter of a company boss – she chivvies one of her subordinates, whom (naturally) she falls head over heels in love with. In both films she partnered two iconic actors, Gyula Kabos and Pál Jávor. With her vibrant acting, she becomes annoying only to the point where she remains comical, charming and lovable to the audience. Similarly to her stage roles, in these films Muráti is neither “cooing dove nor silky cat”4 but instead a flirtatious and self-assured panther, svelte and elegant, the embodiment of modern woman, now for an entire country.

Although the gossip columns frequently linked her to Pál Jávor, in the end the actress married writer János Vaszary. She thus committed herself to playing at the Andrássy Theatre run by Vaszary, which is identical to today’s Újszínház. Vaszary operated the theatre on a family basis along with his two siblings, writer Gábor Vaszary and comic actress Piri Vaszary. It ranked as one of the most popular private theatres of the age.

Muráti’s string of hits continued in the pre-war period and even into the German occupation. During the war years, comedy tipping into farce proved to be the perfect genre for the actress shaping increasingly unpredictable female characters, whose husband produced a series of parts tailored specifically for his wife. On screen, Muráti – who drove men to distraction – was seen in war dramas by János Vaszary such as Kölcsönadott élet (Lent Life, director: Viktor Bánky, 1943) and Egy nap a világ (One Day Is the World, director: János Vaszary, 1943), which was filmed because of its stage success and with the theatre cast in which Antal Páger and Tivadar Bilicsi were partners of Muráti.

Escape through Europe to Franco’s Spain

As the liberating Soviet troops drew close the couple, who professed right-wing tendencies, were forced to flee Hungary. However, their car broke down on the Esztergom highway so they had to return to Budapest, which was soon occupied by the Soviet army. They were called in for questioning by the dreaded secret police at Andrássy út 60, they then went into hiding in the countryside before being smuggled out to Austria with the help of relatives5. From here they went via Munich to Paris6, where the actress and director were arrested on suspicion of war crimes but since there was no concrete evidence against them they were soon released. Because they were unable to play to the Hungarian audience in France they withdrew to Neuilly and then, via Normandy, they escaped to northern Spain.

Photographer Hedvig Rezsny's studio in 1938. Actress Margit Márkus makes a portrait of Lili Muráti (source: Fortepan / Sándor Bojár)

A whole series of articles and recollections mention the couple’s public statements and intellectual work on the side of the German occupiers7 but the actress denied them all, dismissing them as charges brought out of jealousy. In 1948, Muráti lost her Hungarian citizenship and although she was never formally convicted in a court of law, it cannot be denied that Franco’s Spain became the chosen home of the actress.

On arrival in San Sebastian just over the French border the couple’s luck turned again. To start with, they settled in Zestoa8 with the help of their medical friend, Jose Elosegi Larrañaga, and the actress was given a job as announcer on Spanish National Radio’s (RNE) Hungarian language broadcast.

Shortly after their arrival, they were unexpectedly noticed: “In our first, relatively calm moment, we discovered the Vaszary play Angyalt vettem feleségül (I Married an Angel) on theatre posters. We could only get seats in the upper balcony but during the performance word went round that the Hungarian writer of the play was in the house and the director announced this at the end. We were received most enthusiastically.”9

The actress, who had a remarkable ear for languages, learnt Spanish in record time and in 1948 she was given a part in Barbara at the Madrid Teatro Infanta Isabel Theatre, where she played a French maid speaking with a strong accent.

The audience so loved Muráti’s accent10 that in the next three or four roles she played characters specifically written to speak mangled Spanish11. Not long thereafter she founded her own company in which she worked with other actors such as Ángel de Andrés and Emilio Gutiérrez Caba, typically in musicals and comedies.

She was also given small parts in Spanish films, musicals, romantic dramas and comedies. Among her supporting roles, her character in British director David Lean’s Oscar-winning film Doctor Zhivago (1965) is particularly noteworthy. It is perhaps surprising that the film director decided to choose the heat of Madrid in which to recreate the atmosphere of the snowy Russian steppe, but whatever the reasons it allowed Muráti to appear in the legendary film as a lady clambering onto a moving train.

Despite her modest film successes, the actress always remained in love with the theatre. Until his death, Vaszary wrote new roles for her time and time again, which she performed on tours throughout Spain as well as around South America. On the death of the writer Muráti remarried and as a fan and talented exponent of elite sports, she became the wife of four-time skeet shooting world champion Sándor Dóra.

Szörényi Éva, Muráti Lili és Törőcsik Mari (MTI Fotó)

Home

In 1979, Lili Muráti revisited Hungary. Her visa was authorized by György Aczél thanks to the efforts of Hilda Gobbi.12 After the change of regime, in 1993 she and Zita Szeleczky had their Hungarian citizenship returned but she never came back permanently. Hungarian audiences last saw her on stage in 1994, in the play A nagymama soha (Lost in Yonkers) at Karinthy Theatre, and in 2002 at a gala in Uránia National Film Theatre. On this occasion, the audience could marvel once again at the ethereal, always sharp-tongued yet enchanting Lili Muráti in her final box office hit in Hungary, the comedy Ez történt Budapesten (This Happened in Budapest, director: D. Ákos Hamza, 1944).

IMDb
Hangosfilm

Notes

[1] Muráti Lili arról beszél, hogyan lett színésznő, mennyit küszködött, amíg eljutott a Vígszínház színpadára és mit érez ma. Pesti Napló, 1935. június 25.
[2] Szász Miklós: La nouvelle Greta Garbo Hongroise. Színházi élet, 1932. 28. szám
[3] Promenád. Muráti Lili története.
[4] Ebeczki György: Tűzmadár. Bemutató a Művész-színházban. Uj Idők, 1932. 38. évfolyam, 25. szám
[5] Somody István: Muráti Lili spanyol földön. Képes Magyar Világhíradó, 8. szám, 1977. augusztus 1.
[6] Csiffáry Gabriella: Szétrajzás. Híres magyar emigránsok kézikönyve. Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 2015. p. 182.
[7] Mi történt a hegyeshalmi országúton amikor Muráti Lilinek „összefacsarodott a szíve”? A Reggel, 1947. március 10.; Muráti Lili és Vaszary János kalandos útja a párisi kocsmától Franco Spanyolországába. Világ, 1947. augusztus 22.; Kolozs Jenő: „Vaszary János és Muráti Lili alaposan gyanusíthatók...” Képes Figyelő, 8. szám, 1947. február 22.
[8] Fernando Arzallus: Zestoako hungariar lilia. Danbolin
[9] Csiffáry Gabriella: Szétrajzás. Híres magyar emigránsok kézikönyve. Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 2015. p. 182.
[10] Gregorio Torres Nebrera, Víctor García Ruiz: Historia y antología del teatro español de posguerra. Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos, Vol. 3. 2006. 169.
[11] Interjú Muráti Lilivel, spanyol nyelven: Audios para recordar. Lilí Murati. RTVE play
[12] Benczel Béla: A Muráti Lili sztori. Gobbi Hilda esete Muráti Lilivel. Új Kelet, 1978. augusztus 3. 

Sources

Az alma nem esik messze a fájától. Színházi Magazin, 1944. VII. évfolyam 6. szám, január 26. - február 1.
Benczel Béla: A Muráti Lili sztori. Gobbi Hilda esete Muráti Lilivel. Új Kelet, 1978. augusztus 3.  
Csiffáry Gabriella: Szétrajzás. Híres magyar emigránsok kézikönyve. Budapest: Corvina Kiadó, 2015.
Ebeczki György: Tűzmadár. Bemutató a Művész-színházban. Uj Idők, 1932. 38. évfolyam, 25. szám
Fernando Arzallus: Zestoako hungariar lilia. Danbolin
Gregorio Torres Nebrera, Víctor García Ruiz: Historia y antología del teatro español de posguerra. Madrid: Editorial Fundamentos, Vol. 3. 2006. 169.
Interjú Muráti Lilivel, spanyol nyelven: Audios para recordar. Lilí Murati. RTVE play
Kolozs Jenő: „Vaszary János és Muráti Lili alaposan gyanusíthatók...” Képes Figyelő, 8. szám, 1947. február 22.
Mi történt a hegyeshalmi országúton amikor Muráti Lilinek „összefacsarodott a szíve”? A Reggel, 1947. március 10.
Molnár Gál Péter: Muráti életrajz I. Criticai Lapok, 2011. 2. szám
Muráti Lili és Vaszary János kalandos útja a párisi kocsmától Franco Spanyolországába. Világ, 1947. augusztus 22.
Somody István: Muráti Lili spanyol földön. Képes Magyar Világhíradó, 8. szám, 1977. augusztus 1.
Sztankay Ádám: A filmdíva, akit a szovjetek vallattak, a magyar kommunisták meg elűztek a hazájából

Babos Anna