Putti, Lya de (1896–1931)

The tragically fated world star was an irresistible force and a modern artist blessed with enormous dramatic expressiveness. She was often referred to as the Hungarian Pola Negri, Adolph Zukor invited her to America but de Dupont, Murnau and Griffith were also keen to work with her.


Amália Putti (birth name), Lya de Putti
10 January 1896, Vojčice, Austro-Hungarian Monarchy
27 November 1931, New York, USA

With the exception of a few aficionados, her name is no longer known in modern-day Hungary. Her homeland has forgotten its once hugely successful daughter, Lia Putti (Putty), yet she is known around the world as Lya de Putti. Foreign fans of silent movies are warm in their appreciation of this film star of the 1920s. The biggest directors of the period, Joe May, Dupont, Murnau and Griffith, were keen to work with her. Her fiery black eyes stare back at us surprisingly frequently at international silent film festivals, on yellowing posters and from old photographs. Film enthusiasts have long been fascinated by her turbulent life and tragic death, and some continue to cultivate the legend to this day.

The rebellious girl

Amália Putti’s mother was the beautiful Countess Hoyos and her father the Italian-born captain of Uhlans, Baron Putti. Of the couple’s four children the youngest, Amália, was born in Vojčice (Vécse), on the family estate close to Košice, on 10 January 1896. Even the nuns could not curb the unruly nature of little ‘Mali’, who was brought up in a convent. While breaking all the rules, the naughty girl was forgiven her transgressions for her role as St. Margaret in the convent’s Christmas play. Her mother’s hope was that an early marriage would change her wilful nature so in 1912 she was married to the wealthy Zoltán Szepessy, who came from a renowned family.

The rebellious-spirited child became a restless young lady whose burning desire for acting and fame could not be extinguished by her comfortable family background or the birth of her two children. From one day to the next, she threw away her advantageous marriage, prosperity and security, for which many other actresses had already turned their backs on their profession, for an uncertain future. 1918 was the golden age of Hungarian silent film production, when more than a hundred films were shot. The talented young woman did not have to wait long before she was contracted by the film studios. Béla Balogh, head director of Astra studio, spotted the attractive dancer of the Royal Orfeum and gave her the leading part in his movie A császár katonái (Soldiers of the Emperor). Screenwriter Richard Falk updated the anti-Austrian, patriotic military drama by Imre Földes in the spirit of the events of the Aster Revolution. Lia Putti performed with such temperament and ability it was as though she had been preparing for the part for months. In the press she was called the Hungarian Pola Negri, and her acting skills and beauty were applauded.

The first real movie expert, Mihály Kertész, was somewhat less enthused: “Good, but she is overweight. She will have to slim down if she wants to be an actress.”

Despite this successful start, still Lia Putti didn’t become a Hungarian star. Post-war events and the unfavourable conditions in Hungary for filmmaking swept her away along with many of her talented colleagues. First she travelled to Oradea, then Bucharest, before she was tempted to go to Berlin. Lia Putti’s star shone bright in the German film firmament, where both before and after her foreign film stars also frequently found their place. For example, German audiences were dazzled by Asta Nielsen from Denmark, Pola Negri from Poland and Elisabeth Bergner from Austria. Berlin was especially popular with Hungarian actresses, many of whom worked in Germany and did well. Before Lia Putti, Ica Lenkeffy, and after her Franciska Gaál and Marika Rökk became world-famous stars on German soil.

Decadent Berlin

Lya de Putti (forrás: NFI)

Berlin, the cosmopolitan city of decadence fleeing post-war problems in favour of excess and the delights of the flesh, welcomed the Hungarian dancer of rare and exotic beauty with open arms. Within just a few days of her arrival, she was rehearsing on the vast stage of the Scala. At the premiere, two and a half thousand people applauded the fiery Hungarian girl for several minutes. During the day she was an extra on film sets, at night she featured at the Scala. This is where Vienna-born Richard Oswald, director and producer famous for his films on the dangers of syphilis, discovered Lia Putti, universally known simply as the ‘beautiful Gypsy girl’. He provided her first break. She played the sweetheart of a tragically fated womanizer (Conrad Veidt) in Die Liebschaften des Hektor Dalmore (1921). Joe May and Mia May also saw her at Scala and picked her for the role of Mirrjha in the 1921 movie Das indische Grabmal 1-2. “You’ll be playing a dancer. It is a difficult role. If you play it well, you’ll be a real actress. If not, I will just cut out the part where you appear and reshoot it using another actress,” Joe May told her as they started shooting. Lia Putti met the expectations of the strict director and this sealed her fate. Suddenly there was a new name on giant posters: Lya de Putti. At the film premiere, she stood alongside Joe May, Mia May and Conrad Veidt to soak up the storm of applause.

Events picked up after that and her career took off. Satisfied with her acting in The Indian Tomb, Joe May gave her the title role in Ilona (1921) directed by Robert Dinesen. At the suggestion of Ica Lenkeffy who was also shooting in Berlin, she was given a part in Othello (1922) playing the wife of Iago. In the course of filming she became friendly with Emil Jannings who was playing Othello. He introduced her to Murnau, who included her in his next two films. She played a leading role in Der Brennende Acker (1922), a grim peasant drama, then she had an exciting dual role in Phantom (1922).

The Hungarian Pola Negri

In 1923, the number one German actress, Pola Negri, contracted with an American film studio. The increasingly popular Lya de Putti went on to fill the gap Negri left behind. She was trialled in a variety of roles. At first, she played shy but determined country girls, mainly as the counterpoint of the devilish, licentious woman, the vamp. Anita Berber, whose private life generated more than one scandal, personified this latter type in German films. Sadly, she soon became addicted to, and died from, drugs and alcohol.

In the era of jazz and the Roaring Twenties, public interest increasingly shifted from the virginal, Victorian naïf to the sinister vamp. In films directed by Robert Dinesen in 1924, Lya de Putti appeared in roles as a devastatingly passionate temptress. She continued this as Jannings’ partner in Varieté shot in 1925. She plays the mysterious, sensual beauty from distant lands who uses all her charms to seduce a family man. In horror, the man finally throws off the beautiful female arm that wraps around him like a snake and rejects the girl. Later he collapses and, unable to resist the temptation, he sneaks off with the girl and they escape to Berlin together, abandoning his wife and child.
The film was also screened in the US where it was critically acclaimed. However, the initial scenes, in which Bertha-Marie seduces Huller, were deemed immoral and cut. The American version starts with the careers of Huller and Bertha-Marie in Berlin.

The success of Varieté in America attracted the interest of producers and soon they were offering Lya de Putti a contract. The proposal from Adolph Zukor was signed in the Paris office of Paramount.

Paramount, Universal, Columbia

Sorrows of Satan (dir: D. W. Griffith, 1926) (forrás: NFI – Filmarchívum)

Thus she, too, travelled across the Atlantic. She received a warm welcome in the Long Island, New York studio of Paramount. Executives of the company showered her with bouquets, she was surrounded by reporters, a limousine ferried her to the hotel and the studio arranged a private secretary and an English teacher for her. On the evening of her arrival, Zukor hosted a dinner in her honour. The hopeful actress did not even suspect that her European and aristocratic features were relentlessly typecasting her already. Her first three American films were shot in New York in 1926. The first, The Sorrows of Satan, was directed by D. W. Griffith. Lya de Putti was happy to work alongside the great director, who taught her a lot and was patient and helpful. She appeared in a vamp role because after Varieté, American producers couldn’t imagine her playing any other part. Indeed, Lya de Putti was able to effectively portray the woman of destiny as she slowly walked with swaying gait down a flight of stairs or entered a room with somnolent face, eyes barely open, yet observing everything. Her glossy black, short-cut hair, gleaming eyes, noble arched nose, tight dresses, ornamentation hanging from her arms like fluttering wings, and her peculiar, provocative, attacking posture made her look like some kind of bird of prey. Although this role suited her, American film almost always dealt harshly with vamps and Lya de Putti found this hard to bear. The Sorrows of Satan was not Lya de Putti’s film but Carol Dempster’s, who played the stalwart woman: she received all the close ups, she cornered all the major scenes.

Lya de Putti was, again, the vamp in The Prince of Tempters (director: Lothar Mendes). Her appearance in this film is even more erotic than in the previous one and her tight-fitting black satin dress became famous; the passionate love scenes were censored in several states. Her third Paramount film, God Gave Me Twenty Cents (director: Herbert Brenon), is a melodrama set in an underworld milieu in which she was once again handed the bad girl role. Enthusiastic reviews of her acting equated it with the Varieté portrayal but this did nothing to alleviate her displeasure that she was always given roles portraying sinful women who died at the end of the film, while the audience’s sympathy was usually with the film’s other heroine. She tore up her contract with Paramount Studio and in 1927 travelled to Hollywood, where she met old acquaintances from Hungary and Germany. Her great hope for her first Hollywood film was that finally, she could break out of the vamp role. In The Heart Thief (director: Nils Olaf Chrisander) based on the stage play Rablólovag written by Lajos Bíró in 1912, she plays the winsome Hungarian girl Anna Galambos with long blonde hair dressed in charming costumes. Although the role was sympathetic, it still did not move her career forward because this mediocre film flopped.

Lya de Putti (forrás: NFI)

At this point, at the advice of Pál Lukács and Mihály Várkonyi, she tried her luck at Universal Studio. She signed a contract for two films but both were a disappointment. She played the dancer in a cheap café in the underworld melodrama Midnight Rose (director: James Young, 1928). In the refreshing, entertaining Buck Privates (director: Melville W. Brown, 1928) she finally had a chance to prove that she could also stand her ground in a comedy role, but because both became insignificant B movies, they didn’t bring the American success she longed for. The failures discouraged her and resulted in her breaking with Universal Studio as well. She didn’t receive an appropriate offer, all that came were more roles as the predatory vamp. To break out of this typecasting, she even underwent a nose operation and after plastic surgery her face became softer and more aethereal.

In an interview with Theatre Magazine in 1928, she revealed that she longed for comedy parts: “I made a fantastic discovery in America, which I would like to share with the future viewers of my films. I was surprised to find that I have in me a comic side, and this astonished the director, too. I hope that you will soon meet a new Lya. One who will never again be the impertinent, evil, obnoxious vampire, nor the sad-faced young woman who bores audiences with her tears in some simple role, in which there is not even a characteristic feature one could find in stockfish. If I manage to make my audience laugh, I won’t cry because of it.”

She probably returned to Germany because she received a part in the comedy Charlott etwas verrückt (director: Adolf E. Licho, 1928), in which she played a modern, capricious, frivolous girl. She was satisfied with her work and the results. Although the movie was only a modest hit, the actress was praised for her characterization. The next offer came from Hollywood. Harry Cohn of Columbia Studio asked her to play the title role in The Scarlet Lady (director: Alan Crosland, 1928), another melodrama, which although it was not to her liking she still accepted since it was the lead. So, she travelled back across the Atlantic. She sold her house in Berlin, hoping that this time she would remain in the United States for good. On arrival, however, things did not go smoothly: her visa had expired, she was refused entry and was then forced to wait in Cuba. Finally, through the intervention of the studio, she could start work. She played a communist (with auburn hair) who falls in love with a persecuted prince. The story is set at the time of the Russian Revolution and was a massive hit. Cohn suggested she sign a long-term contract but Lya de Putti was not prepared to tie herself down, fearing that her career might once again be derailed.

Lya de Putti, the famous Hungarian film actress in her Hollywood home. Magyar Világhíradó 421. March 1932

Dramatic endgame

Once the film had been completed, an old friend of hers, Artur Robison, who was working in London, offered her a major role in his movie The Informer (1929). Lya de Putti felt that this could be a new turning point in her career. She had no idea that her first film in London would be her last ever film. During shooting, the producer decided to record dialogue for the final scenes and make a talkie out of part of the film. Robison did a sound test with Lya. It was not a success. She was incapable of speaking with either an Irish or British accent so another actress dubbed her voice. This unexpected turn frustrated her and she lost confidence. She stayed away from the studio for several days.

Robison’s skill made the film not only an interesting hybrid but also shockingly dramatic, and it features one of Lya de Putti’s most evocative portraits. The film was well received by the critics and audiences amazed by the audio. This positive reception went part of the way to restoring her self-confidence but once shooting finished, she received no further offers in London. Her career was in crisis. As sound film became increasingly prevalent, so her chances declined in English-speaking areas. At the same time, other major European stars, Pola Negri and Emil Jannings, were also forced to return to the Old World.

(forrás: NFI)

Meanwhile, the type she represented also fell out of fashion. In the late 1920s, early 1930s, Brooklyn-born Clara Bow embodied the female ideal of the age with her plucky, unbridled temperament, constant movement and a personality that was always ready to launch into dance. Lya de Putti was fully aware of the cutthroat nature of American filmmaking, which she talked about in an interview for Theatre Magazine in 1928: “America pays handsomely for success but cruelly punishes failure. Here, they never say: if you don’t succeed first time around, try again.” She sensed that amidst the changed circumstances she would get no more chances in American film, and thus if there was no way forward she would have to return to the point she left more than a decade earlier, picking up her life again in a marriage and the security of being a member of society. She returned to New York in order to turn the longstanding relationship she had with wealthy financier Walter Blumenthal into marriage. However, this plan similarly failed due to her rejection by the parents of the banker. In 1930 she made attempts to make her way in stage life. Walter Blumenthal arranged a part for her in the comedy Made in France playing a French girl, but it ran for only five performances.

Lya de Putti became desperate, withdrawn and completely depressed. Since she did not have American citizenship, she was forced to leave the country periodically and then re-enter. This is why in March 1931 she travelled to Berlin, where she personally experienced how quickly audiences forget. The enthusiastic reception she was accustomed to receiving in the German capital did not materialize, she was crushed by her fading reputation and her condition deteriorated alarmingly. Tragedy overtook her in mid-November. In her nervous condition, she swallowed a chicken bone, which stuck in her throat. It was surgically removed but the bone caused an infection and, having contracted pneumonia, she died on 27 November 1931.

Lya de Putti was not only an attractive woman but she was blessed with natural acting talent and dramatic expressive power. She was a modern artist. The young author Andor Váró wrote a novel about her in her lifetime, which was published by Színházi Élet in 1928. In it, he characterized her thus: “She poured her heart and soul into acting... If she had to kiss, she kissed and hugged wildly, with the most sincere, the most unaffected devotion, if she had to cry, her tears flowed, real tears, unstoppable.” (Andor Váró: Lia)

A revised version of an article published in Filmkultúra in 1998.


Balogh Gyöngyi