Horror film fans have their movie stars, just like the rest of the film fans around the world... but before there was Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, Robert Englund, Tony Todd, and Kane Hodder, there was Conrad Veidt, one of the most successful silent horror film actors of the era.
Conrad Veidt fought for Germany in World War I, but after surviving a year on the Eastern Front, he was pulled off the line due to illness. Subsequently, he found some early acting experience performing for the troops. After the Army discharged him in 1917, Veidt returned to Berlin to pursue his acting career, which immediately took off. He appeared in four films the year he was discharged. The next year, he appeared in eleven. The year after that, fourteen films.
Veidt broke through to become a horror-film mega-star with his role as somnambulist Cesare in Robert Wiene's masterpiece of silent German expressionist horror, The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari (1920). Veidt quickly found spotlight in numerous films spanning multiple genres. His silent German horror filmography includes the classics The Hands Of Orlac (1924), Waxworks (1924), and The Man Who Cheated Life (1926).
A brief move to the US yielded another silent horror classic starring Veidt, The Man Who Laughs (1928), directed by Paul Leni (who had helmed Waxworks). But an era was ending... silent films were out, sound films were in, and a German actor who spoke little English had difficulty finding work in Hollywood. Before returning to Germany, Veidt almost landed a role that would have made him a household name among horror fans today. Universal Pictures cast Veidt to play Dracula in a film to be directed by Paul Leni. Plans changed, however. In the end, Bela Lugosi would play the titular vampire, and Tod Browning would direct the now-classic Dracula (1931).
After returning home, Veidt appeared in Germany's first sound film, The Country Without Women (aka Bride 68, 1929). Only a few years later came Veidt's final German movie - the sci-fi talkie, F.P.1 Doesn't Answer (1932), in which the silent film star sang a song. The next year, in response to Hitler's rise to power, the actor and his wife fled Germany and relocated to England, where Veidt began studying English.
Veidt's success in British film reached its pinnacle with Michael Powell's classic The Thief Of Bagdad (1940). Shortly after this celebrated fantasy-adventure film, Veidt finally found success in Hollywood. There were many war films being made in the US at the time, and Veidt was often offered work playing Germans. Veidt's best-known US role was as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942). An indication of his status in world cinema at the time is the fact that Veidt, though not the star of the movie, was the highest-paid actor in Casablanca.
Conrad Veidt was 50 years old when he died of a heart attack the year after Casablanca's release. He had appeared in over 100 films, and had been instrumental in shaping the horror genre during its infancy.
For a deeper look into the silent shadows of German expressionism, and the impact Conrad Veidt and his collaborators had on the horror genre, check out "Terror Before The Talkies: Horror Films Of The Silent Era."
Thanks for reading.
- Eric Stanze