Born March 2, 1892 in East Prussia, Germany, which is now part of Russia, Felix Bressart made his stage debut in 1914 and his film debut in 1928. The Jewish character actor was forced to leave his home country in 1933 but continued to make German language films in Austria until he emigrated to the U.S. in 1936.
Welcomed with open arms by the German artist colony in Hollywood, Bressart began his American film career as Deanna Durbin’s music teacher in 1939’s Three Smart Girls Grow Up. He scored a big hit that same year as one of the Russian commissars in Ninotchka. He was immediately typecast, his stock-in-trade being disheveled academics, wistful European philosophers, scientists and music professors of diverse ethnicity, his roles often consisting of equal parts pathos and comedy. With his lanky frame, big nose, toothbrush moustache and horn-rimmed glasses, the shy, reserved, often physically clumsy actor struck audiences as a cross between Groucho Marx and Albert Einstein. Signed to an MGM contract, he quickly became one of the screen’s most popular character actors. He also had a sideline as a non-medical practitioner with a busy practice in Beverly Hills.
Bressart’s subsequent films, whether made at MGM or on loan-out to other studios, were all major productions. Among them were Swanee River, The Shop Around the Corner, It All Came True, Edison, the Man, Third Finger, Left Hand, Escape, Bitter Sweet, Comrade X, Ziegfeld Girl, Blossoms in the Dust, Kathleen, Mr. & Mrs. North, To Be or Not to Be, Crossroads, Above Suspicion, Song of Russia, The Seventh Cross, Greenwich Village, Without Love, A Song Is Born and Portrait of Jennie.
Unlike his fellow character actor emigres Albert Basserman (Foreign Correspondent) and Michael Chekhov (Spellbound) who also made impressions in Hollywood films at this time, Bressart never received an Oscar nomination for any of his much cherished performances. He did, however, help bring attention to four performers who did receive nominations for their work in films in which they shared screen time. They were Greta Garbo in Ninotchka, Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust and Spencer Tracy in The Seventh Cross.
In 1949 Bressart was cast in My Friend Irma, the film version of the popular radio comedy in which he was to play the part originated by Hans Conried on radio. He began the film but suddenly died of leukemia. Producers had no choice but to replace him with Conried. Conried’s voice is heard throughout the film, but Bressart can still be seen in the role in long shots.
Felix Bressart died March 7, 1949, five days after his 57th birthday.
NINOTCHKA, directed by Ernst Lubitsch (1939)
Written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and advertised with the slogan, “Garbo laughs”, this still potent Lubitsch comedy is among the best-loved comedies ever made, easily one of the ten greatest films of what is generally regarded as Hollywood’s greatest year. Even non-fans of Greta Garbo could love her as the stern Soviet emissary whose heart is melted by white Russian Melvyn Douglas in Paris. Lending superb support are Ina Claire as a deposed countess and Sig Ruman, Felix Bressart and Alexander Granach as the three comrades she is there to oversee. Bressart is particularly memorable in the role that launched his Hollywood career.
THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER, directed by Ernst Lubitsch (1940)
Another much loved Lubitsch comedy, this one is from an old Hungarian play about two gift shop employees who loathe each other in the workplace but unbeknownst to one another are each other’s secret pen pal. Margaret Sullavan and James Stewart are incandescent as the lovers as are Frank Morgan as their boss, Joseph Schildkraut as the villain, Felix Bressart as Stewart’s friend and adviser, Sara Haden as another woman in the shop and William Tracy the eager trainee. This perennial has been remade as In the Good Old Summertime, You’ve Got Mail and Broadway’s She Loves Me.
IT ALL CAME TRUE, directed by Lewis Seiler (1940)
This boarding house comedy is a neglected gem that too few people know about. Ann Sheridan and Jeffrey Lynn have the starring roles as a nightclub singer and piano player who move into the boarding house run by their mothers (Una O’Connor and Jessie Busley) where Lynn is forced to hide gangster Humphrey Bogart on the lam from killing a cop with Lynn’s gun. Felix Bressart and ZaSu Pitts steal the film as two of the most eccentric boarders. Bressart is The Great Baldini, a second-rate magician who does magic tricks aided by Fanto the Wonder Dog. Pitts is a woman who imagines men chasing her everywhere.
BLOSSOMS IN THE DUST, directed by Mervyn LeRoy (1941)
This somewhat fictionalized biography of children’s advocate Edna Gladney (1896-1961) was the first pairing of frequent co-stars Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon and a huge box-office success. Felix Bressart was third billed as a kindly doctor friend of the couple. Garson’s selfless character was compared to Spencer Tracy’s Father Flanagan in Boys Town. It earned her the second of her seven Oscar nominations, her first in a lead role. Her speech to the Texas state legislature is a highlight as are all her scenes with Pidgeon, Bressart and Marsha Hunt as her tragic adopted sister.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE, directed by Ernst Lubitsch (1942)
Carole Lombard, in her last role, Jack Benny and Robert Stack are wonderful in this classic comedy, but even more memorable are character actors Sig Ruman as “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” and Felix Bressart as “Greenberg”. Bressart, who is fourth billed, gives a moving recitation of Shakespeare’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” line from The Merchant of Venice. It’s the most moving scene in the otherwise hilarious send-up of the Nazi occupation of Warsaw. This was Lombard’s last film, released posthumously less than two months after her death in a plane crash while returning from selling war bonds.
FELIX BRESSART AND OSCAR
- No nominations, no wins