Mischa Auer and Akim Tamiroff — By Way of Russia (1937) 🇺🇸
Mischa Auer and Akim Tamiroff of revolutionary Russia, played hunches to score in Hollywood.
by Ida Zeitlin
“I am a very poor Russian for copy,” said Mischa Auer. “Because I am not a prince, I am not a general, I am not of the Imperial Ballet. I am just a Russian. Talk to Tamiroff. He is of the Moscow Art Theatre.”
“I am not a prince, too,” says Akim Tamiroff, “or a millionaire’s son. True, I am of the Moscow Art Theatre. But I have not adventures. Talk to Auer. Auer, he is the one with adventures.”
So I talked to them both — two men who came out of revolutionary Russia and landed by devious ways in Hollywood. A year ago their names meant little to you. Then Auer did a gorilla act in My Man Godfrey, Tamiroff played The General Who Died at Dawn, and they came into their own.
Auer is long and lanky, and his mournful brown eyes under their heavy lids belie his antic spirit. He will fasten them on you in such grave melancholy, that you brace yourself for some tale of unutterable woe, only to be edified by a piece of information like this: “You see the suit I am wearing? Genuine antique, and the treasure of my life. I keep them hanging in my closet till they ripen, to my wife’s annoyance. One hangs there now which will soon be ready for a beachcomber.”
He wears the genuine antique for Universal’s “100 Men and a Girl.” On the set he pulls his ears to their widest and makes fearful grimaces at Deanna Durbin, as if he were ten and she five. She laughs, too, like a five-year-old — sometimes when she shouldn’t. “It’s Mischa’s fault,” she wails. “He made me.” Mischa’s shoulders rise to his ears, and his outspread palms plead innocence. “Kill me if I said a word.” “You don’t have to say it,” Koster, the director, assures him. “Your face is enough.”
Equally striking in another way are the eyes of the short and stocky Tamiroff. “In the sunshine they are green like a cat’s,” said one of his friends, as they sat in the restaurant of the Moscow Art Theatre. An assistant director overhead, and Tamiroff was tried out and given the part of Cat in Maeterlinck’s “Blue Bird.” “Before that, I got a part with one word — not one line, but one word. In Gorki’s ‘At the Bottom’ I was permitted to say: ‘What?’ ‘What?’ I said, and everybody was sure I had already made a great career. So imagine when I got Cat. This was no more a career, but a miracle.”
The lashes shading those green eyes are the kind girls would give their souls for. “For the General,” he says, “they were cut to the roots three times. I looked like hell. When I came to my house, my wife didn’t want to let me in. ‘The only good thing you have, your eyelashes, and they took it away.’ ‘Don’t cry,’ I told her. ‘For this picture, I will cut not the eyelashes alone, but the finger.’”
Tamiroff’s wife is Tamara Shayne, a Russian actress. Auer married Norma Tillman, an American girl, not of the stage. Their son, Anthony, is three — “with all the earmarks of a ham,” says his loving father. “He already knows how to make exits and entrances and get his effects.” The Tamiroffs have no children. “Only two cocker spaniels,” he apologizes. “Not so nice as children, but still nice.”
A childlike quality characteristic of his race, and evidenced by his frank superstitiousness, makes Tamiroff seem the more purely Russian of the two. Auer is the more sophisticated — perhaps through the Hungarian strain inherited from his grandfather, Leopold Auer, the great violin teacher (who taught most of the present maestros). Perhaps, because he reached America at the age of fifteen and attended an American school. Both men talk fluently and colorfully, with that color so many foreigners seem to bring to an alien tongue. Auer is completely at home in the American idiom, and his accent is faint. Tamiroff’s is marked. Each has a story to tell about his English.
“I learned a little from my governess in St. Petersburg,” says Auer. “But I brought it up to date when I lived with cockneys in barracks. You can imagine the kind of English they taught me — in polite literature it’s spelled with blanks and dashes. When they sent me to school in New York, I was speechless. I knew what I couldn’t say, but not what I could. I finally learned dining room English by the process of leaving out the words I already knew.”
There was a time when Tamiroff felt he must perfect his English. “Because it was so awful, nobody could understand a word I used to say. So I got an idea of saving money, say four or five thousand dollars, and to go to university and learn the English language. So for this purpose I went to Chicago and joined a night club and saved that money. And I lost it on the stock market. You know why? I am a great saver, and I was sitting in the dressing-room and everybody made fun of me. They are making money and I am putting mine in the bank. So I was tempted, and I bought stocks and it was in 1929 and — foof! Then came Ratoff with a play called Candlelight, and he had to go to New York, and he put me in that play to play his part. So I engaged a teacher and tried my best with the English. After the first performance came the manager: ‘We are paying you money for your accent, therefore do not do so with your mouth’. So I thought: What for go to university? If they pay me for my broken English, let it be broken.”
There is a curious analogy between the movie careers of the two men. In picture after picture, Auer played freak heavies and attracted little attention. “I knocked down old ladies and stepped on cats, and I was always killed in the second reel. I was so bad that if I stayed for the third, there would have been nobody left to finish the picture. I would have murdered them all.”
Till Mrs. Eric Hatch suggested to her husband, who was working on “My Man Godfrey,” that Mischa would be good for Carlos. Hatch relayed the idea to Gregory La Cava, the director, and he snapped it up. “We’ll put in the gorilla act,” he said, having more than once watched Mischa slay private audiences with that piece of imbecility. “That’s for crazy people, not for pictures,” Auer protested. “Maybe there are crazy people outside your circle of friends,” La Cava soothed him. “If not, we can always cut it out.” Thus did Auer, the heavy, crash through in one picture by virtue of his comedy gift.
Tamiroff, on the other hand, played comic bits during his period of screen obscurity. When Paramount offered him the part of the General, “I was scared to death to play this part. I thought I am just a regular comedian. I could not even suspect that I had menace or power in myself. And I realized, too, with Milestone, that this part was one step from being a burlesque thing. I was walking just on the sharp edge of the knife. Imagine, for ten minutes, a dying scene. One step, and they would have laughed at me.” But they didn’t laugh. And Tamiroff, the comic, in that subtly sinister portrayal, emerged as a dramatic figure second to none.
It is Auer, the funny guy, whose way to this country led through tragedy. His father, a naval officer, was killed in the Russo-Japanese war the year Mischa was born. During the revolution, he and his mother were with friends in the country, when word came that their apartment had been sealed. This was tantamount to a death order, for the mother at least. They escaped to the south, where Mischa joined the British Army as a messenger boy, and learned “soldiers’ English.” His mother, trained in two wars to Red Cross work, busied herself with nursing. Eventually they were evacuated to Constantinople, where the refugees were herded together under such unspeakable living conditions that a typhus epidemic broke out. An emergency hospital was organized, with Mischa’s mother as head nurse. She caught the disease and died.
Shock drove from the mind of the fifteen-year-old boy all recollection of names and places. He knew that his grandfather lived in America, but that was all he knew. Then he remembered that a close friend of his mother’s had married an Italian lawyer and gone to live in Florence. If he could find her, she would help him find his grandfather. He sold two rings, taken from his dead mother’s hand, and went to Florence.
He knew only the maiden name of his mother’s friend. But in Florence, as in all European cities, a detailed record is kept of everyone who settles there. A city hall official, with a heart above red-tape, led Mischa up into a medieval tower where once upon a time the books of the Medici were kept. Sure enough, they found the lady’s name and then the lady. She welcomed him, cabled his grandfather and, when the time came, saw him off to America.
His grandfather was in the country, and sent an assistant to meet him. This story Auer tells with a kind of baleful glee. “The assistant, being a Russian, missed the boat, and I was sent to Ellis Island. So my first impression of America the goal of freedom after my odyssey, was iron bars and a half hour’s walk every day, under guard of a guy with a gun. It took that dope three days to find me and get me out of hock.”
He was sent to the Ethical Culture School. At one time his family had musical ambitions for him. “But I played for my grandfather, and he said better skip the whole thing. It was okay with me. Imagine how good a musician I’d have to be. If I didn’t play better than Heifetz, which is practically impossible, they’d all yell: Ah, feh!’ Anyway, I wanted to be an actor.
In his room he rigged up a camera, stuck pounds of putty on his face, and took snaps of himself, making appalling grimaces. He wangled an interview with Dudley Digges, remained unimpressed until Mischa pulled out his snapshots. Then “he died laughing — thought it was so cute, you know,” says Auer, leering — and engaged him as an extra for “The Wild Duck.” He raced home to his family with the news. “Holy mackerel! I’m in the profession.”
Eventually a tour with Bertha Kalich, “who taught me damn near everything I know,” brought him to Hollywood. A studio executive invited him to return when the tour was over. The day before he went back, the executive was fired. Mischa went looking for extra work, and finally got a job in a Russian picture. He was fired that night because he wasn’t the Russian type. And so the grind began.
Tamiroff had smoother sailing. As a Moscow Art actor, the revolution touched him more lightly. “Of course we lost the money, but everyone lost his money. Of course we starved, but everyone starved.” He came to America with the company, and decided to stay, because I was young, and another thing — I must confess. I stayed because I fell in love. — Wait a minute,” he cried, “it was not my wife. She will read it and kill me.” Then he broke into, a broad beam. “I was only joking. All the young men fall in love once before they find the right one.”
He joined Balieff’s Chauve Souris, and when that closed, went to the night club in Chicago. With the Candlelight company, he finally reached the coast. “And if somebody told me that time I would be myself in pictures, I would think he is a real nuts.” Back in New York, he got himself a part with the Guild production of Miracle at Verdun, then toured in Al Jolson’s Wonderbar.
“I came here and my wife, who was that time on the stage in New York, sent me three, four letters a day, trying to convince me to stay in Hollywood, saying she had a hunch. I said: ‘I don’t believe your hunch,’ and went back to New York. But my wife, she is a very strong character, and we bought an old Ford and we came here and I stayed nine months without work. Imagine how she felt when I said every day: ‘What’s now about your hunch?’ Finally we decided the apartment is unlucky. Of course I believe such things. You know why? Because we hired another apartment and when we came back for our things, they said: ‘M-G-M phoned you’.” This was brought out with an air of triumphant vindication. Then he eyed me anxiously. “Honest to goodness! If I am lying one word, let the car hit me when I leave the studio.”
One bit led to another at Metro, then to a bit with Gary Cooper, at Paramount. At mention of whose name Tamiroff’s face shone. “Maybe you laugh if I say that Gary Cooper is for me also good luck. But listen. The first time I play with him, Paramount offers me long term contract. That sounds so marvelous to me, to be under contract, but by advice from friends, I say no. The second time I play with him, Paramount signs me. The third time I make a success with the General.
“Now I am that happy man, under contract. Since the General, all is different. A relative of mine writes me from Paris — of course it’s a joke — ‘Before, when they used to ask me, is Mr. Tamiroff your relative, I would answer, yes, very distant. Now I myself say to everybody, have you seen my nephew in the General?’ And another thing is different. Now it is my wife who says to me: ‘Well, what’s about my hunch?’”
Auer got his start imitating a gorilla in My Man Godfrey. A master of disguise, he scored, right, in “We Have Out Moments.”
Tamiroff got off to a flying start when he acted the general who died at dawn. He is a former member of Moscow’s Art Theater.
Tamiroff, a movie menacing man, plays a heavy in Paramount’s “King of the Gamblers”.
Here’s how Mischa Auer would appear if he could be a toreador and get into a bull-ring. Better stick to Russia, keed.
Source: Motion Picture Magazine, September 1937