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05 July 2012

Frits van Dongen

Handsome, deep-voiced leading man Frits van Dongen (1901 - 1975) was the first Dutch Hollywood star. He started his film career in the Netherlands, and in the mid-1930’s he became a matinee idol in the German cinema. From 1940 on, he worked in the USA, billed as Philip Dorn. A freak accident caused him to retire in 1955.

Frits van Dongen
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 1639/1, 1937-1938. Photo: Atelier Willott, Berlin.

Frits van Dongen
German postcard by Das Programm von Heute, Berlin. Photo: Tobis / Styria.

Frits van Dongen
German postcard by Das Programm von Heute, Berlin. Photo: Tobis / Majestic.

Frits van Dongen
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 1759/1, 1937-1938. Photo: Godfried de Groot, Amsterdam.

Tempestuous Tropical Romance
Frits van Dongen was born as Hein van der Niet in Scheveningen, The Netherlands, in 1901. he was the son of shoemaker Leendert van der Niet and maid-servant Femia Schijf. At the age of 14, Hein made his amateur stage debut. At 20, he married to Cornelia Twilt whom he had met at the amateur stage company. Seven months later he became a father. He earned his money as a shoemaker but in 1923 he became a professional actor. Under the stage name Frits van Dongen he worked for the well-known Dutch theatre company De Haeghe-spelers from 1926 on. After a second son in 1926, his marriage did not go well. In 1929 he made a tour through the Dutch colonies. Reportedly Van Dongen had several affairs and in 1930 he and his wife divorced. A few months later, during another tour through the West Indies, he met the young actress Marianne van Dam. Two years later they married. In 1921, he had already made his film debut as an extra in the Dutch silent film De zwarte tulp/The Black Tulip (1921, Maurits Binger), but his film career really started with a leading part in the fisher drama Op hoop van zegen/The Good Hope (1934, Alex Benno, Louis Saalborn). This was the third film adaptation of the most famous Dutch stage play, written by Herman Heijermans, and Van Dongen was praised for his natural acting style. Soon more Dutch films followed. Van Dongen starred in the musical Op stap/On the Road (1935, Ernst Winar) starring Fien de la Mar, the comedy De big van het regiment/The Regiment’s Mascot (1936, Max Nosseck, Jan Teunissen), another comedy De Kribbebijter/The Grumbler (1935, Hermann Kosterlitz aka Henry Koster, Ernst Winar) and the tempestuous tropical romance Rubber (1936, Gerard Rutten, Johan de Meester) with Enny Meunier.

Frits van Dongen, Cruys Voorbergh, Matthieu van Eysden, Adolphe Engers, and Johan Kaart
Dutch postcard by Monopole Film NV. Photo: Maarseveen. Still for De Big van het Regiment/The Regiment’s Mascot (1935). Collection: Egbert Barten.

Frits van Dongen, Cruys Voorbergh, Hansje Andriesen, Piet te Nuyl, De Big van het Regiment
Dutch postcard by Monopole Film NV. Photo: Maarseveen. Still for De Big van het Regiment/The Regiment’s Mascot (1935). Collection: Egbert Barten.

Exotic Extravaganza
In 1936 the German film studio Tobis offered Frits van Dongen a contract. He traveled to Berlin, and appeared in Immer wenn ich glücklich bin/Waltz Melodies (1936, Karl Lamac) with Márta Eggerth. The famous director Richard Eichberg gave him the leading part of Maharaja Chandra in the monumental two-part adventure Der Tiger von Eschnapur/The Tiger of Eschnapur - Das Indische Grabmal/The Indian Tomb (1938, Richard Eichberg). This exotic extravaganza would be his breakthrough. The popular matinee idol appeared next in the mystery melodrama Verwehte Spuren/Covered Tracks (1938, Veit Harlan) with Kristina Söderbaum, Der Hampelmann/The Jumping Jack (1938, Karl Heinz Martin) with Hilde Krahl, and the psychological drama Die Reise nach Tilsit/The Trip to Tilsit (1939, Veit Harlan), based on the novel by Hermann Sudermann, which was already filmed in a silent version as Sunrise (1927) by F.W. Murnau. Van Dongen was now top of the bill in Berlin, but he disliked the Nazi regime so much that he decided to leave Germany.

Frits van Dongen
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 1982/2, 1937-1938. Photo: Haenchen / Tobis.

Frits van Dongen
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. A 1290, 1937-1938. Photo: Tobis / Eichberg-Film. Publicity still for Der Tiger von Eschnapur/The Tiger of Eschnapur (1938).

Frits van Dongen
German postcard by the journal Das Programm von Heute, with permission of Ross Verlag. Photo: Tobis. Publicity still for Der Tiger von Eschnapur/The Tiger of Eschnapur (1938).

Frits van Dongen, Kristina Söderbaum
Italian postcard by Pizzi e Pizio, Milano. Photo: Majestic-Tobis / Mander S.A. Noleggio Film. Publicity still for Die Reise nach Tilsit/The Excursion to Tilsit (1939, Veit Harlan).

Continental lovers, Anti-Nazi Germans or Refugees
In 1939, Frits van Dongen moved to America just before World War II broke out. Director Henry Koster had invited him to come to Hollywood and gave him introductions. Between 1940 and 1951 he acted in dozens of MGM productions under the name Philip Dorn. He started with the low-budget anti-nazi film Enemy Agent (1940, Lew Landers). During the war years, 10 of his 15 films were also such propaganda films. He was usually cast as Continental lovers, anti-Nazi Germans or refugees. His notable films include Escape (1940, Mervyn LeRoy) starring Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor, Ziegfeld Girl (1941, Robert Z. Leonard) with Judy Garland, Underground (1941, Vincent Sherman), Tarzan's Secret Treasure (1941, Richard Thorpe) starring Johnny Weissmuller, Random Harvest (1942, Mervyn LeRoy) with Greer Garson, the melodrama Reunion in France (1942, Jules Dassin) opposite Joan Crawford, Blonde Fever (1944, Richard Whorf) with Gloria Grahame, and Passage to Marseille (1944, Michael Curtiz) with Humphrey Bogart. In between films he did tours for the army with the Freedoms War Bond Show. Having long suffered from phlebitis, he had the first of a series of strokescin 1945. Over the next few years he went on to have a heart attack and to require brain surgery. He couldn’t work for a period, but in 1947 he appeared on Broadway in The Big Two at the side of Claire Trevor. He began playing more mature film roles in the late 1940’s, notably as a tyrannical symphony conductor in I've Always Loved You (1946, Frank Borzage) and as Papa in I Remember Mama (1948) with Irene Dunne.

Frits van Dongen
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 231. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Frits van Dongen
British postcard by Picturegoer Series, no. W 63. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer (MGM).

Salto Mortale
When his MGM-contract ended in 1952, Frits van Dongen returned to Europe and acted in German films like the drama Hinter Klostermauern/The Unholy Intruders (1952, Harald Reinl) with Olga Tschechova, the romance Der Träumende Mund/Dreaming Lips (1953, Josef von Baky) starring Maria Schell, and the circus romance Salto Mortale (1953, Victor Tourjansky). He did not succeed in making a really successful come-back in Germany, and in 1954-1955 he appeared opposite former Dutch film star Lily Bouwmeester on the Dutch stages in the comedy play Het Hemelbed (The Four-poster) by Jan de Hartog. When he was visiting his birthtown Scheveningen in 1955, he was the victim of a freak accident. While he walked along a building site, a plank fell on his head. A brain injury eventually ruined his speaking ability; and Van Dongen had to retire. He lived the last two decades of his life confined to his comfortable California home. Frits van Dongen died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, USA, in 1975. He was still married to Marianne van Dam. He had divorced his Jewish wife in 1937 but they remarried in 1939 and would stay together in California till his death. In 2002 a biography was published in the Netherlands: Nederlands eerste Hollywood-ster, Hein van der Niet alias Frits van Dongen alias Philip Dorn (The First Dutch Hollywood Star, Hein van der Niet aka Frits van Dongen aka Philip Dorn), by Hans Toonen.

Frits van Dongen
German postcard by VEB Volkskunstverlag Reichenbach, no. G711. Photo: Komet-Film. Publicity still for Salto mortale (1953).

Frits van Dongen (Philip Dorn)
German postcard by F.J. Rüdel Postkarten-Verlag, Hamburg-Bergedorf. Photo: Venus / Delta / National.

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Henk van Gelder (Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland) (Dutch), Mariska Graveland (De Filmkrant) (Dutch), Wikipedia and IMDb.

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