By Ed Garea
Ever watch a movie and spot someone whom you saw a million times in movies but whose name just won’t come to mind? And you scratch your head hoping that something will come, but it never does? This column begins a new series that will focus on those actors that you see countless times, but just can’t remember the name. They are supporting actors (or in some cases, character actors) that play the little roles that can often make or break a film depending on which actors are cast and how they are cast. Some of them you will have seen in about 100 movies; some you will remember from only a few films, but they stuck in your mind nevertheless. Some have gone on to bigger and better roles, while other languished in the “Bs.” Others began in A-list movies, but because of changing fan and studio tastes, made their way down to starring in B-movies. These columns feature a bio along with some of their more memorable movies.
One of those familiar, but forgotten faces of the ‘40s was that of Kaaren Verne. Born Ingeborg Catherine Marie Rose Klinkerfuss in Berlin, Germany, on April 6, 1918, she began her acting career on the stage as a member of the Berlin State Theatre.
A fervent anti-Nazi, she fled Germany in 1938 and went to England, where she began her film career with the 1940 drama Ten Days in Paris. From there, it was on to Hollywood, where, with the outbreak of war, Nazi refugees were a hot item. Warner Brothers wanted to change her name to Catherine Young, but Kaaren balked and the only thing she changed was the dropping of the extra ‘a’ in her first name.
Her first American film was MGM’s 1940 Nick Carter programmer, Sky Murder. She played a German refugee suspected of sabotage and was third billed behind Walter Pidgeon (Nick Carter) and Donald Meek. This was followed by an uncredited role in MGM’s 1941 comedy, The Wild Man of Borneo, starring Frank Morgan as a lovable con man. She moved to Warners and made Underground (1941) for director Vincent Sherman. It was a film that saw her give an excellent performance as a violinist that secretly belonged to the German underground. The film also allowed her a reunion with fellow actor and anti-Nazi, Martin Kosleck, who had starred with her on the Berlin stage.
She followed Underground with All Through the Night (1941), where she played a cabaret singer whose father was being held in a German concentration camp and was forced to help the Nazis. It was there that she met her second husband, Peter Lorre, whom she married in 1945 after her divorce from musician Arthur Young. She also had a meaty role opposite Robert Cummings in King’s Row, and a featured role as scientist William Post Jr.’s girlfriend in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon for Universal.
But then the roles dried up. Apart from The Seventh Cross there was little of note. The rest of her career was spent in television, though she had some small, yet good, roles in films like Ship of Fools and Madame X. Her marriage to Lorre ended in divorce in 1950, though they remained close over the years following. After Lorre’s death in 1964, Kaaren and third husband, film historian James Powers, adopted Lorre’s daughter, Catherine. She died suddenly on Dec. 23, 1967, at the age of 49 of a heart ailment. Following are two of her better efforts.
UNDERGROUND (WB, 1941): This is an unpretentious little “B” about life in Nazi Germany shortly after the war has gotten underway. The Franken family is happy, as younger son Kurt (Warners “B” stalwart Jeffrey Lynn) is on his way home from the front. So what if he’s lost most of his left arm from a war wound? So what if his nickname used to be “Lefty”? It doesn’t matter, he’s home.
What does matter, however, is that brother Eric (Philip Dorn) is working with the Underground. And not only working, he’s The Voice heard over pirate radio condemning the Fuehrer and his happy gang. This particularly irks SS Colonel Heller (veteran Naughty Nazi Martin Kosleck), who would just love to get his hands on the group.
The tension in the film comes from the fact that while Kurt has come home disabled he is still a staunch supporter of the Reich. Kaaren Verne is a violinist at a café with who both bothers are in love. She is also a member of the Underground and is arrested and tortured by the Gestapo. This movie pulls out all the stops, actually approaching the line where suspense stops and Grand Guignol begins: Vile, nasty Nazis in spiffy splendor, sadism, torture, whips, dungeons, betrayal, sabotage, the righteous rants by the old professor . . . you can find it all here.
The casting and tight direction makes it work and director Vincent Sherman doesn’t allow it to drift over to the realm of camp. There’s even some humor: Fraulein Gessner (Mona Maris, who gives the movie’s best performance), Heller’s secretary, mentions to one of Heller’s thugs early in the film that she heard a rumor that Goebbels and Goehring each have 5 million marks in a foreign bank account. Near the end of the film, Heller later repeats the rumor to Gessner; only the amount has risen to 10 million marks each. Nice touch.
Memorable Quote: Fraulein Gessner (after listening to one of Col. Heller’s aides brag about a gruesome new torture he’s invented and then complaining that Himmler will take the credit): Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get a promotion.
THE SEVENTH CROSS (MGM, 1944): It’s 1936 in Nazi Germany. Seven men, including Spencer Tracy, escape from a concentration camp. The commandant orders seven crosses to be built on the prison grounds. Each time a fugitive is captured he is put to death on the cross. Only one prisoner is left: Guess Who?
The film then concerns itself with Tracy’s flight to freedom in nearby Holland and those who help him on his journey, most notably the German (real-life) couple of Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy (in outstanding performances) who help Tracy despite their fear. They get him in touch with members of the Underground who get Tracy to Holland.
The underlying theme is all this is the restoration of Tracy’s faith in the goodness of human nature, despite the trappings we find ourselves in. All though it’s not completely overbearing, it’s in there enough to let us in the audience know we are watching “An Important Movie.” Kaaren Verne is Leni, the love of Tracy’s life, who promised to wait for him, but now that he’s out and about, wants nothing to do with him.