Nils Asther: “The Male Greta Garbo”

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Today is the birthday of silent screen idol Nils Asther (1897-1981). A Danish-Swede by birth, he first found fame on the silent screen in Scandinavia and Germany before coming to Hollywood in 1927 to make his first film Topsy and Eva with the Duncan Sisters. He was to marry Vivian Duncan in 1930, although the union only lasted two years. Asther’s good looks instantly made him a matinee idol, and he was often called “the male Greta Garbo”, starring in some films that have become classics such as Laugh, Clown, Laugh with Lon Chaney in 1928.

In 1930, like so many other silent screen stars, he undertook a vaudeville tour to prove that he could talk (no doubt he was aided in the enterprise by his wife, a vaudeville vet). Variety declared his act “dull and boring”. Nonetheless his career in talkies continued unabated, although his accent now restricted the range of roles he was able to play. Typical was his part as a Chinese warlord in Frank Capra’s 1933 The Bitter Tea of General Yen with Barbara Stanwyck. He worked in Hollywood until the mid 50s, with one brief interlude in the late 30s when London was his base. In the late 50s, he moved back to Sweden, made a few more films, then retired.

Now here he is as the dashing lover Count Ravelli, in Laugh, Clown, Laugh:

To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.

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And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc

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