November 17 happens to be the birthday of Hollywood’s one-time go-to Russian Mischa Auer (Mikhail Semyonovich Unskovsky (1905-1967).
Auer is especially prized for a handful of classic performances he gave during the screwball comedy era, including his Oscar-nominated performance in My Man Godfrey (1936), the role of Kholenkhov in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take it With You (1938), Destry Rides Again (1939), and the 1945 remake of Brewster’s Millions. A few times he got to work with classic comedy teams, such as Wheeler and Woolsey in Cracked Ice (1931), the Little Tough Guys in The Little Tough Guys in Society (1938), Olsen and Johnson in Hellzapoppin (1941), and Abbott ad Costello in Hold That Ghost (1941). Certain great directors loved him. Rene Clair employed him in The Flame of New Orleans (1941), and And Then There Were None (1945). Orson Welles used him in Mr. Arkadin (1955). One is especially startled to realize that he didn’t work with Preston Sturges — the Toto character in The Palm Beach Story definitely seems to be a riff on Auer’s character in My Man Godfrey, Carlo the petulant, spoiled “Protege”. And how appalling that he’s not in Lubitsch’s original Ninotchka (1939), although he is in a later tv movie remake.
Young Mikhail was the maternal grandson of a famous Hungarian-Jewish violinist, Leopold Auer, who took charge of the youth after his parents died. (Mischa’s father, a naval officer, had died in the Russo-Japanese War. His mother, a nurse, died of typhus after she and Mischa had fled to Turkey.). In America, under his grandfather’s supervision, Mischa attended the Ethical Culture School and learned to play several instruments. But he soon gravitated to theatre. He acted with Eva La Gallienne’s company, and with the Thalia Yiddish Theatre under Bertha Kalich. He had two walk-on roles on Broadway in 1925, in The Wild Duck and Morals.
Auer broke into films as sound came in. Some of his early ones include the horror film The Monster Walks (1931), Rasputin and the Empress (1932), The Last of the Mohicans (1932), Viva Villa (1934), The Crusades (1935), The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935) and Maxwell Anderson’s Winterset (1936). In the 1950s, he appeared with great frequency on television. By the 1960s, he had moved to Europe and most of his films were Italian or French. His penultimate film was the British-Italian co-production Arrivederci, Baby (1966) with Tony Curtis, Lionel Jeffries and Zsa Zsa Gabor.