Anton Walbrook (1896 - 1967)
Stage and film actor. Born in Vienna, he was the son of Adolph Waohlbruck, a famous clown. Walbrook abandoned a successful stage career in Germany because of the Nazi regime and settled in England as a refugee (1936). He helped many of his countrymen to escape from Europe. His first London stage production was Design for Living (1939), and the last Call Me Madam (1948); films included Sixty Glorious Years and La Ronde. From 1960 until his death he lived at 69 Frognal. His grave includes the ashes of his devoted secretary for 23 years, Eugene Edwards, who died in 1970.
Anton Walbrook was born in Vienna, Austria on the 19th of November 1896. His given name was Adolf Wilhelm Anton Wohlbrück and his father was a famous clown. He told an interviewer that “When my father was a little boy – five years old – his parents died….One day a circus with all its tents and bands and animals passed through the town where my father was living and he ran away from home and joined the circus, and that’s how he became a famous clown.”
Anton was brought up in a show-business environment and he could trace his ancestry back through several generations of performers to his great-great-grandfather, who was also an actor. So it is not surprising that he wanted to become an actor. He left school at fifteen to go on the stage and made his first film when he was fifteen.
His acting career was interrupted by the First World War. He was taken prisoner in France and in the prisoner-of-war camp he organized a drama group which gave performances and poetry recitals to fellow prisoners.
After the war he resumed his successful career in Germany. In the 1930s he starred in a film that was bought by an American company, and he was invited to go to Hollywood in 1936 to redub his role in the English language version. He changed his name to Anton Walbrook and learned English for the film, and this may literally have saved his life
After the film was finished he had to decide whether to go back to Germany or not. Anti-Semitism was spreading through Germany and his home country of Austria. His mother Gisela Rosa Cohn was Jewish, so he was classified as half-Jewish. This meant that he could have been persecuted because of his Jewish connections. He therefore decided that, although he had a successful career in Germany, he could not go back there. He became an exile. Although he had work he was still a refugee because, for many years, he had no national status.
He didn’t like Hollywood so he moved to London and bought a house in Hampstead. Because he was very good looking and had a German accent he was in great demand for films that required an actor who could speak English but “sounded foreign”. For example he twice starred in films as Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband.
He was aware of the plight of many of his Jewish countrymen and did what he could to help Jews trying to flee to England. As soon as he could he set aside part of his earnings to assist less fortunate Jewish performers, and to help them and their families to escape from Nazi Germany.
In 1947, Walbrook became a naturalised British citizen. He carried on acting in England, France and also in Germany. He suffered a heart attack while in a play in Germany and died there on 9 August 1967. He had instructed that he be buried in Hampstead, near his home at 69 Frognal.
Grock, the “king of clowns”, was a student of Anton Walbrook’s father. According to Wikipedia, in the first half of the 20th century Grock was “the most highly paid entertainer in the world.”
Hampstead was the centre of efforts to help artists trying to leave Central Europe. The Artists’ Refugee Committee and the Free German League of Culture were both founded in the home of Fred and Diana Uhlman at 47 Downshire Hill.
One of the most famous refugees who came to Hampstead in June 1938 was Sigmund Freud and his daughter Anna. You can visit their home at 20 Maresfield Gardens.
You may know other Jewish people who were refugees from Germany in the 1930’s and who settled in North London. They include the parents of the present Labour party leader, Ed Miliband.
Judith Kerr, the children’s author, also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’ which gives a child’s perspective on the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930’s and the experience of being a refugee: https://www.booktrust.org.uk/book/w/when-hitler-stole-pink-rabbit/
There is an interview with her in which she talks about her childhood at: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/an-interview-with-judith-kerr
Interview with Aton Walbrook: http://www.powell-pressburger.org/Reviews/Anton/Picturegoer.html
Oxford National Dictionary of Biography
YouTube has numerous clips of films in which Anton Walbrook appeared. In this monologue from The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), he portrays a German refugee fleeing to England to escape the Nazi regime: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hcZ6fnRLDLU
YouTube also has numerous links to moving stories of people who took part in the Kindertransport.
This page was last updated on November 26th, 2020.