March 23rd, 2008

carole lombard 07
  • vp19

The "princess" who sort of came across

From the "life kind of imitates art" department:

The above is a screen capture from Carole Lombard's 1936 film "The Princess Comes Across," where she plays a Brooklyn showgirl who hopes for stardom in Hollywood by passing herself off as a Swedish princess and making a transatlantic ocean trip to New York, where she believes the publicity about her arrival will translate into a movie contract; she even speaks in an ersatz Swedish accent reminiscent of Greta Garbo (which Lombard makes quite funny). Eventually a passenger uncovers the ruse.

Two years later, a real-life incident happened involving a Scandinavian actress who, as it turned out, also had ties to Brooklyn. Her chief backer subsequently turned against her, and what looked to be a promising debut never quite panned out. It's a fascinating tale.

The actress was named Sigrid Gurie -- but she was from Norway, not Sweden. And while she hailed from Norway, she hadn't been born there. Rather, she'd been born in Brooklyn (which has long had a substantial Scandinavian population; my late grandmother, originally from Finland, lived in the borough for decades) on May 18, 1911 as Sigrid Guri Haukelid, with a twin brother, Knut Haukelid. Their father was a civil engineer for New York's relatively new subway system. Not long after the twins' birth, the family returned to Norway (their ship was not far from the "Titanic" when it sunk), and Sigrid would be educated there, as well as in Sweden and Belgium.

However, her original interest was not drama, but art. By the mid-thirties, she was studying in Paris when she was spotted at an art show by an agent for American producer Samuel Goldwyn, who signed her and brought her to Hollywood. Here's a picture of Gurie, Goldwyn and another of his discoveries, Vera Zorina, on a ship arriving in America:

Goldwyn, who sought his own equivalent of Garbo as an international meal ticket, promoted Gurie as "the siren of the fjords." He cast her as a princess opposite Gary Cooper; what actress wouldn't dream of that assignment?

There was only one catch: the film was "The Adventures Of Marco Polo" (with Cooper as the title character), and Gurie was to play a Chinese princess, the daughter of Kublai Khan.

While she was ethnically miscast, she went on from there to play Charles Boyer's Algerian mistress in "Algiers" -- and while that film today is better remembered for Hedy Lamarr's presence, Gurie was actually billed ahead of her.

In March 1938, a few weeks before "Marco Polo's" premiere, this ran at the bottom of a Los Angeles Times column:

"After Sigrid had been widely exploited by Sam Goldwyn as a foreign film importation, it was learned she was just an ambitious girl from Brooklyn. Sigrid is to be featured by a national magazine (which turned out to be Life) in a yarn titled 'Flower of Flatbush.' "

Those who remembered "The Princess Comes Across" probably thought this was some sort of similar trick -- but it wasn't. Due to the nature of an 18th-century treaty between Norway and the U.S., Sigrid and her brother both had dual citizenship. And Gurie had lived less than a year in Brooklyn.

Goldwyn, believing he'd been sold a bill of goods, was furious, calling the situation "a great hoax" and effectively withdrawing his support. (It didn't help matters that "The Adventures Of Marco Polo" turned out to be one of his few flops.)

Lombard probably felt some sympathy for Gurie, but she also likely chortled over Goldwyn's misfortune. While Carole was renowned for getting along well with unlikely people in the industry, such as Columbia mogul Harry Cohn, Goldwyn was one of the few in Hollywood she harbored a grudge against.

It probably dated back to 1927, when she was trying to return to motion pictures following her automobile accident the year before. She interviewed with Goldwyn twice; he didn’t notice her scar during the first meeting, but was irate when he found out about the accident before the second interview, and refused to sign her.

Gurie -- who married and divorced three times -- continued to act for a while, her most notable film being "Three Faces West" with John Wayne, but by the late 1940s work was rare. (Her last acting assignment was her only foray into television, in a 1951 episode of "Gruen Guild Playhouse.")

She returned to her first love, art. In 1948-49 she attended the Kann Institute of Art in West Hollywood, studying oils and portraiture. Among her works were landscapes, portraits and pen and ink sketches. In 1961, she moved to the Mexican art colony of San Miguel de Allende, where she both painted and designed jewelry.

In 1969, she was hospitalized in Mexico City for a recurring kidney problem, developed a blood clot that passed through her lungs and died on Aug. 14; she was only 58.

Her twin brother, Knut Haukelid, is a notable figure in his own right. He became a leader of the Norwegian underground during World War II and is given major credit for blocking the Germans from producing and shipping "heavy water," essential to their objective of developing the atomic bomb. His exploits were depicted in the 1965 movie, "The Heroes of Telemark," and he was portrayed by Richard Harris.

When his twin sister died, Knut was hospitalized in Oslo with an embolism, just as he was preparing to fly to Mexico. Because of that, many of Sigrid's belongings, including her artwork, were stolen from her house before he could arrive. (Knut fully recovered and died in 1994.)
  • Current Mood
    surprised surprised