EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the May 9, 2005, issue of National Review, in Mark Steyn’s regular “Happy Warrior” spot.
I always like those ‘tween-wars novels set in Europe with a lot of dodgy characters of many nationalities all rubbing up against each other: Romanians, Frenchmen, Hungarians, Germans, Poles–and, of course, Jews. Sometimes they’re hurtling across international frontiers–Graham Greene’s Stamboul Train–so you’d expect the dramatis personae to be of many lands. But pick up an early Maigret and even in a parochial police procedural you’ll find mysterious Turks and Greeks turning up.
Don’t read novels? Rent a movie. Look at how many Hollywood A-list stars of the Golden Age were foreigners: Claudette Colbert, Maurice Chevalier, Marlene Dietrich, Paul Henreid, Greta Garbo, Bela Lugosi, Hedy Lamarr, Ingrid Bergman . . . And so many of the second rank, the great characters who make the silliest formulaic filler of the day so watchable: Conrad Veidt, S. Z. Sakall, Peter Lorre, Akim Tamiroff . . . And I haven’t even mentioned the Brits–Ronald Colman, David Niven, Cary Grant, Sir C. Aubrey Smith, etc.
Where are the Hollywood foreigners today? Oh sure, there’s still a couple of imports from the British Empire here and there: Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron. But every time they land a big movie role the first thing they have to do is submerge their accents. They’re never allowed to be as deliciously foreign as Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon. Alan Jay Lerner, who wrote the script and lyrics for Gigi, once told me about the first run-through of “Thank Heaven For Little Girls.” At the end, a worried Maurice Chevalier turned to Lerner for reassurance: “How was I?”
“Perfect,” said Alan, looking at it from the songwriter’s point of view. “I could understand every word.”
“No, no,” said Chevalier. “Did I sound French enough?” . . .