Handsome, deep-voiced leading man Frits van Dongen (1901 – 1975) was the first Dutch Hollywood star. He started his film career in the Netherlands, and in the mid-1930’s he became a matinee idol in the German cinema. From 1940 on, he worked in Hollywood, billed as Philip Dorn. A tragic stage accident caused him to retire in 1955.
Frits van Dongen was born as Hein van der Niet in Scheveningen, The Netherlands, in 1901. he was the son of shoemaker Leendert van der Niet and maid-servant Femia Schijf. Hein made his amateur stage debut at age 14. He studied at the Acadamey for art and architecture in The Hague. He became a professional actor though. Under the stage name of Frits van Dongen he worked for the renown Dutch theatre company ‘De Haeghe-spelers’ from 1923 on. From 1929 he made a tour through the Dutch colonies. In 1921, he had made his film debut as an extra in the Dutch silent film De zwarte tulp/The Black Tulip (1921, Maurits Binger), but in 1934 he really started his film career with a leading part in the fisher drama Op hoop van zegen (1934, Alex Benno, Louis Saalborn). This was the third film adaptation of the most famous Dutch stage play, written by Herman Heijermans, and Van Dongen was noted for his natural acting style. Soon more Dutch films followed. Frits starred in the musical Op stap/On the Road (1935, Ernst Winar), the comedy De big van het regiment/The Regiment’s Mascot (1936, Max Nosseck, Jan Teunissen), another comedy De Kribbebijter/The Grumbler (1935, Hermann Kosterlitz aka Henry Koster, Ernst Winar) and the tempestuous tropical romance Rubber (1936, Gerard Rutten, Johan de Meester). In 1936 the German film studio Tobis offered him a contract and Frits traveled to Berlin. There he appeared in Immer wenn ich glücklich bin/Waltz Melodies (1936, Karl Lamac) with Marta Eggerth. The famous director Richard Eichberg gave him the leading part of Maharaja Chandra in the monumental two-part adventure Der Tiger von Eschnapur/The Tiger of Eschnapur – Das Indische Grabmal/The Indian Tomb (1938, Richard Eichberg). This exotic extravaganza would be his breakthrough. The popular matinee idol appeared in the mystery melodrama Verwehte Spuren/Covered Tracks (1938, Veit Harlan) with Kristina Söderbaum, Der Hampelmann/The Jumping Jack (1938, Karl Heinz Martin) with Hilde Krahl, and the psychological drama Die Reise nach Tilsit/The Trip to Tilsit (1939, Veit Harlan), based on the novel by Hermann Sudermann, which was earlier filmed as Sunrise by F.W. Murnau. Van Dongen was now top of the bill, but he disliked the Nazi regime so much that he decided to leave Germany.
In 1939, Frits van Dongen moved to America just before World War II broke out. Director Henry Koster had invited him to come to Hollywood and gave him introductions. Between 1940 and 1951 he acted in dozens of MGM productions under the name Philip Dorn. He started with the low-budget anti-nazi film Enemy Agent (1940, Lew Landers). During the war years, 10 of his 15 films were such propaganda films. He was usually cast as Continental lovers, anti-Nazi Germans or refugees. His notable films include Escape (1940, Mervyn LeRoy) starring Norma Shearer and Robert Taylor, Ziegfeld Girl (1941, Robert Z. Leonard) with Judy Garland, Underground (1941, Vincent Sherman), Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (1941, Richard Thorpe) starring Johnny Weissmuller, Random Harvest (1942, Mervyn LeRoy) with Greer Garson, the melodrama Reunion in France (1942, Jules Dassin) opposite Joan Crawford, Blonde Fever (1944, Richard Whorf) with Gloria Grahame, and Passage to Marseille (1944, Michael Curtiz) with Humphrey Bogart. In between films he did tours with the Freedoms War Bond Show for the army. Having long suffered from phlebitis, in 1945 he had the first of a series of strokes; and over the next few years he went on to have a heart attack and to require brain surgery. He couldn’t work for a period, but in 1947 he appeared on Broadway in The Big Two at the side of Claire Trevor. He began playing more mature film roles in the late 1940’s, notably as a tyrannical symphony conductor in I’ve Always Loved You (1946, Frank Borzage) and as Papa in I Remember Mama (1948) with Irene Dunne.
When his MGM contract ended in 1952, Frits van Dongen returned to Europe and acted in German films like the drama Hinter Klostermauern/The Unholy Intruders (1952, Harald Reinl) with Olga Tschechowa, the romance Der Träumende Mund/Dreaming Lips (1953, Josef von Baky) starring Maria Schell, and the circus romance Salto Mortale (1953, Victor Tourjansky). He did not succeed in making a really successful come-back in Germany, and in 1954-1955 he appeared opposite former Dutch film star Lily Bouwmeester on the Dutch stages in the comedy play Het Hemelbed (The Four-poster) by Jan de Hartog. When he was visiting his birthtown Scheveningen in 1955, he was the victim of a freak accident. While he walked along a building site, a plank fell on his head. A brain injury eventually ruined his speaking ability; and Van Dongen had to retire. He lived the last two decades of his life confined to his comfortable California home. Frits van Dongen died of a heart attack in Los Angeles, USA, in 1975. He was married twice and had several affairs. In 1921 he married Cornelia Twilt with whom he had two children. They divorced in 1930. Three years later, he married the Dutch actress Marianne van Dam. He divorced his Jewish wife in 1937 but they remarried in 1939 and would stay together till his death.
Sources: Hal Erickson (All Movie Guide), Thomas Staedeli (Cyranos), Henk van Gelder (Biografisch Woordenboek van Nederland), Mariska Gravreland (De Filmkrant), Wikipedia and IMDb.
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