Imperfect Molnar is better than none: Celebrating Hungary's most famous 'clever young scoundrel'
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 16 August 2005)

Early in the 20th century, the most sophisticated people in Budapest could tell you that Ferenc Molnar, that clever young scoundrel, was turning his many love affairs into comedies for the stage. Whether true or not, this rumour helped make him king of the Budapest theatre.

Audiences loved to speculate about the secret identity of his characters. As Clara Gyorgyey wrote in her Molnar biography, the gossip-hungry public filled the theatres "to watch the new developments in the playwright's private life."

Molnar (1878-1952) became one of the world's most popular dramatists, but nowadays those who are still fascinated by him must be satisfied with occasional productions. Till late September, the Soulpepper company in Toronto is performing Olympia, a 1928 play about a princess of the Austro-Hungarian empire who loves an unsuitable army officer. He's not only a commoner; he's also (and this is a larger sin, in Austrian eyes) a Hungarian. Olympia isn't the best of Molnar, and the production isn't Soulpepper's best either, but I find imperfect Molnar better than none at all.

When Olympia was an international stage hit, it was also playing a peculiar role in movie history by sinking the reputation of John Gilbert. As the biggest male star of the silents, Gilbert was chosen in 1929 to play the officer in the Hollywood version, titled His Glorious Night and directed by Lionel Barrymore. This became the most famous calamity among early talkies. Audiences who had loved Gilbert in the silents laughed aloud when they discovered that his voice didn't begin to match his image. The picture and his stardom were destroyed, an event Singing in the Rain satirized two decades later.

Olympia pokes fun at the sycophants surrounding the Emperor Franz Josef, but Molnar was no republican. Long after the First World War killed off the Austro-Hungarian empire, he spoke of the imperial age with wistful nostalgia. Of course, the last days of the empire were also the greatest days of Molnar's career.

A doctor's son who studied law but quickly discovered that writing attracted him more, he was a journalist and a published novelist by the age of 23. Soon he developed an unquenchable ambition and an equivalent appetite for work. In one period he wrote a play and a novel each year, a short story each week and a newspaper piece each day.

His 1907 novel, The Paul Street Boys, about a juvenile gang, still lives in the minds of many Hungarians as the most touching book of their childhood. Molnar often wrote in cafes, working from dinner to dawn. He preferred a noisy crowd around him and, if possible, a band playing military music. His home life, always erratic, included three failed marriages.

His third play, The Devil, about Satan trying to get a young wife to betray her husband and embrace her true love, became his first international hit. As Edmund Wilson wrote, Molnar perversely made Satan the advocate of sincere passion and the enemy of polite society's demands. Budapest theatregoers saw it as Molnar's attempt to undermine his current girlfriend's marriage. The Devil played all over Europe and in 1908 four New York productions ran simultaneously --one in German, one in Yiddish, and two in English (one uptown, the other downtown).

Molnar used journalism as the seedbed of his drama and a way to keep his imagination supple. As he said, U.S. reporters go around looking for news, but Hungarian newspapermen of his kind reported "the mind and the soul of our characters," who were always at least partly imaginary.

In one of his newspaper columns, two female servants discussed men, in particular an attractive roughneck, a circus barker. In 1909 this piece became the core of Liliom -- a play that was performed often, in many languages. It was filmed several times, most notably in French by Fritz Lang in 1934, with Charles Boyer as the roughneck. Ingrid Bergman starred in the 1940 revival on Broadway. In 1945, Rodgers and Hammerstein shifted the locale from Hungary to Massachusetts and created a successful musical, Carousel.

Molnar made sure that the money he made in the U.S., from many plays and films, stayed in the U.S., waiting for him. He kept his assets liquid, a practice validated by Europe's tragic history. He sometimes quoted an old saying, "A Jew should never own more property than he can jump quickly over a fence with." He carried that farther than most. For years he lived in what he called a "five-room apartment," permanently renting one luxurious room in five favourite hotels, in Budapest, Vienna, Karlsbad, Venice and Nice. He claimed this put at his disposal a larger staff than any rich man's. In 1940, when he settled permanently in New York, he took up residence in the Plaza.

Toward the end of his life he wrote a memoir, Companion in Exile: Notes for an Autobiography (1950), which turned out to be mainly a paean to Wanda Bartha, his long-time secretary and companion. He made her sound wise, selfless, in fact saintly. Readers assumed she was the one great love of his life, the only human about whom he wrote without irony. In 1947, while also living in the Plaza (but not on the same floor as Molnar), she suddenly died of a heart attack. With that, Molnar wrote, "my one light went out."

Like Dorothy Parker in the U.S., Molnar was often given credit for words others had spoken. He was a quip-attractor, human flypaper to whom stray anecdotes stuck. He and a friend, given complimentary tickets to a new play, discovered early in the first act that it was worthless. Molnar soon got up to leave but his friend said they could hardly walk out when they were guests of the management. Molnar sat down. A few minutes later he rose again. "Now where are you going?" his friend asked. "To buy tickets," Molnar said, "so that we can leave."

He figured that about half of what was written about him was true. Asked how he became a writer, he gave an answer that has been attributed to others but may well have originated with him: "In the same way that a woman becomes a prostitute. First I did it to please myself, then I did it to please my friends, and finally I did it for money."

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