Friday, May 10, 2013

Valda Valkyrien: The Last of the Vikings

Valda Valkyrien

Although she wasn’t born with it, during the height of her fame, the woman once dubbed the most beautiful woman in Denmark was known by just one name: Valkyrien. Her beauty and nobility made her desirable to film companies across the world, but her star fell faster and sooner than many of her contemporaries. What happened to the last of the vikings?

Born September 30, 1895 in Iceland as Adele Eleonore Freed, Valkyrien was always known by the filmgoing public as simply Valkyrien (later, Valda Valkyrien). She, like Theda Bara, had a history that was greatly fabricated and exaggerated. She claimed royal viking lineage and said she entered The Royal Danish Ballet at the age of 13 as a sole source of income for her mother. It was said that within 3 years she had advanced to being a solo danseuse and took a 6-month leave of absence to tour on her own. Film historian John T. Soister has refuted her personal history, saying, “Reports of her participation -- let alone stardom -- in the Royal Danish Ballet were, to quote Mark Twain, ‘greatly exaggerated.’”

A credit she could truly claim, though, was the title Valkyrien. In a nationwide beauty contest, young women competed for the chance to be proclaimed the ideal Dane by the king himself. Valkyrien entered the contest and was dubbed the most beautiful girl of her race -- the Valkyrien Star of 1914. Though the name “Valkyrien” came from the title, she would later claim it as her baptismal maiden name. She had done a number of short films with the European pioneer film company Nordisk in 1912 under the name Adele Frederiksen, but this sudden fame and title brought filmmakers running to her door. It was also around this time that she would become a true member of the nobility, marrying Baron Hrolf von Dewitz, a lieutenant in the Royal Danish Navy.

Valda Valkyrien

Valkyrien made the journey to the U.S. where she was picked up by Centaur films and Vitagraph before settling down with Thanhouser. Her title was certainly a draw, but studios were also quick to snap her up because she offered a different kind of appeal than other actresses. She wasn’t really an ingenue like Mae Marsh or Lillian Gish, and she wasn't really exotic like Theda Bara or Pola Negri. She looked like a Nordic goddess transplanted from the days of Eric the Red into modern times, and savvy filmmakers used her to that end. Thanhouser cast her in two such roles, first in “The Valkyrie” in 1915 and then later in 1916’s “Hidden Valley” where she played the role of the White Goddess and had the chance to dance on film.

Valda Valkyrien

When Valkyrien left Thanhouser and signed a contract with Fox Film in 1916, it seemed to be a match made in heaven. William Fox and his film/publicity machine were responsible for the discovery of Theodosia Goodman and her meteoric rise under the new moniker Theda Bara. Under him, Bara was transformed into an exotic vamp, born under the shadow of the Sphinx and destined to play Salome and Cleopatra. With Fox’s tutelage, the sky seemed to be the limit for Valkyrien.

What looked fantastic on paper, however, didn’t translate to real life. By September, the relationship had soured. The only film she would make under Fox was called “The Unwelcome Mother,” and Valkyrien was very vocal about her distaste for stunts which she was required to do (stunt work was something that most stars were expected to do at least some of the time). Motography quoted her as saying, “If you succeed at it, you do not get any credit for it. If producers want acrobatic effects, they should have acrobats for the scenes requiring them. A veritable actress, who has earned her reputation on histrionic merit, should not be required to do acrobatics, for even if she is successful at it the audiences will gradually drift into the habit of expecting ‘stunts’ from her in place of real acting.”

Valda Valkyrien

The film was released at about the same time, and by late October/early November, she announced that she was taking Fox to court for breach of contract. She accused him of failing to live up to their contract, saying she was supposed to be billed above her co-star Walter Law, and hinted that she may organize her own production company. Though some sources claim that the result of the case has been lost, others assert that Valkyrien simply lost. Even if she did win (as Charlotte Burton did with her suit against Essanay), it didn’t benefit her in the long run.

Valda Valkyrien

Valkyrien had, in fact, announced plans to begin her own production company (Valkyrien Films Inc.) as few months earlier. Like Helen Gardner before her, she held herself to a very high standard and had a very strict view of what kind of films she was going to make. The company was to focus on classic feature plays originating from Greek, Roman and Scandinavian mythology. They were to be of epic quality, measuring as much as 7 reels in length, and were to be filmed without the use of a studio. She claimed that a lack of a studio would mean they could be produced with the least amount of expense and with the greatest amount of artistry. The Baron himself got very involved in the endeavor, taking on production roles left and right. He was praised as being “an expert of the first calibre in the finer points of photoplay construction” and had even taken on the role of consulting technical director for an earlier effort. Although the project was ambitious, it wasn’t achievable. Valkyrien soon found herself back with Thanhouser and other smaller independent production companies with her fame in steady decline.

Scene from The Image Maker
Scene from "The Image Maker"

One of the films she did during this time was hailed by some contemporary critics as her best. “The Image Maker,” released in early 1917, features Valkyrien in dual roles. First as an Egyptian girl of low degree who wins the love of a great noble, then as an incarnation of the girl in modern America. Some critics hailed it as the best of her career, while others shrugged it off saying it was fair but not a draw for audiences.

Her career ended with her being cast in supporting roles. One of her final films was “Huns Within Our Gates.” Produced by the Arrow Film Corporation, the film was almost doomed from the start. It was completed while WWI was still in full swing, but when distributors began selling rights to it, the armistice was signed and theater owners began to shy away. It had to be re-edited and retitled “The Hearts of Men” in an effort to improve American/German relations. Her last film hurrah came in the form of “Bolshevism on Trial,” based on the novel “Comrades” written by the infamous Thomas Dixon (author of “The Clansman” which D.W. Griffith would adapt as “The Birth of a Nation”). As her career came to an end, so did her marriage.

Valda Valkyrien

She retired from the screen and joined up with the Ziegfeld Follies, but only lasted with them for one season. She attempted a comeback in the late ‘20s, but her time in the sun had long since passed. She married for a second time, and retired from public life for good. The last of the vikings, as the fan magazines had proclaimed her 40 years prior, died on October 22, 1956 in L.A.

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