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Zita Johann

by Susan King 

Nobody put Zita Johann in a corner. Especially not Hollywood. She was a Broadway baby who even turned down the chance to star in the 1929 silent/talkie version of “Show Boat” to appear on the Great White Way in the 1928 drama “Machinal,” which also featured a very young Clark Gable. 

She also marched to the beat of her own drum. Johann was a self-proclaimed mystic who believed in reincarnation. Johann even declared she could levitate. Instead of doing publicity, she would escape the madding crowd at her Malibu home where she would play the violin, read books and paint. She would later say about Hollywood: “The moguls created stars and sold them to the public; the way a grocer sold a 39-cent can of tomatoes to his shoppers. 

Johann’s star barely had a chance to shine. She was only in La La Land from 1931-34 making just seven movies before she returned to Broadway.  But she’s remembered more than a lot of other actresses from the era mainly for her starring role in the 1932 Universal Horror classic, “The Mummy,” starring Boris Karloff in the title role — he was billed as "Karloff the Uncanny" — with David Manners. One could say that Johann plays the Mummy’s dearest. 

Directed by cinematographer Karl Freund — he is best known these days as the cinematographer of “I Love Lucy — “the creepy thriller finds Karloff as Egyptian priest Im-Ho-Tep who had been buried alive as punishment for attempting to revive his dead love, Anck-es-en-Amon. When archaeologists centuries later revive him, the Mummy, now known as Ardath Bey, tries to find the reincarnation of his lost love. He believes he has found her when he’s introduced to a half-Egyptian woman named Helen Grosvenor (Johann). And he will stop at nothing to make her immortal.

With her black hair, big dark eyes and a voice filled with gravitas, Johann was perfectly cast as Helen.  Her acting style was different than most of actresses of the time such as Jean Harlow, Claudette Colbert, Fay Wray and Loretta Young. There wasn’t much joy in her characters. She was somber and serious, rarely cracking a smile or a laugh. Her husky deep voice brought at solemness to her dialogue. 

The petite actress didn’t want to do “The Mummy” but, according to, another film she was set to do at Universal fell through. She agreed to do ‘The Mummy” because she wanted to fulfill her obligation to the studio. And making the movie wasn’t a pleasant experience for her because of her problems with Freund. notes that she would later complain “that Freund made her the scapegoat anytime he had problems on the set and even tried to get to pose naked for him.” 

Born July 14, 1904 in what was then Austria-Hungary, Johann emigrated with her family to New York when she was seven. She began acting in high school and made her Broadway debut as “First Woman Prisoner” in 1924’s “Man and the Masses.” She once described her unique approach to acting, “To me, the theater was related to the spirit. Before every performance I sat alone in my dressing room, said my prayers, died unto myself and became my character.” noted that she gave “such performances of burning intensity” she was given the nickname of "White Flame of the American Theater."

Talk about method acting!

Johann survived her film debut in D.W. Griffith’s final film, 1931’s “The Struggle,” inspired by his battle with alcoholism. Despite being a critical and commercial disaster, Johann managed to bring a warmth and believability to her role as the long-suffering wife of an alcoholic. 

She ruffled features at major studios. According to “She was a strong woman in Hollywood and once phoned up a major studio executive to ask why he made such rubbish.” 

Johann found herself at the Poverty Row Majestic Pictures to make the pre-code 1933 melodrama, “The Sin of Nora Moran.” Critics were not impressed. The New York Times warned audiences basically to stay away: ‘’The Sin of Nora Moran’ is a bewildering mass of scenes.”

However, the film has become a cult classic over the decades especially since the late Film Detective’s restoration. And in April, “Nora” will be screened at the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood. Johann is heartbreaking as a young woman awaiting execution for a murder she didn’t commit. The film, noted, may be a familiar melodrama “but the nonlinear structure is so unique and the tone so bizarre that the film feels bold and unique. While most of the abandoned women stories are tragedies ‘The Sin of Nora Moran’ is undoubtedly one of the darkest. This is due to Nora’s hard-luck life in which she is orphaned twice, raped and imprisoned. But the dream-like scenes that seem to reflect the character’s inner turmoil add to a mood of despair and desperation…”

The same year she made “Nora Moran,” her first marriage to John Houseman, who became a theater producer working with Orson Welles, film producer and eventually Oscar-winning actor (“The Paper Chase”), ended. She would marry two more times. And as soon as she left Hollywood, she returned to the stage though none of the productions were hits. Her last Broadway outing was in 1942 She kept busy during World War II, raising money for war-related charities and even organizing shows for U.S. soldiers on their way to service overseas. 

From 1939 on, she lived in a pre-Revolutionary War house in West Nyack, New York. Johann worked with children with learning disorders and taught private acting lessons. 

In 1962, she directed a production of “Don Juan in Hell” at the Elmwood Playhouse in Nyack, New York. And in 1986 she briefly came out of retirement to play a librarian in the turkey “Raiders of the Living Dead,” which wasn’t shown theatrically in the U.S until a special screening at a Pennsylvania in 2017.

Johann died of pneumonia in 1993 at the age of 89.


Susan King was a film/TV/theater writer at the Los Angeles Times for 26 years specializing in Classic Hollywood.


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