Nils Asther was like his fellow Swede Greta Garbo in may ways - stardom wasn't important to him, although acting in something that satisfied him was. He didn't seek publicity, choosing, instead, to be alone. Unfortunately, he is mainly remembered for two films he made with Garbo - "Wild Orchids" and "The Single Standard," both in 1929 - and it is questionable how well he would be remembered today had he not made those two films. However, Asther was a talented actor, and, without a doubt, those two films, as well as others he made, would not have been the same without his unique contributions.
Asther was born in Hellerup, near Copenhagen, Denmark, January 17, 1897, moving shortly after is birth to Malmoe, Sweden. His parents were Swedish with the last name of Andersson, but his father later changed the name to Asther. His mother was Andersson's second wife, and he had a half-brother from his father's first marriage, Gunnar, with whom he did not get along. Growing up, friends from the stage were frequent visitors to Asther's home which fueled his desire to be a performer. During these years, he was a loner who attended school reluctantly but loved to spend is time reading.
One source said his father owned factories, newspapers and bank stock, and he expected his son to succeed him in the business world or to enter the diplomatic profession." However, in his mid-teens, he decided he wanted to go on stage. When his father said, "No!", Asther left home to pursue his dream, and his father disowned him.
In Copenhagen, one of Sweden's best known actors, Aage Hertel of the Royal Danish Theatre, took him under his wing. One source said after six months in Copenhagen, Asther had to return home to finish school because he was only 15 years old. Another source said he spent the next two (or three?) years acting in films in Copenhagen, Berlin and Paris.
At any rate, in 1916 when he was 19 years of age, went to Stockholm where he met director Mauritz Stiller. He was offered a screen test for a lead in a film but was beat out for the role by Lars Hanson. Stiller felt sorry for Asther, though, and wrote a small part in the film for him. His film debut, then, was in "Vingarna" (1916), coincidentally, as a movie-struck young man. Receiving little work in Sweden, he went to Denmark in 1917 where is made two films. Finally, by this time, he was financially stable enough to go home to Sweden so he could train for his original dream of acting on the stage. He eventually made his stage debut under the direction of Per Lindberg at the Lorensbergsteatern in Gothenburg.
Later, while he was acting at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, he was offered a role in a German film, "Das Geheimnis der Herzogin" (1923). Over the next few years, he acted in German, Swedish and Danish films, but spent most of that time working in Berlin where he became a very popular film star. His fame was not unnoticed in America, and he soon received more than one offer to come to Hollywood. He chose Paramount. However, Joseph Schenck wanted him for United Artists and immediately bought out his contract.
He was frustrated at having to wait so long for a role to come along, but he was eventually cast in "Topsy and Eva" (1927) with the Duncan Sisters (Vivian and Rosetta). A more substantial role followed in "Sorrrel and Son" that same year directed by Herbert Brenon. It was a smash hit.
Asther began 1928 by appearing in the DeMille Pictures production "The Blue Danube" (directed by Paul Sloane), "The Cardboard Lover" with Marion Davies (Cosmopolitan Pictures), "The Cossacks" with John Gilbert (MGM) and "Dream of Love" with Joan Crawford (MGM). It was his next two films, however, that seemed to ensure his future as a true star. He was selected to play the young romantic interest opposite Loretta Young in Lon Chaney's "Laugh, Clown, Laugh" (1928 - MGM), followed by "Loves of an Actress" with Pola Negri for Paramount.
Around this time an article appeared in Photoplay magazine entitled, "Will Nils Asther Retire?" which gives some insight into his dissatisfaction for the American method of filmmaking at the time. Apparently threatening to quit movies so he could "live in the country with his writing and reading," Asther vented his frustrations regarding the pace of making films in American (he did make seven features in 1928 alone). "Work to me is like some people's religion," he was quoted as saying. "It is my god. I forget everything when I am working. Yet, I cannot do my best going in such a hurry from one leading man to another. If a story is interesting - all right. But to become a star or a famous leading man, to have to take every part that they give me - No!"
He went on, "I feel I am wasting my time! Life is too short. There is so much to be accomplished. I would like to play in one big picture - a character part - to show the American people what it is I want to accomplish. I don't care about fan letters, publicity. I would like to play with Von Stroheim. He would have much to teach me."
He had, however, found a perfect home for his talents at MGM, and his final 1928 film was one of his most popular - "Our Dancing Daughters," the second time he was paired with Joan Crawford, and also starring John Mack Brown, Anita Page and Dorothy Sebastian. Although Crawford and Brown are the true leads in the story, Asther has an excellent part as Beatrice's (Sebastian) husband, Norman, who becomes very jealous and angry when she continues her friendship with her wild, partying friends following their marriage.
It was his next film, however, when his true talents came to the fore and he was recognized as a true star. Cast opposite Greta Garbo as the "Wild Orchids," he had a meaty role as the tempting Javenese Prince De Gace. Adapted from a story aptly entitled "Heat" by John Colton, John Sterling (Lewis Stone) is an inattentive husband to his much younger wife, played by Garbo (at one point, she tries to arouse his interest by donning a seductive Balinese costume only to be told, "You look silly, dear--take off all that junk and go to bed.") Asther is forward and brash in his attempts to entice Garbo into an illicit relationship, virtually under the nose of her husband - and, due to her husband's lack of interest, we are never sure if she will succumb or not. Asther's character is at once held in our contempt for his lascivious behavior yet not totally relegated to villain because of her husband's obvious lack of attentiveness. Photoplay said, "Here is a role that will push the young Swedish actor up close to stardom. To it he lends something of the charm and poise of Valentino." The reviewer's comparision to Valentino is on target. Actually, Asther exuded a sophistication that was never associated with Valentino - but then again, Asther would never come close to matching the charisma Valentino had on screen, either.
Asther and Garbo had known each other in Sweden, and finding themselves relatively new to a foreign land obvious spent a great deal of time together, visiting a friend's ranch outside Hollywood where they could relax and ride horses together, climbing, or swimming at Lake Arrowhead. This friendship was especially helpful when Garbo's beloved Swedish director Mauritz Stiller (who had come with her to America) died suddenly during the filming of "Wild Orchids."
"Wild Orchids" was a huge success for MGM, so Asther and Garbo were quickly paired in another feature, "The Single Standard" (1929). In this film, Garbo is unaccepting of the double standard that exists regarding the expected behavior of men and women. When a handsome artist (Asther) comes along and invites her to go with him on a long cruise, she does so, in spite of the scandal she may ignite. However, after cruising around the world for many months, he tires of her and says their relationship must end. Devastated, she goes home and concedes to the unending pleas of the boyish John Mack Brown to marry him. One day, Asther, her true love, returns begging her to come back to him. In a situation similar to that in "Wild Orchids," Garbo must choose between the safe, unexciting life she agreed to when she married, or be swept away by the captivating and impetuous artist to cruise around the world without a care?
Although the interplay between Garbo and Asther is sexy and compelling, the Variety reviewer, obviously a John Gilbert fan, was unimpressed with Asther's performance noting, "Nils Asther, with his black hair and John-like mustache, while doing a good job, does not lend the sailor-artist-boxer role the Gilbertine touch."
Asther, like Garbo, was never taken with being a star, with a fair amount of contempt for Hollywood discernable in interviews. "Like Garbo, I have been given many labels by the newspapers," he said. "'Very nearly as handsome as Valentino' . . . 'the masculine version of that mysterious fascination with Garbo's.' [But] I am tired of being just a screen lover, and I hope some day to get a chance to be myself. I am rather like Greta in that I like to be alone. I love peace and quiet. Hollywood is really no place for me. I stagnate here . . . I only feel awake when the air is fresh and crisp as in my native Scandanavia. I believe it because Garbo is from Sweden that she feels the same."
Although Asther had made two silent films in 1929, this was the watershed year for the industry's transition from silent to sound films. With an accent that would limit his acting opportunities in the new medium, Asther returned to Germany where he made "The Wrath of the Seas" (1929). However, the next year he was back at MGM for his first foray into the new medium of talkies, not as a leading man, but as an unlucky rival for the affections of a Caribbean beauty (Raquel Torres of "White Shadows of the South Seas" - 1929 - fame). Asther's character in "The Sea Bat" (1930) is killed by the rival and thus began his career in sound films. It was also in 1930 that the married Vivian Duncan of the Duncan Sisters, who costarred with in his first American film. The couple had a daughter, Evelyn, in 1931, but the marriage only lasted two years ending in divorce in 1932.
He disappeared from the screen for two years, but landed a good part in "But the Flesh is Weak" in 1932 with star Robert Montgomery. Not one of the top-billed players, Asther's career this marked the beginning of another path for the rest of his film career - not one of a star, but an actor with sufficient roles over the years to keep him busy and financially stable.
One exception to the secondary roles he was being given came in 1933. It became his most memorable performance in a sound film - the title character in "The Bitter Tea of General Yen." Barbara Stanwyck is the top-billed star who, as American missionary Megan Davis, goes to Shanghai during the Chinese Civil War. When she is separated from her fiancé and hurt, it is General Yen who saves her. The General grows fond of Megan, and when he is about to execute his mistress, Mah-Li, for betrayal of classified information, Megan successfully intervenes. Once again, as in "Wild Orchids," the temptation of our heroine to give in to the advances of the so-called "villain" is ever present, yet she keeps her virtue intact. However, when his empire is lost and his death imminent, Megan stays by his side. The film was the opening program for Radio City Music Hall when it opened January 11, 1933. Asther received praise for his portrayal, and the film went on to be named one of the 10 best pictures of 1933.
Asther was offered a film deal in England in 1934. Planning to appear in one film and return, he ended up staying for five films during a five and a half year sojourn. He returned to Hollywood and continued to find work in less-than-big-budget films such as "The Man Who Lost Himself" (1941) with Brian Aherne and Kay Francis, "Dr. Kildare's Wedding Day" (1941) with Lew Ayres (who had also starred with Greta Garbo in her last silent "The Kiss" - 1929), "Sweater Girl" (1942) with Eddie Bracken and June Priesser, "Night Monster" (1942) with Bela Lugosi, "Bluebeard" (1944) with John Carradine and Jean Parker, "Son of Lassie" (1945) with Peter Lawford, and even an uncredited part in Cecil B. DeMille's "Samson and Delilah" (1949) with Hedy Lamarr and Victor Mature. His last American film was "That Man From Tangier" (1950). From that point on, he began to find work in TV and in theatre. His long-time desire to be on the stage was realized once again in 1953 when he made his Broadway debut in "The Strong Are Lonely playing "a blunt, swashbuckling Dutch trader." Unfortunately, it only lasted for seven performances.
In 1958, he went back to Sweden and made some films and appeared on the Swedish stage in 1961. His last film was made in Denmark in 1963, entitled "Gudrun" (American title: "Suddenly, A Woman!"). Asther remained in Sweden for the rest of his life, never marrying again after his divorce from Duncan in 1933. He spent much of his time becoming an accomplished artists with several exhibitions to his credit. On Oct. 13, 1981, he died at a hospital outside Stockholm, Sweden.
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