The Hungarian acting legend arrested by the Arrow Cross: Pál Jávor

We remember Pál Jávor, Hungary’s theater and cinema „hearththrob” who was born 120 years ago.

Born in Arad as a love child, Pál was registered under the name of Spannenberg, the maiden name of his mother, a 17-year-old maid. In 1905, his father, a retired railway official in his 50s, married his mother and bestowed his name to Pál as well. From then on, he bore the name Pál Gusztáv Jermann, which he changed to Jávor when he became an actor.

After the death of his father, his mother, widowed with three children, opened a fruit shop to educate her sons. Pali, whom his mother wanted to be a railwayman, started his education in Arad, but instead of school, he preferred to go to the Uránia and Apollo cinemas, where he watched silent films by the Danish Nordisk Film company. During the First World War, he escaped to the front, where he spent nine months delivering mail to the soldiers. At his mother’s request, the gendarmes returned him home. Back in Arad, he started going more and more often to the theater and cinema.

In 1918, he became a journalist intern at the Arad Newspaper, but in 1919 he had himself expelled from Romania to get a free rail ticket from the state. His plan was to go to Denmark to work as a film actor, but the Hungarian authorities removed him from the train at Kőbánya because his ticket was allegedly invalid, leaving him stranded in Budapest without money or any friends. For a long time, he spent the night at either the Nyugati or Keleti railway station.

He was accepted to the National Academy of Drama by Imre Pethes. He received an Egressy scholarship in his first month, but six months later, he was expelled. He then continued his studies at the Actors’ Training School of the National Actors’ Association, and in the evenings he was an extra at the Castle Theatre. He graduated in 1922, and after his summer exams, he was offered a contract by Gyula Csortos at the Renaissance Theatre, which was just being established. On December 7, at the theater’s opening performance, he made his first professional stage appearance as Polly the musical clown in Leonid Andreyev’s play Aki a pofonokat kapja (“He Who Gets Slapped”).

In 1924, he continued his career in the countryside and was engaged by the Vörösmarty Theatre in Székesfehérvár. With Sándor Faragó’s company, he performed in Esztergom, Veszprém and Kaposvár. In May 1927, the National Association of Actors expelled him from its ranks for scandalous behavior, and he lost his right to perform. He joined Imre Miklósy’s theatre company in Kispest, from where Ernő Tarnay, the new director of the Szeged Municipal Theatre, invited him to Szeged. In the spring of 1928, Jenő Faludi, director of the Hungarian Theatre in Budapest, hired him, but he also took roles in the Budapest Operetta Theatre and the Belvárosi Theatre, which performed prose. In July 1930, he was transferred to the Vígszínház, and from 1935 to 1944, he was a member of the National Theater.

Initially, he was successful in romantic hero roles and folk characters: he played Jancsi Kukorica in János vitéz, Feri Noszty in a play based on Mikszáth’s novel, and István Nagy Jr. in Bródy’s play A tanítónő (The Schoolmistress). Later, his dramatic talent was recognized and he was able to use it in modern dramas and Shakespearean roles. His outstanding performances include Doctor Rank in Nora and the title role in Peer Gynt.

He first appeared in front of the camera in 1929 in the silent film Csak egy kislány van a világon (“Only a Little Girl in the World”), which later had sound added. For the next 15 years, he became the leading male star of Hungarian cinema, the resident heartthrob. His success in more than 60 films was due to his good looks and his distinctive, somewhat superficial but elegantly crafted characters. His range of roles was defined by characters that were in keeping with the tastes of the time; he was particularly authentic in his portrayal of genre characters. He appeared in such films as Hyppolit, a lakáj (“Hyppolit the Lackey”), Nem élhetek muzsikaszó nélkül (“I can’t live without music”), Nászút féláron (“Honeymoon at Half Price”), Halálos tavasz (“Deadly Spring”), Uz Bence, Gábor diák (“Gábor the Student”), Dankó Pista and Valamit visz a víz (“Something to Carry the Water”).

Pál Jávor never hid his private or political opinions: The ominous storm clouds approaching from Hitler’s Germany and the growing influence of the Hungarian far right led him to speak out in defense of his fellow actors who were removed from theater for political reasons.

In the early 40s, he also filmed abroad. His Jewish wife was arrested on a film set in Austria, and Jávor was increasingly at odds with the right-wing management of the National Theatre. He never hid his contempt for the Hungarists, and after the Jewish laws came into force, he found jobs here and there for many of his colleagues who were out of work. After the German invasion of Hungary on March 19, 1944, he was banned first from theater and then from the film industry. Then, when the Arrow Cross took over on October 15, he was arrested, sent to the Sopronkőhida military prison and then to Pfarrkirchen in Germany, and only allowed to return home in the summer of 1945.

At the National Theatre, the new director, Tamás Major, did not let him on stage, so Jávor was transferred to the Művész Theatre and the Hungarian Theatre, where he was given a lot of roles. In 1946, he went to America, where he toured the Hungarian communities with Mihály Sárossy Szüle’s company and played small film roles in Hollywood. However, serious success was not achieved, partly due to his lack of language skills, and Jávor returned to Hungary in 1957 after a guest appearance in Israel. He appeared at the Petőfi and Jókai Theatres and the Kamara Varieté, and in 1959, he signed a contract with the National Theatre, but his illness prevented him from appearing on stage.

He died in Budapest on August 14, 1959. Legend has it that, as he often did on the screen and in life, he entertained with gypsy musicians for one last time in the hospital. The play Kék-lila nyár (“Blue and Purple Summer”), about the last months of his life, was premiered at the Szeged Open-Air Festival in 2010, and the feature film Mindszenty – Szeretlek, Faust (“Mindszenty – I Love You, Faust), about the meeting of Bishop József Mindszenty and Pál Jávor in the Sopronkőhida prison in 1944, was also released in 2010. In 2016, the Spinoza Festival hosted the premiere of the musical play about his life, Jávor: a fenegyerek, a színművész és az ember (“Jávor: the daredevil, the actor and the man”).

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