Birthday: July 15, 1893
Died At Age: 79
Sun Sign: Cancer
Also Known As: Wilhelm Dieterle
Born in: Ludwigshafen, German Empire
Famous as: Actor, Director
Spouse/Ex-: Charlotte Hagenbruch
father: Jacob Dieterle
mother: Berthe Dieterle
Died on: December 9, 1972
place of death: Ottobrunn, West Germany
Who was William Dieterle?
William Dieterle was a German actor and film director with an extensive Hollywood career over the course of which he directed films like ‘The Life of Emile Zola,’ ‘The Story of Louis Pasteur’ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame.’ Born into a large poverty stricken family in Ludwigshafen, German Empire, he had a difficult childhood as his family struggled to make ends meet. He began doing odd jobs while in his teens and dreamed of a better future for himself. As a young man, he found his way into the local theaters and easily found romantic roles owing to his good-looks and talents. Highly skilled and ambitious, he found considerable success on the stage and soon became a member of Max Reinhardt’s stage company. He ventured into the fast developing German film industry as well and appeared in several films before taking up direction. While he was quite successful as an actor it was direction that gave him the maximum creative fulfillment. The 1930s marked a politically turbulent period in Germany and Dieterle moved to the United States to begin his Hollywood career. Over the years he gained much fame for his biography films, the first of which was with The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936).
Childhood & Early Life
He was born Wilhelm Dieterle in Ludwigshafen, German Empire, on July 15, 1893, as the youngest of nine children to Jacob and Berthe (Doerr) Dieterle. The family lived in poverty and he was forced to find work as a teenager.
He worked as a carpenter and scrap dealer for some time. But this kind of a life did not appeal to the ambitious youngster who wished to make it big in life. Interested in acting from a young age, he joined a traveling theater company as a handy-man, scene shifter and apprentice actor.
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Good-looking, ambitious and talented, he soon rose through the ranks to become a leading romantic actor in theater productions. His fortunes changed for the better in 1919 when he came to the notice of the prominent theater director and producer Max Reinhardt who hired him as an actor for his production.
He worked in Reinhardt’s company until 1924. By the early 1920s he had also ventured into the fast developing film industry and soon gained a reputation as a talented character actor with his portrayal of village simpletons.
His acting career led to an interest in direction as well and he made his first film ‘Der Mensch am Wege’ (1923), based on a Leo Tolstoy short story, starring a young Marlene Dietrich. His film career thrived over the next few years with notable German films like ‘Das Wachsfigurenkabinett’ (Waxworks) (1924) and F. W. Murnau's ‘Faust’ (1926).
His life underwent a sea change in the politically turbulent Europe of the 1930s. With political instability and violence growing in Germany, Dieterle moved to the United States with his wife.
Already a well-known name in the international film industry, he did not face many challenges in beginning his Hollywood career. However, the initial films he made were not successful at the box office. Some of his films from this era are ‘Her Majesty, Love’ (1932), ‘Jewel Robbery’ (1932), ‘Adorable’ (1933), and ‘Fog Over Frisco’ (1934).
William Dieterle harbored sympathy for fellow Germans who had escaped from their home country and migrated to the United States. He helped these people in finding jobs in Hollywood—a fact that would have a negative impact on his later career in the 1950s.
His career finally received a boost in 1935 when he co-directed the romance fantasy film ‘A Midsummer Night's Dream’ with his old mentor Max Reinhardt. The movie, starring Ian Hunter, James Cagney, Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland, Joe E. Brown, Dick Powell, and Victor Jory was a hit and established Dieterle as a reputed Hollywood director.
In the coming years he formed a highly productive collaboration with actor Paul Muni who he first directed in ‘The Story of Louis Pasteur’ (1936), a biopic about the scientist who discovered the principles of vaccination. The duo worked together in two other highly successful biopics as well: ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ (1937) and ‘Juarez’ (1939).
His career flourished throughout the 1940s with films like ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster’ (1941), ‘Tennessee Johnson’ (1942), ‘Kismet’ (1944), and ‘Love Letters’ (1945). His 1948 movie ‘Portrait of Jennie,’ though not a success at the time of his release is today considered a classic in the fantasy genre.
His career suffered during the 1950s during the McCarthy era when thousands of Americans were accused of being communists or communist sympathizers and became the subject of aggressive investigations. Even though Dieterle was not blacklisted, his career declined considerably. He moved back to Europe and made a few films in Germany and Italy before retiring in 1965.
William Dieterle is best known for his biographical films, the most acclaimed of which is ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ the story of the French author Emile Zola, played by Paul Muni. It was a both a critical and a commercial success at the time of its release and in 2000 it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Awards & Achievements
His film ‘The Life of Emile Zola’ won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1937. Dieterle was nominated for the Best Director award but lost to Leo McCarey, director of ‘The Awful Truth.’
Personal Life & Legacy
In 1921, William Dieterle married Charlotte Hagenbruch, an actress and later screenwriter. They were married for almost five decades at the time of Charlotte’s death in 1968.
He died on December 9, 1972, at the age of 79.