At the age of eighteen, my mother embarked on a movie career in her native city of Antwerp. Until then, she had worked for the gas company and taken some elocution courses, but when a studio was built on the Pyckestraat, at the initiative of a certain Jan Vanderheyden, she walked in the door and was hired.
Before long, a team had formed around Vanderheyden, who always used the same actors and the same crew. He oversaw both production and direction, and he shot his films in record time. The Pyckestraat studio was such a hive of activity that journalists called it “de Antwerpsche Hollywood,” the Hollywood of Antwerp.
My mother was the very young lead actress in four Vanderheyden pictures. He made the first two, This Man Is an Angel and Janssens v. Peeters, over the course of 1939. The next two, Janssens and Peeters Reconciled and Good Luck, Monique, date from 1941. Three of the films are popular comedies, set in Antwerp, and made Vanderheyden—as one critic put it at the time—the “Pagnol of the Schelde.” The fourth, Good Luck, Monique, is a musical.
By then, the Vanderheyden production company had been placed under German control, and my mother was sent for several weeks to Berlin, where she took a small part in Willi Forst’s Bel Ami.
In the year 1939, my mother also signed a contract with Antwerp’s Empire Theater. She was a showgirl. From June through December, they staged an adaptation of No, No, Nanette, and my mother appeared in that. Then, starting in January 1940, she was part of a “current-events” revue entitled Tomorrow Will Be Better. She was at the center of the final tableau. As the other showgirls danced with “Chamberlain” umbrellas, my mother could be seen rising up in a basket, her head wreathed in golden rays. Up, up she went, and the rain stopped, the umbrellas came down. She was the image of the rising sun whose light banished all the shadows of the coming year. From up in her basket, maman waved to the audience, and the orchestra played a medley. The curtain fell. Every time, as a joke, the crew would leave her there in her basket, way up high, in the dark.
She lived on the second floor of a little house near the Quai Van Dyck. One of her windows looked out over the Schelde and the riverside promenade, with the big café at the end. There was the Empire Theater, with the dressing room where she did her makeup every evening. There was the customhouse. There were the streets along the waterfront, the port and the docks. I see her cross the avenue as a streetcar rattles by, its yellow light fizzling out in the fog. Now it is night. The steamers sound their horns.
The wardrobe man at the Empire had grown fond of my mother and offered to serve as her manager. He was a jowly man, with large horn-rimmed glasses and very slow of speech. But by night, at a cabaret in the Greek quarter, frequented by sailors, he sang in a musical number as Madame Butterfly. According to him, the films of Vanderheyden, charming and numerous though they were, could not make an actress’s career. My dear, you must think bigger. And as it happened, he knew a couple of important producers who were about to shoot a film but were still looking for a girl to play the second lead. He took my mother to meet them.
These producers turned out to be a man named Felix Openfeld and his father, known to everyone as Openfeld Senior. A Berlin gem dealer, this Openfeld Senior had retreated to Antwerp when Hitler seized power in Germany and Jewish businesses first came under threat. The son, once head producer at the German movie studio Terra Film, had found work in the United States.
They liked my mother. They didn’t even give her a screen test, they simply asked her to read a scene from the script, right then and there. The movie had an English title, Swimmers and Detectives, and had been written to spec for the young Dutch Olympic swimming champion Willy den Ouden, who wanted to go into film. From what my mother told me, the rather lame detective subplot served as a pretext for various dives and aquatic ballets. My mother was to play the role of Willy den Ouden’s best friend.