The third film written by Josef Skružný and his nephew Elmar Klos to star Vlasta Burian, An Old Gangster’s Molls (Milenky starého kriminálníka, 1927) is built around two of Czechoslovakia’s biggest stars. Nicknamed the Czech King of Comedy, Burian was a cabaret favourite making his fourth screen appearance opposite his even more famous costar, Anny Ondráková, a.k.a. Anny Ondra, who’d been making movie audiences laugh since 1920’s The Lady with the Small Foot (Dáma s malou nožkou, Přemysl Pražský and Jan S. Kolár). 

Just like the first two films1 that Skružný and Klos had written for Burian, An Old Gangster’s Molls was directed by Svatopluk Inneman and shot by cameraman Otto Heller, one of the Czechoslovakian silent-era’s so-called “Strong Four”, also comprising Ondra, her frequent collaborator director-actor Karel Lamač, and scriptwriter Vaclav Wasserman, foundational pillars of the country’s industry – a foundation that rests, like much national cinema, on comedy. An Old Gangster’s Molls, made at Lamač’s Kavalírka studio, provides both Ondra and Burian with plenty of opportunities to show off what made them so popular with audiences. 

It begins at a jazzy costume ball decked out Expressionist style, with a bewigged Count Pardona (Jan W. Speerger) instantly smitten with a young beauty (Věra Hlavatá), who is spirited away, identity unknown. What follows is not a love story, however, but farce. The love-struck Pardona returns from his magical evening to practical matters – he inherited a title not a fortune – and learns a business arrangement also means he’s stuck with an arranged marriage. In order to put the kibosh on the wedding but not on the deal, he asks his uncle to pose as the potential groom in his stead. Enter Vlasta Burian playing Cyril in a nose-tickling-moustache as fake as the Tramp’s and who bends back like a bow trying to negotiate the chateau stairs despite the aid of two canes. Surely he’s sufficiently decrepit to repel the would-be bride, leaving Pardona to pursue his Cinderella, free of blame? Except the would-be bride has an agenda of her own. 

Enter Anny Ondra as the thoroughly modern Fifi, a thrill seeker who views the world and everything in it as her plaything. She drives like a maniac, works out with a speedball, puffs a stogie like a captain of industry, and requires a platoon of maids for her toilette. In her introductory sequence Ondra does her best Ossi Oswalda in what is essentially a riff on the bathing scene in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (Die Austernprinzessin, 1919), with its line of servants in matching uniforms preparing the cigar-smoking heiress for her day. The similarities are no coincidence. According to film archivist Briana Čechová, Ondra was briefly billed as “Ossia Valdová” earlier in her career.2 Brazenly high maintenance and possessing a male sense of entitlement, Fifi is hardly wife material, an opinion her parents do not hesitate to express. Their scepticism goads her into proving them wrong and she decides to reel in the (contractually) baited man.

At the chateau where our principals meet, Cyril tries as hard to convince Fifi he’s unfit to marry as she is determined to go through with it. Out of ideas, he blurts out that he’s Prague’s most wanted man, the gangster of the title, a ruse which instantly backfires when Fifi insists on a demonstration of an authentic Apache dance. Complications pile up when the Cinderella eventually shows up. She’s actually Olinka and is chaperoned by her mother who happens to be Cyril’s ex, a battle-axe named Štefanie (Betty Kysilková) that he abandoned years ago with child. Now to avoid the clutches of family Cyril doubles-down on his criminal identity, delivering a fictional accounting of his crimes – all murders of past sweethearts – in a series of flashbacks. In the meantime Fifi’s elaborate toilette scene gets a payoff when she insists it be performed by the chateau’s lone butler.

A briskly paced pastiche of absurd twists and turns carried along by its compelling leads, the film is a calling card for the versatility of cinematographer Otto Heller: the reckless-driving stunts, tantalizing documentary-style glimpses of Prague’s city streets, and the sun-dappled forest glade where Pardona and Olinka hideout like Lysander and Hermia in a fairy-enchanted wood. One split-screen shows Burian’s face as two halves, each side with its own twitchy reaction to his ex’s arrival. Other whimsical effects punctuate the comedy along the way, like the cartoon lightning bolts that shoot from Štefanie’s eyes when she recognizes the fraudulent count as her estranged husband or Burian’s slow-mo prison-wall jump during one of his fantasy flashbacks. 

The exaggerated pantomime combined with these playful effects remind us just how closely comedy, like its popular cousin horror, was linked to the avant-garde, which often embraced the grotesque and low-brow to make art, or statements. Consider the stylized acting of German Expressionists and in the experimental narratives of French director Marcel L’Herbier and Jaque Catelain (in particular 1924’s La Galerie des Monstres, set in a circus); the “movement not dogma” ethos of director Les Kurbas who made the Ukrainian film factory’s first comedies; and the Bolshevik-born Factory of the Eccentric Actor, which gleefully rejected high art, professing, for instance, a preference for “Charlie’s arse to Eleanora Duse’s hand.”3 An Old Gangster’s Molls, reconstructed in 2008 by the Czech National Archive (Národní filmový archiv) – with some remaining gaps – and restored with original tints in 2014, attests to these cross pollinations, here played solely for laughs. 

This was Burian’s last silent. Having achieved fame in Prague’s cabarets like so many others in Czechoslovakian cinema, Burian didn’t return to the screen until 1930 when he took the lead in Karel Lamač’s musical comedy C. a k. ploní Marsálek (Imperial and Royal Field Marshal). His talents better suited to the microphone, he thrived in the new medium, even throughout the Nazi occupation – a collaboration for which he was punished (some might say too harshly, others not harshly enough, considering the fates of others who resisted). 

Most principals associated with An Old Gangster’s Molls made successful transitions to sound, though with varying degrees of longevity. Svatopluk Inneman continued to direct, and with the rise of the Nazis, claimed German citizenship. Even still his credits end in 1937 when he was barely middle-aged, and he died just after the war in an internment camp. His once close collaborator, cinematographer Otto Heller, fled the Nazis to photograph his way into British cinema history, behind the camera for The Ladykillers (Alexander Mackendrick, 1955), Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1960), The Ipcress File (Sidney Furie, 1965), and Alfie (Lewis Gilbert, 1966). Scriptwriter Josef Skružný, also a journalist and novelist, named his villa after his biggest screen success, Venoušek a Stázička (Venoušek and Stázička, Čeněk Šlégl), made in the fateful year of 1939 when his credits end. His nephew, Elmar Klos, had a long, fruitful postwar collaboration with Ján Kadár, co-writing then co-directing domestic box-office favourites. They garnered international acclaim with their harrowing homefront drama, The Shop on Main Street (Obchod na korze, 1966). 

Anny Ondra made more silents in Germany and Austria, famously catching the attention of Hitchcock who cast her in two of his titles in 1929, The Manxman, and what became the director’s first sound picture, Blackmail, for which she was dubbed by an English actress. Her first talkie saw her back on familiar ground. On a jeho sestra (Him and His Sister, Karel Lamač and Martin Frič, 1931) was made in Czech and German versions and put Ondra opposite Burian again. Čechová says that Burian was about to enjoy the kind of popularity in the sound era matched only by what Ondra had attained in silents.4 After marrying German boxing champion Max Schmeling in 1933, Ondra’s fame as half a celebrity couple soon eclipsed her movie career. With the restored titles that have come out of Národní filmový archiv in this century, Ondra’s true legacy, built in the last, is also being restored.

An Old Gangster’s Molls (Milenky starého kriminálníka, 1927, Czechoslovakia, 108 mins.)

Prod Co: Oceanfilm Dir: Svatopluk Innemann Scr: Josef Skružný and Elmar Klos Phot: Otto Heller Prod des: Alois Mecera 

Cast: Jan W. Speerger, Vlasta Burian, Anny Ondráková, Betty Kysilková, Věra Hlavatá, and Jindřich Plachta


  1. Falešná kočička (The False Kitten, 1926) and Lásky Kačenky Strnadové (The Loves of Kačenky Strnadové, 1926).
  2. Briana Čechová, “Anny Ondra, European Comedienne” in the catalogue for Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (Pordenone, 2013), p. 66.
  3. Grigori Kozintsev, Leonid Trauberg, Sergei Yutkevich, Georgi Kryzhitsky, “Eccentricism,” from Ekstsentrism (Petrograd, 1922) in The Film Factory: Russian and Soviet Documents 1896–1939, Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, eds. (London: Routledge, 1994), p. 59.
  4. Briana Čechová, “Anny Ondra, European Comedienne,” Le Giornate del Cinema Muto catalogue (Pordenone, 2013), p. 66.

About The Author

Shari Kizirian edits the program books for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

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