Zita Johann only had eight screen credits, but one of them is well-known to horror fans.
When she starred opposite Boris Karloff in THE MUMMY (1932) she delivered one of the great performances in a Universal monster movie. Her portrayal of Helen Grosvenor, the reincarnated Princess Anckesen-Amon, was mystical, mysterious, tragic, and very sexy.
And in terms of classic horror, that’s all she wrote. It was one and done for Johann, which is too bad, because she was really good in THE MUMMY.
Here’s a partial look at Johann’s film career:
THE STRUGGLE (1931) – Florrie – Johann’s film debut is in this drama about alcoholism, the final feature directed by D.W. Griffith.
TIGER SHARK (1932) – Quita Silva- Romance directed by Howard Hawks, also starring Edward G. Robinson and featuring J. Carroll Naish.
THE MUMMY (1932)- Helen Grosvenor – one of Universal’s best monster movies. Slow-paced but eerie to its core, this Karl Freund directed thriller features a remarkable performance by Boris Karloff as the living mummy Im Ho Tep, who, once resurrected, seeks out the mummified body of his former love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon.
THE MUMMY is really a tragic love story. Im Ho Tep’s life is shattered when his forbidden love, the Princess Anckesen-Amon, dies at a young age. When he tries to resurrect her using the Scroll of Thoth, he’s found out and sentenced to death. He meets a horrifying end as he’s buried alive.
Centuries later, in 1921, his mummified body is discovered and accidentally resurrected. He resurfaces in 1932 and helps archeologists unearth the tomb of the mummified Princess Anckesen-Amon, in the hopes of once more bringing her back to life.
While attempting to do so, he discovers Helen Grosvenor (Zita Johann), who’s the splitting image of Anckesen-Amon. Convinced that Helen is Anckesen-Amon reincarnated, Im Ho Tep seeks to kill her and bring her back to life so they can live together for all eternity.
THE MUMMY also features the phenomenal make-up work of Jack Pierce, and fine supporting performances by Edward Van Sloan and David Manners, but it’s Boris Karloff and Zita Johann who drive THE MUMMY.
Johann’s wide eyes and dark features give her a sensual, mysterious presence. She makes for a strong, independent female character, and she’s convincing as the reincarnated princess.
In THE MUMMY, Johann delivers one of my favorite performances by an actress in the Universal monster movies.
RAIDERS OF THE LIVING DEAD (1986) – Librarian – Zita Johann’s final screen credit in this 1980s zombie flick.
Zita Johann was born on July 14, 1904 in Austria-Hungary. Before acting in the movies, she performed on Broadway starting in 1924.
In THE MUMMY, she and director Karl Freund did not get along. According to Johann, Freund went out of his way to make her life miserable on set. That being said, Johann did develop the reputation for being a difficult actress to work with. Evidently, she turned down lots of scripts, which may explain why she made so few movies.
I wish Johann had made more movies. Her performance as Helen Grosvenor has always been a treat for me and one of the best parts of THE MUMMY. Watching Johan portray Grosvenor, you’ll easily see why Karloff’s Im Ho Tep was in love with her.
Johann passed away on September 20, 1993 in Nyack, New York at the age of 89 from pneumonia.
Zita Johann – July 14, 1904 – September 20, 1993.
I hope you enjoyed this LEADING LADIES column and will join me again next time when we look at another leading lady from horror cinema.
Thanks for reading!