If ever there was a comedic cult classic in Hungarian cinema, then Hyppolit, the Butler is it. Originally released in 1931, it is as popular today, some 80-odd years later, as it was then. Some have argued that the film plays a similar role in Hungarian cinema as Casablanca does in the broader European cinema. Romance, wit, and music are key ingredients in the film and these coupled with the film’s underlying parody of upper-class culture and mores, along with genuine comedy are some of the reasons for the enduring success of Hyppolit.
The plot of the film is straightforward: Mátyás Schneider, owner of a shipping firm, leads a good and prosperous life. When his snobbish wife hires a butler, Schneider’s life is turned upside down. She hires Hyppolit who has served a count for 27 years. He immediately sets about establishing a new regime concerning etiquette, manners and furnishing. The Schneiders are newly wealthy, but used to ordinary middle-class manners. Now they have to put on evening-dress when having supper, Mrs Schneider has to undergo a rigorous diet, and Mátyás isn’t allowed to eat his favourite dishes any more. Much of the humour in the film concerns Hyppolit’s efforts to “re-educate” his employers in the ways and manners of the nobility.
The romantic subplot concerns the Schneiders’ daughter, Terka. Like all good nouveau riche mothers, Mrs Schneider wants her daughter to marry for money and status. In this case it is Makács who has important connections which will help the Schneiders’ growing business interests. But the path of true love is never smooth and Terka’s heart belongs to the manager of her father’s firm, István Benedek. No guesses as to how their romance works out at the end of the film!
And let’s not forget the music. The film features the wonderful, Köszönöm, hogy imádott, (Thank You for Adoring Me), which is arguably the most popular song of any Hungarian film. Hyppolit also features another well known tune, Pá, kis aranyom pá (Bye, Sweetie, Bye) sung by Mimi, a “chorus girl” who seduces Mátyás in another of those loose subplots that make up the film.
But at heart the film is really a satire on the manners of the nouveau riche and their desire to mimic the habits and mores of a lost and dying aristocratic way of life. Mátyás reluctantly goes along with the anachronistic regime imposed by Hyppolit, but finds it more and more suffocating and in the end rebels and confronts Hyppolit telling him to “get lost”. The old order is restored and true love reigns as Terka and Benedek are engaged. Cue, “The End”!
To my mind the real star of the film is not Gyula Csortos, who plays, Hyppolit but Gyula Kabos who plays the long-suffering Mátyás. He is genuinely funny and he delivers his lines with a dryness and wit that can still make you laugh out loud. For example, in the final scene when he tells Hyppolit he has had enough and will live as he chooses, Mátyás declares, “And I’ll eat onions with my goose. With everything. I’ll eat onions with onions. And I’ll eat fish with a knife. Two knives. ” Comedic gold!
The film was produced in the early days of “talkies”, that is, films with sound. Produced only 5 years after the first full-length film to feature sound, Hyppolit was only the second fully-fledged talkie to reach Hungarian audiences. Interestingly, at that time there was a trend towards Hungarian-German co-productions and a German language version of Hyppolit was made at the same time as the Hungarian version. Known as Er und Sein Diener (He and His Servant), it was not a success.
Hyppolit has been released many times since it was first shown, including in July 1945, October 1956 (to commemorate 25 years of sound in Hungarian cinema), and again in June 1971, when it attracted some 1 million film-goers. The current release has been restored and digitalised to near perfection by the Hungarian Film Archive and the Hungarian Film Laboratory. Like all films of that time it was originally produced on highly unstable and combustible nitrate film stock. Somehow a copy survived and this formed the basis for the restoration, which is now available on DVD and in Blu-ray formats. It is a joy to watch in such high quality format.
It may sound strange to say, but of all of the films in this series of articles, Hyppolit is the least Hungarian in nature. By that I mean it doesn’t really deal with specifically Hungarian topics or issues. The themes are universal: class, romance, music and being true to one’s origins, and told in a humorous manner. There is more than a touch of the PG Wodehouse, the English humorist who dealt with similar issues in an English context. Perhaps that is one reason why Hyppolit has been so enduring. Hungarians of every generation can enjoy this film without necessarily being attuned to the issues of the day at the time.
The lives of those involved in Hyppolit reveal much of Hungary’s history in the twentieth century. Éva Fenyvessy, who plays the delightful and beautiful Terka (it is she who sings Köszönöm, hogy imádott in Hyppolit), continued in films before moving into another successful career in Hungarian operetta, retiring in 1979 – forty years before passing away in 2009, at the glorious age of 98!
Gyula Csortos, who plays Hyppolit, had a successful career in film and theatre during the 1930s. He was, however, plagued by ill-health and a “self-destructive” lifestyle, according to one commentator. He died in August 1945 awaiting life-saving penicillin, another victim, ultimately, of the siege of Budapest. He is buried in Budapest’s Kerepesi Cemetery.
Pál Jávor, who plays Terka’s suitor, István Benedek, became perhaps the most important and sought after male film star of the 1930s. His good looks, easy and charming manner made him a natural for staple romantic lead roles. But fame did not rest easy with him and alcohol played an all too prominent part in his life. He was also very outspoken and repeatedly clashed with his superiors. He suffered greatly during World War II, having been arrested by the Arrow Cross and spent time in prison in both Hungary and Germany. Eventually released after the war, he went to the United States but found little or no work and much bitterness. He yearned to return to Hungary and eventually did so in 1957. He found some work but his career never reached the dizzy heights of the 1930s. Health issues got the better of him and he died shortly after, in 1959, aged 57. Such was his popularity that tens of thousands attended his burial at the Farkasréti Cemetery.
The director István Székely had a long career in film and television. He left for the United States at the onset of World War II in 1939 and went on to produce mainly B-grade films such as the cult classic, The Day of the Triffids. He often changed his name and in the multitude of films and TV shows that he directed, he was variously known as Székely István, S.K. Seeley, Steve Sekely, Stefan Szekely, István Székely, Stefan Székely, Stephan Székely and Stefan Székély. Pleasingly, his last film, Lila ákác (The Girl Who Liked Purple Flowers), was filmed in Hungary in 1973 and starred Judit Halász and Bálint András (who featured in Apa (Father), the subject of another article in this series). Székely passed away in 1979, aged 80, no doubt having enjoyed a well-deserved and content retirement in Palm Springs.
The saddest story of them all is that of Gyula Kabos. His career during the 1930s was prolific, to say the least. He is credited with starring in a staggering fifteen films during 1937 alone. While you can say this is a case of quantity over quality, he was nonetheless a highly successful comedic actor in Hungary during the 1930s. But history intervened in an all too familiar tragic manner. He left Hungary because of Nazism and arrived in the US in 1939. He hoped to emulate his success in Hungary but was ignored, much to his bitter disappointment. So much so, he committed suicide in 1941. But his memory is still revered among those in the grand tradition of Hungarian comedic theatre and cabaret. The well-known exponent of this tradition in post World War II Hungary, László Kabos, took his stage name in his honour. His body was eventually returned to Hungary and he is now buried in the Farkasréti Cemetery.
I plan to visit Gyula Kabos’s grave when I next visit Budapest, as well as that of Pál Jávor, and quietly hum, in their honour, Köszönöm, hogy imádott.
Hyppolit, the Butler, (1931), screenplay by Károly Nóti and István Zágon; directed by István Székely (Steve Sekely). Starring Gyula Csortos, Gyula Kabos and Mici Haraszti. Running time: 72 minutes.