Jaroslav Marvan: 50 years on stage and screen

Jaroslav Marvan

Jaroslav Marvan was one of the most prolific Czech actors of all times with more than 150 film roles and many more theatre acts. He appeared in his first – silent – movie in 1926, and he made his last film in 1973, a year before he died. In this edition of Czechs in History we look at the extraordinary career of Jaroslav Marvan, a theatre and film star before the war as well as in communist Czechoslovakia.

'Škola základ života'
Jaroslav Marvan as a Czech language professor in the 1938 high school comedy Škola základ života, was trying to teach a student how to recite a poem properly. This role earned Jaroslav Marvan fame and recognition across the country. The phrase “Co je štěstí? Muška jenom zlatá…” (What is happiness? But a golden fly…) is still unmistakably recognized by Czechs today. By 1938, Jaroslav Marvan had established himself as one of the country’s most poplar comedians. Andrej Halada is a film critic at Reflex magazine.

“When you watch good comedies from the 1930s and 40s – there are not many of them, but there are some – Marvan never failed in them. That was one of his greatest assets. That he never acted badly. Today, many good and even excellent actors sometimes give poor performances, unlike Marvan who never did. That’s quite extraordinary because many of his films were very silly.”

Jaroslav Marvan was born in Prague’s Žižkov district in 1901. He liked acting from an early age and soon became a member of one of the many local amateur theatre companies. His father, a post-office clerk, wanted him to have a steady job so he joined the Czechoslovak Post. Much to his father’s disappointment though, he soon left his solid employment to take up a career in acting.

“He is definitely one of the most significant Czech actors of the 20th century. He was special in that he wasn’t a trained actor. He was originally a clerk, and he even spent some time in Carpathian Ruthenia, which became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918. He only became an actor later and the fact he had been a clerk before was reflected in his parts because in the 1930s and 40s he played many clerks which made him famous.”

After a modest start, he joined the Theatre of Vlasta Burian in 1926. Vlasta Burian was perhaps the most famous Czech comic actor of all time but professionally, the job of supporting the star was exhausting.

“In the 1930s he was at the Vlasta Burian Theatre. Vlasta Burian was an actor who wouldn’t stand any serious rivals. His theatre was a one-man show. Jaroslav Marvan was a supporting actor for Vlasta Burian and he was the only one who could bear with Vlasta Burian for much of the latter’s career. He played in his theatre and he also played in his films and his later roles were similar to the parts he had with Vlasta Burian.”

'Anton Špelec ostrostřelec'
The 1932 film Anton Špelec ostrostřelec (Anton Špelec the Sharpshooter), a parody of provincial town life under the Austro-Hungarian Empire, saw Jaroslav Marvan in yet another role alongside Vlasta Burian. But Jaroslav Marvan was tired of helping to deliver someone else’s punch lines and in 1943 he left for the Na Vinohradech theatre, one of Prague’s most prestigious scenes. The end of war and the social and political changes that came with it presented no special difficulties for Jaroslav Marvan, as they did for many of his colleagues.

“Marvan adapted very well, in the positive sense of the word, to the new conditions. He was cast not only in the parts of directors and bosses from before the war but he also played workers and ordinary people. This showed his great and unique ability to perform all kinds of roles.”

Czechoslovakia’s new, communist rulers soon understood the importance of film for the promotion of their ideology. While some of the stars from the previous regime, including Marvan’s colleague Vlasta Burian, could not get parts, Jaroslav Marvan had no problems with the new order. He was in fact the star of two 1950s comedies about life in recreation facilities organized by communist companies that earned him renewed popularity and he became a star in other communist countries where the movies were shown as well.

“The film industry in the 1930s was very active; some 30 to 40 Czech movies were made each year. They were made fast, more or less in the same way soap operas and TV series are made today. Marvan was a reliable actor who was great at all those supporting and episodic roles. This system of film production was over by 1945 when the film industry was nationalized. Marvan was one of the few actors who made a smooth transition into the nationalized film industry and he remained one of the most frequently cast actors. This was interesting because many actors had problems, either political or because they couldn’t adapt to the new, post-1945 style.”

'Hříšní lidé města pražského'
Jaroslav Marvan joined the National Theatre in 1954, in recognition of his superior acting. By the early 1960s he was already considered a legend and he also increasingly began performing serious parts both on stage and in front of the camera. In the late 1960s came his finest hour- the role of police chief Vacátko in a 1968 detective series “Hříšní lidé města pražského”, or the Sinful Folk of Prague, which was set in pre-war Prague.

“His police chief Vacátko is an unforgettable figure of Czech cinema and without Marvan the part would not be as good. In fact, when they made a sequel to the series with Jiří Adamíra playing the part, it didn’t have the atmosphere anymore although Adamíra was a great actor as well”.

The last role of Jaroslav Marvan came in 1973 in the historic musical Noc na Karlštějně, or A Night at Karlštejn. A year later, in May 1974, Jaroslav Marvan died in his native city of Prague. To this day, Jaroslav Marvan remains a household name in the Czech Republic, most remembered for his charming performances of all those petty clerks, officials and bureaucrats with a flavour of the bygone era.

“I think Marvan always behaved very properly. Even though he played in many really silly and ideology-ridden films of the 1950s, he was never accused of serving the regime. I believe that it was obvious that he was a man of the pre-war First Republic. He was a self-made man; he knew how the First Republic worked. He was born in 1901 and he experienced the First Republic growing-up and as an adult. Those times got deep under his skin. In fact, when he was shooting the detective series “Hříšní lidé města pražského” he shone as the ideal actor for a pre-war police chief because he could rely on his acting experience with all those First Republic directors and managers.”