Vilma Bánky, the Great Hungarian Rhapsody

In 1992, there were news reports about the passing of a film legend of European and Hollywood silent pictures. Vilma Bánky’s death at a Los Angeles nursing home went mostly unnoticed for a period, with delayed obituaries published in various leading newspapers. It seemed at the time that Vilma Bánky was merely a forgotten star from a bygone era, with little details published of who she was and why she was important. Even her actual age was in doubt.

In December 1992, Bánky’s attorney and executor Robert Vossler was able to confirm the report that the once-famous movie legend had died from cardiorespiratory arrest on March 18, 1991.

Then came the stories that Vilma Bánky was upset that nobody came to visit her during her stay at the St. John of God Convalescent Hospital that she directed her lawyer not to publish notice of her death until the following year. This all fitted the overall narrative of the fallen once-famous movie star who could not come to terms with her dwindling popularity.

The truth is that Vilma Bánky had said goodbye to Hollywood many decades before, having shunned the industry in the early thirties for a very long and happy marriage. In short, Vilma Bánky was one of the most popular movie stars of her era, who had played opposite Rudolph Valentino and Ronald Colman in some of the most successful movies of the decade.

Vilma Bánky was born Vilma Koncsics on January 9, 1901 in Nadydorog, Austria-Hungary to János Bánky Koncsics and Katalin Ulbert. Her father János was a police sergeant would soon be transferred to Budapest, bringing his wife, Vilma, Vilma’s older brother, Gyula, and her younger sister, Gizela, with him.

After leaving secondary school, Bánky studied to become a stenographer, but her dream was to become an actress. She trained as an actress whilst still working as a typist. Bánky would soon display her talents at the Belvarosi Theatre in Budapest

Bánky was offered a role in the now-lost German film Im Letzen Augenblick (English title: In The Last Moment), directed by Carl Boese in 1919.

On a trip to Budapest in 1925, Vilma was signed by Head of Metro Goldwyn Mayer Samuel Goldwyn and was brought to Hollywood for a lucrative movie career, much against her parents’ wishes.

Following the release of her first American film, The Dark Angel in 1925, The New York Times described the new Hungarian star as a “young person of rare beauty” and the audiences instantly fell in love with her. Bánky was affectionally called “The Hungarian Rhapsody”. She was often regarded as the rival to Pola Negri from Paramount Pictures.

It has been mentioned that Hollywood idol Rudolph Valentino became so fascinated with Vilma Bánky that he asked for her to be his leading lady in The Eagle (1925) and Valentino’s last film The Son of the Sheik (1926).

Bánky would also star alongside English actor Ronald Colman in five romantic films including The Dark Angel (1924), The Night of Love (1927), and The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926).

There were reports that Bánky’s heavy Hungarian accent hindered her career at the advent of the sound era, but Vilma had planned to retire from Hollywood anyway following her lavish and highly publicized wedding to actor Rod La Rocque in 1927. The couple remained happily married until his death in 1969.

Vilma Bánky and her husband exchanged Hollywood for real estate. Although she and her husband did not have children, Bánky created an educational fund called the Bánky-LeRocque Foundation in 1981. She also became an avid golf player, becoming the women’s golfing champion in 1950 and 1950 at the Wilshire Country Club in Los Angeles.

She received a star in the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 but there is not much else to remind us of her luminous movie career, except her captivating performances in those classic films of the 1920s.

Bánky starred in twenty-four movies but only eight of those exist in full which are Hotel Potemkin (1924), Der Zirkuskönig (1924), The Eagle (1925), The Son of the Sheik (1926), The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926), The Night of Love (1927), A Lady to Love (1930), and her final film The Rebel (1933).

Bánky may have been known for her exquisite beauty, but she was also brilliant leading lady whose movie career was simply too short. Bánky’s speaking voice has been unfairly criticized by some as a hindrance (her accent was heavy but pleasant). Nevertheless, Bánky was a wonderful leading lady and was splendidly cast opposite her on-screen lead male stars, especially Valentino and Colman in all their films together.

Vilma Bánky was one of the greatest and most talented leading ladies of the silent era. This great Hungarian Rhapsody must never be forgotten.

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