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"Even if Vilma Banky hadn't been a good actress, she would be one of my foremost favorites from the silent days." --Joe Franklin from Classics of the Silent Screen, 1959

Birthname: Konsics Bánky Vilma (I have seen references to her birthname being Vilma
Lonchit or Longit or the like, but I have found few definite sources that list her name as so.
Birthdate & place: January 09, 1902*, Nagydorog, Hungary
Spouse: Rod la Rocque from 1927-1969
Death: March 18, 1991, Los Angeles, California

Birth, Stagefright, & Discovery

Prior to Vilma Banky’s birth, her father, a highly esteemed bureau chief for the Franz Josef Austro-Hungarian Empire, had moved the family to the small town of Nagyrodog, a suburb of Budapest, in Hungary. Vilma Konsics Bánky was born there on January 09, 1902* (This date, after much research, seems to be correct. Numerous sources validate that Vilma was born in 1902 not 1898 as widely thought.) Johann Konsics Bánky, her father, was a man of considerable wealth before World War I. Multiple sources confirm that none of her family was in any way connected with the stage. (Some sources have said that her mother, Katalin Ulbert, had been a famous Hungarian stage star. Another rumor flying around when Vilma arrived in America in March 1925 was that Vilma was a countess, but this is also not true, she just came from a "private" family.) At the time of Vilma’s birth, in 1902, her two siblings, brother Gyula and sister Agnes (or Gizi), had already been born. Budapest was not far from their home in rural Nagyrodog where Vilma was born. The Bánky family moved to Budapest around 1906. Bánky had definite plans for Vilma’s future. Marriage and housewifely duties would suit her best. He decided to send her to a prominent school in the heart of the capitol. Here, her father was assured, Vilma would learn all the proper activities of a good wife and mother. She was taught languages, handwork (she excelled at needlepoint), etc. and how to carry herself like a lady. Prior to World War I, the Bánky family was quite prominent – Vilma’s father held large tracts of land, grand houses, and all the luxuries afforded them. The Great War stripped the Banky family of most of their belongings. They were not accustomed to such poor living conditions – and for the first time, Vilma knew what hunger really was. The impact left on Vilma was enormous. In Hollywood, reporters would remark on her quiet and almost painfully serious demeanor. She was forced to focus on her goals in order to support both herself and her family.

Vilma was renown for her beauty and grace and her friends suggested she take up acting. Vilma, though, was bashful and extremely terrified of the "sea of strange faces." A Hungarian motion picture director, Bela Balogh, quite taken with Vilma's beauty, immediately cast her in Im Letzten Augenblick, in 1920. Her father disapproved highly of Vilma’s association with films. He felt his daughter would be best suited by an early marriage and he had a fairly good idea of whom. A baron of a large manor lived across the lake from the Banky estate – a young, very wealthy man whom Vilma sincerely intended to marry well after her arrival in Hollywood. It seems he was allied with the elder Bánky – he frowned upon Vilma’s current occupation. He felt that actors were beneath him and had no qualms at letting Vilma know. Despite her invitation, he refused to go to America with her for this very reason. Despite this, she eventually gained popularity as a capable and exquisite actress. She appeared in about twelve films - either Hungarian, Austrian, French, or German - before being discovered in 1925 by Samuel Goldwyn. He had seen a picture postcard of Vilma in a shop when he arrived in Hungary. Goldwyn knew well that she would be a hit and was so impressed that he set out to find the fragile Hungarian beauty. Until 1925, knowledge of Vilma’s reputation as an actress existed only in Europe. She was one of Hungary’s most popular actors. Her last film before coming to America, Soll Man Heiraten? (aka Intermezzo Einer Ehe In Sieben Tagen), produced for Gloria Film, a German company, was completed in early 1925. Samuel Goldwyn, the famous producer for United Artists, had come to Europe. The story of “Goldwyn’s Great Discovery” was frequently recounted by the press after Vilma’s arrival in America. The general consensus of the writers agree that Goldwyn first became acquainted with the actress from her picture he happened to see in a shopkeeper’s window while on his travels through Budapest. The details blur at this point and while some accounts state that Goldwyn had never seen Vilma’s acting abilities until her screen test in America, others say that Goldwyn saw both stills and examples of her work. Regardless, Goldwyn was interested in Vilma and made every effort to locate her. He found himself facing closed doors in his attempts and could not seem to contact her – even by telephone. The company in Budapest for which she was currently working, Gloria Film, was determined to keep Vilma from meeting with Goldwyn. They had already drawn up a contract and were continually pushing Vilma to sign. Vilma would later wonder what kept her from signing it; perhaps she was getting wind of the news by now. Gloria Film kept her working day and night to prevent her meeting with Goldwyn. Fortunately for Vilma, someone alerted her and told her that Goldwyn was leaving that night. He had given up for the time being and decided to return to America. With all the drama of a true Hollywood movie, Vilma was said to have raced in a mad dash to the train station without removing her costume or make-up and caught him by the coat tails just as he was passing through the gate. Goldwyn and Vilma had dinner together and that same night, Vilma was offered an American contract, which she eagerly accepted. Vilma yearned for stardom of great magnitude, and although she had achieved it in Europe, she saw America as a new challenge. Bucking traditional values and against her parents’ wishes, she had made the decision to leave for America. She placed her trust in Goldwyn’s promises that she would be a great star, but she was unaware of just how difficult the transition would be.

Vilma, not knowing what had hit her, sailed for America. She yearned for fame and stardom and knew that going to America would do the trick, but this feeling would wane in later years.

Vilma was signed to a contract beginning at $100 a week, which then increased to $250, and eventually would escalate to $5,000 a week.

Rise to Fame for "The Hungarian Rhapsody"

With the final preparations made, Vilma sailed to America from Southampton, England. The Aquitania docked in the New York City harbor on March 10, 1925 to much fanfare. Her arrival had been expected and an entourage from the movie magazines and the press were present. Vilma still knew little English, perhaps only a few words, yet it was touted that Goldwyn had taught her to say “lamb chops and pineapple” in response to the reporters’ questions. Curiously enough, upon her arrival, the New York Times quotes her as saying (obviously via the aid of an interpreter), “it is a matter of little consequence what I think or say. There are too many stars traveling who do nothing but talk. I don’t want to be one of them”. Vilma was most likely overwhelmed with all of the publicity and attention she was receiving. On the Continent, as it was frequently referred to, she had preferred and enjoyed the privacy to which she was accustomed. She had always had a bashful, almost withdrawn personality that would continue till her death. Vilma was scheduled for a brief stay in New York City before her departure for Hollywood. She was at the time still being bombarded by the incessant inquiries from fan magazines. Numerous rumors surrounded Vilma’s life as soon as she stepped off the boat. Many believed that Vilma was a countess or of some noble birth, but she always claimed that her family were simply “private people.” Her lack of English skills made the interviews no doubt difficult, but Vilma, being trained on both the stage and in film, possessed a unique talent for pantomime. However, the press mostly made note of Vilma’s pulchritude and charm. A Hungarian! – And blonde at that!

One contemporary magazine describes the newly arrived beauty: "[s]he is quite marvelously lovely to look at. A fairy- tale princess come to life. And this despite the fact that she does not remind me of Our Mary. No, nor of Lillian Gish, nor of any other stellar beauty mine eyes have yet beheld. She is taller and altogether larger than Our Mary. She has lovely, corn-silk hair, simply parted in the middle and rolled in the nape of her neck. She has milk- white skin and wide, sweetly-expressioned blue eyes. Perfect teeth, a charmingly warm, not too-small mouth. She doesn’t look like any stereotyped conception of an actress. She looks as though she came from “just a private family.” Her previous stage and screen experiences have left no slightest trace. She is as fresh as May, as ethereal as Mab and as wholesome, withal, as roses and cream. She is sweet with simplicity and delicious with lack of pose. She has a gentle, tender sort of voice." (Movie Weekly, PG. 4 – 5, “Miss Banky from Budapest”, by Faith Service, April 18, 1925)

She immediately felt ostracized by the film community. So much publicity and hype had followed Vilma to Hollywood it is possible that Hollywood felt a little slighted by the media, and no one but Norma Talmadge attempted to befriend her on her arrival. Besides loneliness and homesickness, she was also experiencing somewhat of a culture shock. The War had taught Vilma frugality and it was to her great surprise to see such reckless spending in Hollywood. She was earning a larger income than she had in Berlin, but the money did not seem to stretch as far. In Berlin, she had lived in luxury in a large suite with several servants, but in Hollywood could only afford “a small bungalow and one servant.” Commenting on the prices of American items, she said during an interview, “What I must pay for a simple dinner would support a family in my country for a week! When I translate the price tags on everything in this place into kronen, I am horrified. It seems sinful to give so much for so little.” When Vilma arrived in Hollywood, she was dubbed by Goldwyn publicists as "The Hungarian Rhapsody". A very appropriate title! Vilma spoke no English when she first came and though she was determined to learn it in the early years, she had trouble grasping the language and expelling her thick Hungarian accent. As soon as she arrived, Samuel Goldwyn was anxious to star his latest (and greatest!) discovery in The Dark Angel. Goldwyn had been sure to boast and praise Vilma Banky to all the Hollywood columnists. Everyone apparently on the set was overwhelmed with Vilma's beauty, as she was also extensively promoted as "The Most Lovely Woman on the Screen". The Dark Angel was a sensational hit. Its success assured Goldwyn that Vilma was both able to act and would indeed be a profitable asset to the studio. The New York Times praised her acting in this film as did all the fan magazines, proclaiming that Vilma Banky was actually as good as Samuel Goldwyn had claimed.

United Artists then co-starred Vilma with Rudolph Valentino in The Eagle in 1925. During the making of this movie, Vilma and Rudolph became good friends; she provided a caring, listening ear to his problems. They were then reunited in the exceedingly successful and popular film, The Son of the Sheik in 1926. Tragedy then struck - Rudolph Valentino, one of the Hollywood's greatest died on August 23, 1926. Goldwyn immediately cast Vilma in The Winning of Barbara Worth, along with Ronald Colman and by pure luck, the newcomer, Gary Cooper.

It was another highly successful film that included sandstorms and a magnificent flood scene. The Night of Love, a romantic period drama, was made in 1927 with the idolized love duo and was adored by the fans. In 1927, a very extravagant wedding known as "The Social Event of 1927" occurred. Vilma wed Rod la Rocque, a popular silent screen star idol, on June 26. The wedding, paid for by Samuel Goldwyn, took place in The Beverly Hills Church of the Good Shepherd and was packed with all of the big Hollywood stars. After followed a wonderful reception. (Read more about the wedding...) He would be Vilma's first and only husband. After returning from her honeymoon, she began working on her next film The Magic Flame while at the time sound was being ushered in.

Proceed to Part II of Vilma's Biography