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Forgotten Hollywood: Vilma Bánky – The Hungarian Rhapsody

Silent film star Vilma Bánky was born Vilma Koncsics on January 9, 1898, in Nagydorog, Hungary on the outskirts of Budapest. Her father was a police officer and her mother a stage actress.

Bánky studied to be a stenographer but was offered a film role in Im Letzten Augenblick (In the Last Moment) which she filmed in Germany in 1919. This film, directed by Carl Boese, is now lost as are many of her early films. Bánky continued to get film roles in Hungary and Austria like Galathea (1921), Das Auge des Toten (1922), Schattenkinder des Glucks (1922), Hotel Potemkin (1924), Das Verbotene Land (1924) and Das Schone Abenateuer (1924).

Hollywood studio boss Samuel Goldwyn was scouting for leading ladies in Europe. His rival, Louis B. Mayer, had discovered Greta Garbo and made her a star and Goldwyn wanted his own Garbo. He was struck by Bánky and offered her a Hollywood contract even though she couldn’t speak a word of English. Against the wishes of her parents and fiancé, she traveled to Los Angeles in 1925 where the blue-eyed blonde was promoted by Goldwyn as “The Hungarian Rhapsody.” 

Her first American film was 1925’s The Dark Angel with Ronald Colman, a pairing that was so popular that she made four more films with Colman in her career. However, her big break came when Rudolph Valentino cast her in The Eagle that same year.


In the “Exhibitors Campaign Book” (a sort of press kit) for The Eagle, which has 25 pages of publicity (of which more than 20 are devoted to star Valentino), suggested articles are offered to the press for verbatim reproduction in their publications. Page 16 has a few on Valentino’s co-stars. A couple of small ones mention Bánky, along with a suitably gossipy story of why she was chosen by Valentino. Valentino (or most probably his press agent) is quoted as saying that he had searched for an actress for weeks, testing dozens of hopefuls, but couldn’t find anyone suitable.

One article goes into detail. “The story of Miss Bánky’s selection to play in The Eagle is as romantic as her original entry into American films. It is told in Hollywood (but not necessarily to be believed, Hollywood being what it is), that Valentino had sought in vain for an actress, blonde, beautiful, of foreign mannerisms, and of great emotional ability. Finally, he saw a girl riding in the Hollywood hills. She sat her horse so well, and furthermore, she rode sidesaddle – an un-American custom – and had such manner and charm that he immediately visualized her as the heroine of his Russian picture. He then made an appointment for her to meet Mr. Schenk [United Artists’ president] and his director, Clarence Brown. They approved the selection, and the contract was signed.”

Bánky’s reaction to being cast was also breathlessly recorded in the press kit. She was “devoting herself assiduously to learning English, and from a vocabulary consisting of ‘lamb chops and pineapple,’ she has progressed to the point of making herself a poignant experience to any man who meets her.”

(Interesting side note: the press book also had several suggested ads with bodice-ripping copy referencing Valentino’s feats in the movie, several feature stories that could be appropriated for immediate use, and three suggested rave reviews with well-placed blanks for the ‘writer’s’ name.)

The Eagle did very good business and helped Valentino make a comeback in his faltering career. Bánky would once more co-star with him in his last film, The Son of the Sheik in 1926. It was released two weeks after his death.


In 1926, Bánky made The Winning of Barbara Worth, which featured the screen debut of Gary Cooper. She then went on to re-team with Colman – they made The Magic Flame and The Night of Love, both in 1927.


In 1927, Bánky married silent film actor Rod La Rocque. They had never worked together but met at a Hollywood party. La Rocque told Picture-Play Magazine: “I’m a fatalist. I knew the night I met Vilma two years ago at her first dinner party in Hollywood—at Cecil B. deMille’s—that someday we would be married. I didn’t even impress her on that occasion. And we didn’t see each other after that for a long time, just socially now and then. Hostesses had a habit of seating us together at dinners. I made no desperate effort to force my attentions on her either because I stood in peculiar awe of her. 

“I had met my ideal—and my fate—and I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t speak German or Hungarian. She couldn’t speak English. In a way, we were like ships passing in the foggy night. But I kept thinking of her when I dared—she was so sacred to me I was even afraid that human thought was sacrilege. But just the same, I kept telling my mother that someday, somewhere, Vilma Bánky would marry me. I never doubted it.”

According to tinselandstars.com, the wedding was a lavish affair stage-managed and paid for by Goldwyn. The bride had five wedding showers. Cecil B. deMille was Best Man, Goldwyn gave the bride away, Frances (Mrs. Samuel) Goldwyn and Constance Talmadge were two of Bánky’s bridesmaids, Colman and Harold Lloyd were two of the ushers.

Reporters and fans were out in full force at the Church of the Good Shepherd on Santa Monica Boulevard. A reception for 2,000 was held at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “A friend had asked Vilma what she was going to name her first child,” reports tinselandstars.com. “I don’t know,” answered Vilma. “You will have to ask Sam Goldwyn.”

Despite the cynics, the marriage lasted 50 years till La Roque’s death in 1969. They had no children.

Bánky’s first foray into sound pictures was director Victor Sjostrom’s A Lady to Love in 1930, once more with Colman. But this film marked the end of her Hollywood career as audiences did not appreciate Bánky’s heavy Hungarian accent. She did make one more German film, Der Rebell in 1932, which was well-received.

Bánky and La Rocque finally worked together by going on tour around the US for a play titled The Cherries Are Ripe by Anita Loos from 1930 to 1931. Then they retired from the entertainment business together and La Roque became a successful real estate broker. Bánky kept busy by golfing, a sport she enjoyed into her 80s; she was the women’s golfing champion at the Wilshire Country Club in 1950 and 1951. The couple also bequeathed a million dollars to a foundation to educate children.

Bánky died in March 1991 at the age of 90, but there was no mention of her passing in the press as she resented her enforced isolation from her Hollywood friends and asked that no death notice be published. Her passing was finally announced the following year.

Only eight out of the 24 films of Bánky’s brief career still survive intact; fragments of others also exist. She was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.