German postcard, nr. R 6. Photo: still from Winnetou – 2. Teil/Last of the Renegades (1964, Harald Reinl) with Karin Dor as Ribanna.
Redheaded German leading lady Karin Dor (1938) became popular in the 1960s playing heroines in Edgar Wallace and Karl May films. She was Winnetou’s greatest love but also the first German Bond girl. After appearing in more international films, including one by Alfred Hitchcock, she became a respected stage actress in Germany.
Karin Dor was born as Kätherose Derr in 1938 in Wiesbaden, Germany. She grew up in a middle-class family. Although she initially wanted to become a fashion designer, she took actor’s training and ballet lessons. At 15, she tried to break into the film industry starting as an extra in Der letzte Walzer/The Last Waltz (1953, Arthur Maria Rabenalt). Her director Rabenalt recommended her to his upcoming colleague Harald Reinl who gave her a small speaking parts in his films Rosen-Resli/Rose-Girl Resli (1954, Harald Reinl) and Der schweigende Engel/The Silent Angel (1954, Harald Reinl) both starring Christine Kaufmann. In the same year, Dor married her Austrian director, who was 30 years her elder. She pretended to be two years older (several sources still give 1936 as her birth date) in order to marry without problems. The young actress made her first major appearances as a high-school graduate in Ihre grosse Prüfung/The Big Test (1954, Rudolf Jugert) with Luise Ullrich, and as a mayor’s daughter during the Spanish Civil War in the melodrama Solange du lebst/As Long As You Live (1955, Harald Reinl). Hal Erickson writes on All Movie Guide that “though the leading lady of this film, Marianne Koch, received several awards for her performance, many male viewers were more interested in her sexier costar Karin Dor”. A curiosity was the comedy Mit Eva fing die Sünde an/ Bellboy and the Playgirls (1958, Fritz Umgelter), which centers on a bellhop who prepares for his dream job of becoming a detective by spying on half-naked chorines through a keyhole. Just before the film was distributed in the USA in 1962, the young Francis Ford Coppola was hired to add additional scenes featuring nude women – shot in 3-D – to spice up the story.
According to another source, Filmportal.de, Karin Dor specialized in gentle and naïve roles in popular music films and sentimental comedies with a regional background. But she managed to successfully transfer her image to the crime film genre in Die Bande des Schreckens/Hand of the Gallows (1960, Harald Reinl), the third film in the Edgar Wallace series. Dor became popular as ‘Miss Krimi’ and was seen in eleven Wallace films. She also appeared in the Dr Mabuse and Fu Manchu horror melodrama series, in Die Unsichtbaren Krallen des Dr. Mabuse/The Invisible Dr. Mabuse (1962, Harald Reinl) and Ich, Dr. Fu Man Chu/The Face of Fu Manchu (1962, Don Sharp) starring Christopher Lee. Karin Dor often played the innocent damsel in distress, who opposed the bad guys bravely till the hero saved her. In that role she became a key asset to the Karl May film series, the second huge West German genre success. First she appeared in Der Schatz im Silbersee/The Treasure of Silver Lake (1962, Harald Reinl), the first film with Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand and Pierre Brice as Winnetou. In Winnetou 2. Teil (1964, Harald Reinl), she was Ribanna, Winnetou’s great love, again directed by her husband. She also appeared in the Eurowesterns Der letzte Mohikaner/The Last of the Mohicans (1965, Harald Reinl), Winnetou – 3. Teil/The Desperado Trail (1965) and Winnetou und Shatterhand im Tal der Toten/In the Valley of Death (1968, Harald Reinl). In 1994, she was awarded the Scharlih-Prize, the best-known award, connected to Karl May.
A turning point in Karin Dor’s career was her great role as the demonic Brunhild in the two-part Burgundian saga Die Nibelungen (1966, Harald Reinl). Although the film was not well received by the critics, it became the start of Dor’s international film career. As Germany’s ‘star without affairs’ Dor got the part of sexy agent Helga Brandt in the fifth James Bond opus, You Only Live Twice (1967, Lewis Gilbert) alongside Sean Connery. It enabled her as ‘The first German Bond girl’ to act against her former, rather virtuous role image. She delivered a convincing performance as a red-haired temptress trying to stop the famous undercover agent using her erotic charm. In 1968, Karin Dor became sick with cancer and divorced Harald Reinl. But after a brief halt in her career there was the unexpected offer to play a Cuban woman in Alfred Hitchcock’s spy thriller Topaz (1969). Dor starred as the beautiful and proud Juanita de Cordoba, the leader of an underground movement. She and her lover collaborate with the West. Her death scenes in both films were spectacular. In the Bond-film Helga Brandt is devoured by piranhas; and in Topaz Juanita is shot by her jealous lover (John Vernon), in the style of an opera’s finale. Till the early 1970’s, Karin Dor featured in more international films like the British pulp thriller Die Screaming, Marianne (1970, Pete Walker) starring Susan George in her debut, Die Antwort kennt nur der Wind/Only the Wind Knows the Answer (1974, Alfred Vohrer) with Maurice Ronet, and Warhead (1974-1976, John O’Connor) with David Janssen. She also guest-starred in tv series like It Takes a Thief (1969), Ironside (1970) and The F.B.I. (1970). When the film offers dried up, she decided to focus on the German stage. There she appeared in classics as Tartuffe, but also in boulevard comedies like Der Neurosenkavalier. In the latter she performed more than 500 times. Her tv work in the 1990’s included the family series Die große Freiheit (1990) where she starred alongside Hans-Joachim Kuhlenkampff as well as the tv film Der Preis der Liebe (1998), a Rosamunde Pilcher adaptation. She made a cinema come back as Katja Riemann’s alcoholistic mother in Ich bin die Andere/I Am the Other Woman (2006, Margarethe von Trotta). In 2008 she was back on the Munich stage in the (non-Bond-related) comedy Man lebt nur dreimal (You Only Live Thrice), which was especially written for her. Karin Dor lives in Los Angeles and München. She has a son from her first husband Harald Reinl, Andreas (1955). In 1972 she married merchant Günther Schmucker, but the pair divorced two years later. Her third husband was American stunt-director George Robotham, to whom she was married from 1988 till his death in 2007.
Sources: Stephanie D’heil (Steffi-line), Hal Erickson (All Movie Guide), Filmportal.de, Wikipedia and IMDb.
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