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December 2nd, 2008
Biography: Joe May

Biography by Gerd Gemünden
Professor of German Studies, Film and Media Studies, and Comparative Literature
Dartmouth College

(b. Vienna 1880 – d. Hollywood 1954)

Joe MayBorn Josef Mandel. Director. A businessman and operetta director, Joe May can be considered one of the founders of the German cinema. He began directing films in 1911 and started his own production company a few years later. He gave famous German director Fritz Lang his start in films by employing him as a screenwriter in his early films. May visited Hollywood in 1929 while working with Erich Pommer on Asphalt (1929) and returned to Germany with valuable information on the techniques of sound film. He was forced to emigrate in 1934, however, and arrived in California to make films for Paramount.

May’s first two films, Music in the Air (produced by Pommer and scripted by Billy Wilder and Robert Liebmann, 1934) and Confession (1937) were flops. After directing a handful of abysmal b-movies, May found himself bankrupt by the mid-1940s. He and his wife Mia, a former actress who starred in many of his early films, struggled to run a restaurant for much of the remainder of their lives; in a bittersweet tone of irony, they called their establishment “The Blue Danube.” One of Germany’s most celebrated early directors, May never regained the fame he had enjoyed in Weimar Germany.

  • Nate Starling

    Hi, Gerd ~
    I think you were my first German teacher (at UO). Thank you for writing about Joe May–I learned some interesting little facts. I too am very interested in learning about the forced emigre from Berlin film industry and how they fared in their guest homelands–nicht so gut fuer Herr May, leider..
    Have you written articles or perhaps a book on the subject?
    What a serendipitous surprise to see your name–if indeed you are the same Gerd Gemuenden!

    Nate Starling

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