When we first contacted Natalia Daryll – the woman whose on-screen head shaving so memorably enlivens the first act of Russell Birdwell’s B-movie THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN – she was incredulous that anyone cared enough about the film to seek her out to talk about it. Indeed, she had not even bothered to see the movie when it was originally released in 1957. CONELRAD was also astonished to learn that Ms. Daryll had still not seen the movie as of our first call to her in late 2007—a full half-century after KREMLIN’s premiere. As soon as we were able to locate a copy of the film (it has never been officially released on home video), we sent the retired actress a DVD so that she could finally see her long ago work. CONELRAD spoke with Ms. Daryll about her cult role and her fascinating life via telephone on June 12, 2008, a few weeks after she had viewed the movie with her family and friends.
The interview follows this brief biographical introduction to Ms. Daryll.
It turns out that Natalia Daryll’s performance is one of the few authentic elements in THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN, a motion picture that plays off of the absurd scenario that Joseph Stalin faked his own death in 1953 and had a fondness for forced shearing.[i] Indeed, Ms. Daryll is, unlike William Schallert (who was implausibly cast as Stalin’s long lost son, Jacob) and other cast members, actually Russian. As a child, she was also directly affected by the abuses of Stalin’s real-life regime.
Natalia Daryll was born Natalia Sagebarth, the third child of George and Valentina Sagebarth in Uzbekistan, Russia in 1932. Her parents were of Russian nobility and were constantly persecuted after the Revolution because they refused to become Communists. During World War II, when the Germans were retreating from Russia in 1942, the Sagebarth family left with them (they were hardly alone as many other victims of Stalin fled during this period). Their journey to Germany was a long and perilous one that involved one incident in the Black Sea that is absolutely harrowing. The Sagebarth family and other refugees were in a boat that was being tugged by a barge when Russian planes began dropping bombs all around them. “It was surreal,” Daryll recalled for CONELRAD, but she said things got even worse when the barge cut the boat loose: “Everyone started praying because there was a torpedo heading straight for us and that was like the end of us. And actually it was a miraculous saving because as the torpedo was coming towards us, with the waves that it was creating, (it) pushed us aside.”
After a one-year stint in an Austrian quarantine camp, the family continued its death-defying passage to Germany. The Sagebarths eventually settled in Erlangen, Germany, but the remaining war and post-war years were not exactly easy. They endured years of deprivation and periodic famine. Despite all odds, Daryll managed to embrace a passion for ballet dancing during this period. In 1952 the family was finally able to immigrate to Los Angeles, California. Once stateside, everyone in the family worked menial jobs to help pay back their sponsored passage to America. Natalia remembered hopping a street car to Santa Monica every morning to work in a machine shop where she washed machine parts. She later worked as a seamstress in a brassiere shop. But, incredibly, Hollywood was in this young woman’s future.
For someone who has lived through such trying times, Ms. Daryll has a warm quality to her voice and she is quick to laugh whenever she finds something funny. She also seems to have a remarkably healthy perspective on her formative years. When we commented on how horrifying her childhood sounded, she replied: “Yes, probably, but today to me it looks (in my memory) almost like a movie or a picture.”
This interview focuses primarily on Ms. Daryll’s artistic career and, in particular, her role in THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN. However, CONELRAD felt that it was important to preface the interview with the above introduction so that our readers would be aware of the adversity that shaped Ms. Daryl’s life. The irony that she would wind up acting opposite “Stalin” (as played by Maurice Manson) on a Universal Studios soundstage is almost too bizarre to believe.
CONELRAD: Did you ever have any formal acting or performance training?
NATALIA: In Germany I was in the ballet (Editor’s Note: As explained in the preceding introduction, Natalia and her family left their native Russia in 1942 and moved to Germany).
CONELRAD: How did you and your family get out of Germany?
NATALIA: Some friends of ours sponsored us from Los Angeles, so when we came to Los Angeles, they paid for us and when we came to Los Angeles we worked it off and paid them back.
CONELRAD: And you got citizenship?
NATALIA: I got citizenship later on, yes. And from there I married and when I was married I went to San Diego and there I went into the theater. Acting and singing.
CONELRAD: How did you get trained in acting?
NATALIA: It was a kind of on-stage type of a training. It was at the Globe Theater in San Diego and from there I was hired for quite a lot of plays and after that I went to New York.
CONELRAD: And were you in off-Broadway productions in New York?
NATALIA: Well, you can call it that (laughs), yes, small theaters.
CONELRAD: Do you remember any of the plays that you were in?
NATALIA: No, I really don’t, but I have some of the publicity from the San Diego plays.
CONELRAD: So, you were very young when you were stage acting.
NATALIA: Yes, I was about twenty-something.
CONELRAD: Did you like singing in the plays?
NATALIA: The singing I actually did more than anything in Mexico. I took classes in Mexico. I was hired as a singer and as a hired singer I had a private tutor and I developed my voice.
CONELRAD: So you really got around. Russia, Germany, America, Mexico…
NATALIA: Yes, from New York I came back. I was only in New York for a year and half, something like that. I came back to Los Angeles – that’s when I had the movie (THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN).
CONELRAD: Were you in New York with your family or did you go there on your own?
NATALIA: No, all by myself.
CONELRAD: That must have been kind of intimidating.
NATALIA: Well, yes, I tell you sometimes I had ten cents and I was deciding shall I have a cup of coffee or shall I have soup. And I made the rounds because I also modeled. And since I’m a small girl I modeled for petite types of things. It was kind of rough, but I made a living.
CONELRAD: Those are the exciting times when you are young and just starting out.
NATALIA: Of course, the times are completely different than they are today, but when you’re young you think you can conquer the world. Today I wouldn’t dare think about it.
CONELRAD: After your time in New York City, how did you come to move back to Los Angeles?
NATALIA: I don’t know, I just (decided to) come back to Los Angeles and my family.
CONELRAD: How did you come to learn about the role of Dasha in THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN?
NATALIA: It was advertised and a friend of mine at that time kind of made me aware of it and said, ‘Why don’t you go try for it?’ I said, ‘Are you kidding? I mean movies and all that?’ And she said, ‘Go ahead and try it.’ So I went to Universal and that’s the whole thing of it. After that I got an agent.[ii]
CONELRAD: Is it true you were competing with 21 other women to get the role?
CONELRAD: And how did they audition you? I mean did they look at your hair? Or what?
NATALIA: No, they just talked to us. They lined us up and picked (eliminated) two bad (not right for the role) persons and then lined us up again and talked to us. And then when they talked to us they kind of selected the few of us (these would be Daryll and the other women who are paraded before Stalin in the film).
CONELRAD: The press materials from the time of the film’s release stated that the studio did not know that you were Russian when you were cast. Could that be true?
NATALIA: I don’t think so. I do not believe so, because my accent is better now than it was then.
CONELRAD: Right. We thought it was funny that the blonde actress who plays your sister in the film spoke with a perfect American accent.
NATALIA: (Laughs) Yes, and I spoke with a Russian accent.
CONELRAD: You were 24 years old when you got the role, correct?
CONELRAD: Were your friends and family excited to hear about your getting the role?
NATALIA: No, you see my father was very much against show business because he comes from a royal family and to them at that time anyone who was on stage was a loose woman. You know, it was not acceptable. I always loved dancing, ballet, singing and all that. So when I did that in Germany I was studying with a very famous teacher in ballet. When my father realized that it was really serious with me he stopped it and he wouldn’t let me go on anymore. And the teacher even came to my father and told him she would teach me for nothing because I had potential, I had such a talent.
CONELRAD: And then what happened?
NATALIA: He said, ‘No way, my daughter will never be on the stage.’ So I was not on the stage until I got married and got out of the house.
CONELRAD: So you were married when you got the role in THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN?
NATALIA: I was divorced by that time.
CONELRAD: So your first marriage was short.
NATALIA: Yes, it was a short marriage.
CONELRAD: How did you get interested in ballet in those difficult years in Germany?
NATALIA: I don’t know.
CONELRAD: Was it a release for you from all that was going on? An escape?
NATALIA: No, because in school they had gymnastics and I was interested in that and I did it all by myself and I loved music.
CONELRAD: So you speak German as well as Russian and English, right?
NATALIA: Yes. Right now I speak four languages (Editor’s Note: Daryll also speaks Spanish).
CONELRAD: You mentioned earlier when we communicated via e-mail that you were taking a lot of classes. Are you taking a language class?
NATALIA: No, I am… I like creating things. My whole family is very creative. My mother had a fantastic voice, my father played piano and my children are very artistic. Right now I am taking embroidery – sewing and embroidery type of thing. I love to create, I love to decorate. I wish I didn’t have to work all my life, I might have gotten into something else. Now that I’m retired and all that, it’s more of a hobby than anything else.
CONELRAD: Was GIRL IN THE KREMLIN your first film?
NATALIA: That was my first role.
CONELRAD: Did you meet (producer) Albert Zugsmith?
NATALIA: Yes, I did.
CONELRAD: What was he like? Was he larger than life?
NATALIA: I cannot tell because at the time I was such a child. I was so innocent. I don’t know. I guess I just took it in stride.
CONELRAD: Do you remember him smoking his big cigar?
NATALIA: Yes, but I just thought, well that’s the movie business, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
CONELRAD: Was he on set a lot?
NATALIA: Well, I was not on set a lot, let’s put it that way.
CONELRAD: Good point. So what was the director Russell Birdwell like?
NATALIA: Very outgoing and congenial. He was not there very much either. He was kind of there and gone. Zsa Zsa (Gabor) was there more than anyone.
CONELRAD: We’re going to get to Zsa Zsa. But first, what was shooting your big scene like? (Editor’s Note: The production file for THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN at University of Southern California Cinematic Arts Library records the date that Natalia Daryll’s head-shaving sequence was filmed: February 15, 1957).
NATALIA: It was more feeling than anything. That is what acting is all about. I didn’t mind losing my hair. That wasn’t a big deal to me.
CONELRAD: You knew you were going to lose your hair going in, right?
NATALIA: Oh, yes, of course. And the emotion of the scene was something I had to bring from outside myself and it’s just a feeling.
CONELRAD: Right, so the actual shaving of the head was secondary to eliciting the emotion that the script called for.
NATALIA: That’s right.
CONELRAD: Is it true you were given $300.00 extra to have your head shaved?
NATALIA: No, I don’t think so. After that you see my agent stepped in and handled all that.
CONELRAD: Right, because we actually went to the University of Southern California Cinematic Arts Library and looked at the production file on THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN and we found your contract and it shows you received a bonus of $300.00 for having your head shaved.[iii]
NATALIA: Oh, really? That was a big deal. No, I don’t remember that. The important thing to me was the role and not the money. I don’t even remember negotiating the money or anything else at that time.
CONELRAD: Right, so you were just happy to have gotten the role and to bring it off.
CONELRAD: Do you recall how you prepared for the scene? Did Birdwell give you any direction of what he wanted?
NATALIA: No. No, really not.
CONELRAD: So you just took your direction from the script?
NATALIA: Yes. You know we talked about it and that was it.
CONELRAD: OK, so you did discuss the scene briefly before the cameras rolled?
NATALIA: Yes. About what I was supposed to be doing, but that was about it.
CONELRAD: There is a scene where you look up and it is at such an angle that it is almost as if there is a camera mounted on the ceiling. Do you remember what was going on during this shot?
NATALIA: No, I do not remember a camera from the ceiling. You know, it’s kind of hard to remember right now, but I’m sure there was somebody behind the camera, behind the scenes kind of directing me to a certain extent.
CONELRAD: As a Russian, did you find the plot of the film kind of ridiculous?
NATALIA: (Laughing) You know I didn’t even think about that at that time.
CONELRAD: You were focused on your role exclusively?
NATALIA: That was the only thing, yes. I did not read the whole script. I did not know the whole script. Later on I read the script, but before then I didn’t read the script. I only knew my role and what I was supposed to be doing.
CONELRAD: That was probably a good approach in retrospect.
NATALIA: Since I saw the movie, I thought, you know, I never thought of Zsa Zsa as a good actress.
NATALIA: Really, I thought she was a joke and maybe that was good that I didn’t… (Natalia changes her train of thought here) Actually, the fight with Zsa Zsa, you know with her sister (Editor’s Note: Zsa Zsa Gabor played a dual role in THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN and there is a memorable scene in which she has a “catfight” with “herself” that concludes with the evil Zsa Zsa sans wig and completely “bald” – though Gabor actually wore a skin cap)?
NATALIA: That was me.
CONELRAD: That was you?
NATALIA: That was me, as a double for Zsa Zsa.
CONELRAD: So the shots where you can’t see Zsa Zsa’s face – that’s you.
NATALIA: Yes, that’s me.
CONELRAD: That is a nice bit of GIRL IN THE KREMLIN trivia for our readers. Getting back to your main scene: Was it awkward, as a Russian, to act opposite someone who was playing Joseph Stalin?
NATALIA: No, no, no, no. Because, you know, I had no conception of playing for Stalin, against Stalin, against Communism or for Communism. I had no conception whatsoever.
CONELRAD: Right, but, obviously, as a Russian, you knew who Stalin was and…
NATALIA: Of course. My father being a nobility was in jail so many times. My father was not home most of the time. My mother was jailed in Russia. Of course, I knew, but it is a child type of a thing.
CONELRAD: So your parents were jailed by the Stalin regime?
CONELRAD: So you compartmentalized your emotions to play the role opposite this person made up to look like Stalin, this figure who had caused your family so much pain? Is that accurate?
NATALIA: I am sorry to disappoint you, but I didn’t even think of him, I just… it was a movie.
CONELRAD: That is probably a testament to your acting skills.
NATALIA: You know, it’s just a…Right now put me in front of Hussein or somebody else and hate or not hate, it (acting) is what I am supposed to do.
CONELRAD: So the mission of the acting in this awkward scene with this Stalin look-a-like just took over?
CONELRAD: So, from Stalin to Zsa Zsa. What was Zsa Zsa Gabor like to work with?
NATALIA: (Sighs) She was OK. She was very shabby.
CONELRAD: Shabby? What do you mean by that?
NATALIA: Talking a lot.
CONELRAD: Oh, you mean ‘Gabby’?
NATALIA: (Laughs) Gabby, Yes. Very gabby. Very much in everything. And even before that (the film), about Zsa Zsa, I didn’t think much of her. So, she was nice to me. She was cordial. That’s all I can say about her.
CONELRAD: In retrospect, in watching the film so many years later, did your opinion of her acting ability change at all?
CONELRAD: So you thought she was kind of a joke as an actress?
NATALIA: Well, yea (laughs). I think her sister is much, much better.
CONELRAD: Eva Gabor.
NATALIA: Or was much, much better. Yes.
CONELRAD: Universal Pictures had an option on your next role according to the press clips we have…
NATALIA: Yes, they did. They wanted me to tour with the movie (GIRL IN THE KREMLIN).
CONELRAD: To help promote it, right.
NATALIA: To help promote it, and they were thinking of putting me under a contract, but I think my agent asked for too much money or whatever because he called me and told me about it and all of a sudden it was off.
CONELRAD: And I assume that impacted Universal offering you another role.
NATALIA: Yea, I guess so, because that was it and I never heard from them again.
CONELRAD: What was it like to have the momentary fame of having the key scene in a studio movie? You were in all the newspapers for a brief period well before the film actually came out because of the head shaving.
NATALIA: (Laughs) It was kind of funny. That’s about it. It was kind of funny having the head shaved. I remember we went with friends of ours to San Francisco and we were sitting in a restaurant. Of course, I had a wig on and somebody said ‘Oh, here she’s something, something, something’ and I said ‘Yes!’ and I took off my wig and said, ‘Yep! Here I am!’
CONERLAD: So they recognized you from the publicity for the movie?
NATALIA: Yes. It (the fame) was just (pauses) OK (Laughs).
CONELRAD: Were you aware that Universal promoted the film by having women shave their heads in the lobbies of theaters showing the film? These women were paid $300.00 each to participate in the stunt.[iv]
NATALIA: (Surprised) Really? No, I didn’t know that!
CONELRAD: What did you do while you were waiting for your hair to grow back? Did you just wear the wig and…
NATALIA: No, at first I wore the wig, but my hair grew out very quickly, so I had a short haircut, very short haircut.
CONELRAD: Kind of like Mia Farrow only earlier?
CONELRAD: Is it true you were on Art Linkletter’s show?[v]
CONELRAD: Was that one of the few promotions you did for the film?
NATALIA: I guess so.
CONELRAD: What was being on Art Linkletter’s show like?
NATALIA: You know it was such a long time ago, it didn’t stay with me. Let’s put it that way. It was fair. It wasn’t that important, I guess. To me I took my acting like my singing or whatever it was seriously. Later on I realized that the promotion, the press was important. Before that I didn’t.
CONELRAD: Is it true your next role was in 1959 in the TV show ‘Behind Closed Doors’?
NATALIA: Uh-huh, that’s right.
CONELRAD: And what was that about?
NATALIA: It was about a professor who was my father that I believe – you know, I never saw that one either. But they kidnapped him and they’re going after him type of a thing, trying to find him.
CONELRAD: And then you did a show called ‘Shotgun Slade’ in 1960. I assume that was a western?
NATALIA: That was a western, yes.
CONELRAD: Did you do any other work, like commercials or was that it?
NATALIA: After that, that’s when I went to Mexico. And somebody heard my voice singing and thought I should do that. I was singing in a restaurant, like a nightclub restaurant and I started studying and developing my voice more. That’s what I was doing in Mexico. And I did a record album.
CONELRAD: Was that under your name Natalia Daryll?
NATALIA: No, it was a duet under the name Dino & Dina (Editor’s Note: This was a 45 single release on the Capitol label).
CONELRAD: And that was released in Mexico?
CONELRAD: What style of music was it?
NATALIA: Romantic. That was the thing in Mexico at the time.
CONELRAD: What happened to your acting career after Mexico?
NATALIA: Nothing. Well, I came back and I was going to get back into that, but it was so different because I was in Mexico on and off for about ten years.
NATALIA: So when I got back it was so different, I kind of completely went away from that. I tried a couple of times, so I just got away from that and soon after that I got married and so that was the end of it. I still love singing, I still love the music.
Editor’s Note: Natalia and her second husband, a teacher, remained in Southern California for many years after her return from Mexico.
CONELRAD: What did you do for work?
NATALIA: I was teaching gymnastics at one time and then I was teaching Jenny Craig and then after that for about, oh fifteen years, I was a health technician in schools.
CONELRAD: Going back to GIRL IN THE KREMLIN for a moment. This really fascinates us – you have your first role in a film in 1957 and you don’t even see it until we send you a copy on DVD a few weeks ago. How is it possible that you did not see your movie until 2008?
NATALIA: I guess it never came about, I wasn’t that (pauses) (laughs) it’s hard to explain. If the movie had been available, I would have seen it. I didn’t go out of my way to look for it.
CONELRAD: But you lived in L.A. and it was in the theaters.
NATALIA: Well, at that time, after my movies (KREMLIN and the two television programs) I was in Mexico. When I came back, somebody told me they saw my movie on the late show and, I don’t know. To be very honest, when I saw my movie it was a little embarrassing.
CONELRAD: After we sent the movie to you on DVD, you watched it with some friends of yours for the first time ever. What was that like?
NATALIA: Well, (laughs) maybe I should have watched by myself for the first time. I thought I could have done better and it was, you know, a little funny, kind of embarrassing (laughs).
CONELRAD: What did your friends think about it?
NATALIA: They thought my scene was great. They thought the movie was, as you say, ridiculous.
CONELRAD: Was watching yourself so many years later like looking at a different person?
NATALIA: No, no it really wasn’t.
CONELRAD: Did it really take you back to that point in time?
NATALIA: Yes, it did. Watching myself was kind of moving and embarrassing (laughs).
CONELRAD: And what did your husband think of your performance?
NATALIA: He thought I did a great job. He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, I think it’s great.’
CONELRAD: And your kids? They haven’t seen it because they’re grown?
NATALIA: Yea, they haven’t seen the movie because they don’t live nearby.
CONELRAD: We will send you extra copies so that they can see your movie. Thank you so much for speaking with us!
NATALIA: Thank you!
CONELRAD wishes to thank Natalia Daryll for her time and her willingness to discuss her remarkable life and career. Do svidaniya!
Interview conducted by Bill Geerhart
[i] After examining numerous Stalin biographies and finding no corroboration for the alleged Stalin head-shaving fetish, CONELRAD contacted the Stalin scholar Simon Sebag Montefiore via e-mail. When asked about the veracity of the dictator’s use of head-shaving as a punishment, Mr. Montefiore’s response was succinct: “It is total nonsense.” June 6, 2008 e-mail to Bill Geerhart.
[ii] It was confirmed in a follow-up telephone call with Natalia Daryll that her agent was Jack Pomeroy of the Jack Pomeroy Agency.
[iii] The production file for THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN located at the University of Southern California Cinematic Arts Library provides the date that the filming of the head-shaving sequence took place: February 15, 1957.
[iv] The April 25, 1957 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle reported that Mrs. Pat Smith had her head shaved in the lobby of the Golden Gate Theater for $300 to help promote THE GIRL IN THE KREMLIN.
[v] Natalia Daryll appeared on the radio and television editions of ART LINKLETTER’S HOUSE PARTY on February 28, 1957.