While Boris Karloff gave The Mummy the face of fear and terror, Zita Johann gave The Mummy the face of beauty and innocence. Zita was born July 14, 1904 in Deutschbentschek, Austria-Hungary (now Pischia, Romania) to German parents. She was a theater actress before making her film debut in 1931. When she was cast as Helen/Princess Ankhesenamon, she would become famous.
Zita was not the first choice to play Princess Ankhesenamon. Katharine Hepburn was suggested for the part but it was ultimately given to Zita. She believed in mysticism, reincarnation and had a great interest in the occult which made it easy to get into the role. However, it was not easy working with director Karl Freund. It was his first picture as a director but he had done cinematography for Universal’s Dracula. Zita felt because she was a theater actress, she was better than a Hollywood actress. Freund saw this and at one point wanted her to portray Ankhesenamon only partially clothed so she would refuse and he could get her fired. She snapped back, saying if he were able to get it passed the censors, she’d do it. (“I want you to play it from the waist up nude.”) Zita was fond of her co-star and lead in the film, Boris Karloff. She thought of him as a professional and a gentleman.
Unfortunately, Zita Johann’s entertainment career could not match her stardom in The Mummy. In fact, she did not act in a movie between 1934 and 1986. Her character, Ankhesenamon made an appearance in 1940’s The Mummy’s Hand but she did not appear in the film credits. Zita Johann has left a legacy in the sense that she was the first female lead in The Mummy and would be succeeded by Rachel Weisz in The Mummy 1999 and now Annabelle Wallis.
The Mummy is a timeless classic and her role alongside Boris Karloff is one of the reasons why.