Hjördis Niven’s twin nieces Gudrun and Maj-Lis Genberg were born in Sundsvall on 7th April 1941, the daughters of Hjördis’ only brother, poor old seriously outnumbered Karl Georg. In September 1959, Gudrun, and then Maj-Lis, were plucked from teenage modelling careers in Stockholm to perform with the Folies Bergère at the Hotel Tropicana in Las Vegas.
Hjördis and David provided support for the 18 year olds during their Las Vegas adventure, which ran between December 1959 and March 1960. Although Maj-Lis and Gudrun’s hopes of Hollywood stardom didn’t materialise, they did manage an appearance in a movie called “Pepe” – a vehicle for Cantinflas, the Mexican comedian who had played Passepartout opposite David Niven in “Around the World in 80 Days”.
The movie sought to recreate the sweeping multi-cameo feel of “80 Days”, but unsurprisingly fell short. Gudrun and Maj-Lis featured with Maurice Chevalier and the Folies during a musical interlude.
Before returning to Sweden in March 1960 the girls took part in a widely reproduced photo session in the gardens of David Niven’s Pacific Palisades home. Their uncle and aunt were already in the process of relocating in Europe, which would make these the last family photos taken at the house. (David was busy filming ‘The Guns of Navarone’ in Rhodes at the time). One year later the photo story was still being published in newspapers and magazines around the world.
By then, Gudrun and Maj-Lis’ careers had taken off in a different, and very successful direction. In December 1960 they were chosen by German born designer Roland Karl (soon better known as Karl Lagerfeld), to model his Spring 1961 collection for the Jean Patou fashion house in Paris.
A press article from Paris in January 1961 mentioned that: “Both hope to become actresses, have 20in. waistlines, speak four languages fluently and share a small apartment with a vast ‘family’ of pets.”
For the sake of convenience, the girls adopted the names Pia and Mia Genberg, which would stick for another decade. Their impact in France was immediate, even more than Lagerfeld’s designs. Very soon they were gracing the covers of European fashion magazines, and taking their first acting steps in French TV movies.
Actresses in Italy
In mid February 1961, the Swedish press announced some “French perfumed news” [love it], that Pia and Mia were staying with their Aunt Hjördis in Switzerland before driving down to Rome to take part in a movie starring Stewart Granger. The film was “(The Last Days of) Sodom and Gomorrah”, a hideous biblical epic in which the girls danced in a scene choreographed by Archie Savage. To add to the difficulties of spotting them among a fast moving cast of hundreds, Mia apparently started out as a girl in the movie and ended it as a boy.
Pia and Mia’s move to Rome soon became permanent, and their popularity in Italy took off as quickly as it had done in France. They spent 1961 and 1962 balancing modelling with appearances in a string of movies produced by the burgeoning Italian film industry. When asked about their success, their mum said: “I can’t understand how they can earn so much by doing so little.” A very mum thing to say.
The girls’ film work in 1961 included “Leoni al sole” (a comedy now considered an Italian classic), and “Five marines for 100 girls” (a comedy never considered an Italian classic). 1962 had an epic beginning (literally) with Pia and Mia playing two of Elizabeth Taylor’s maidservants in “Cleopatra”, amidst a reported 14,000 extras. At the same time, Aunt Hjördis lured away Ms Taylor’s real life maidservant to look after her newly adopted daughter Kristina. [Game, set and match to the Genberg family.]
Hjördis must have seen parallels with her own early career. Although she did not work in France, she did model for the ‘Franska’ department at NK (Nordiska Kompaniet) in Stockholm, before landing film roles as a dancer and model.
Joined at the hip
Pia and Mia also performed an all-singing all-dancing parody of Germany’s Kessler twins – who remain major stars in Italy to this day. Two short routines were included in the 1963 movie “Scanzonatissimo”; a series of satirical sketches about life in Italy. The Genberg sisters re-worked the Kesslers’ European hit song “Da-Da-Um-Pa”, as “Da-Da-Enpas” (“Da-Da-Deadlock”).
Between 1961-63 David Niven was also working extensively in Italy. At one point he and Hjördis even considered moving to Rome. Pia and Mia were visited there by a Swedish journalist, who reported that the girls spoke excellent Italian “picked up from the street”, and spoke English even better – polished up by, among others, David Niven. Hjördis was mentioned as being “very mischievous, more like a sister than an aunt.”
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Pia and Mia Genberg. Photographed in Rome, 1960s.
Although David Niven’s films didn’t cross paths with the Genberg twins, they almost inevitably worked with the same people. In 1962 David had a cameo role in a D-Day comedy [?!] called “The Shortest Day”, which starred the popular and ultra prolific Italian duo Ciccio Ingrassia and Franco Franchi.
Pia And Mia had already appeared with the two comedians in “Five marines for 100 girls”, and in 1964 landed their biggest joint movie-role in the Ingrassia and Franchi vehicle “Sedotti e bidonati”. The girls played fake Siamese twins (named Pia and Mia) who con money out of the hapless duo to pay for a bogus operation to separate them.
The movie illustrated that, despite the girls’ success, their range of potential roles was hugely narrowed by them being viewed as a pair.
A split pair
“Sedotti e bidonati” proved to be the Genberg twins’ last movie together. Pia left the movie industry, while Mia continued and established herself as a solo actress.
Adding to the variety of her career achievements, Mia also sang on a 1966 solo single called “Ogni Giorno Che Passa” (“Every Day That Passes”) which was used on the soundtrack of the movie “I Knew Her Well”.
In 1967 Mia mentioned that she and Pia had adopted different hairstyles, although miss-identification still took place, and not always in the way expected. In November 1966, when a press photo of them walking through Rome with David Niven was handed over to the Swedish press for identification, it turned out that neither Pia or Mia were present. The two women with David Niven were in fact Hjördis and the Polish actress Magda Konopka.
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Mia Genberg, the Rome Lucia, at The Hilton Hotel, December 14, 1965
Mia’s movies from 1966 covered a broad spectrum, from “The Tough One” – a modern-day spaghetti western complete with helicopters and machine guns, through “Agente Sigma 3 – Missione Goldwather” – one of the deluge of 1960s spy movies in the wake of James Bond, before she closed a successful and colourful run with the 1971 horror movie “Something is Crawling in the Dark”.
Next page: Lo Scoglietto – The little rock or continue the Pia and Mia theme:
Gudrun and Maj-Lis Genberg photo gallery covering their modelling, singing and dancing careers from 1959-1961, and Pia and Mia Genberg photo gallery covering the Italian years from 1961-1964