22 February 2024

Tamara Desni

Exotic, brunette actress Tamara Desni (1910–2008) was the daughter of Ukrainian-born film star Xenia Desni. Tamara started her stage and film career as a child in Berlin and appeared in several British films during the 1930s and 1940s.

Tamara Desni
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin, no. 6125/1, 1931-1932. Photo: Ufa. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Tamara Desni
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 5767/1, 1930-1931. Photo: Becker & Maas, Berlin.

Tamara Desni
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. 6346/1, 1931-1932. Photo: Becker & Maas, Berlin.

Tamara Desni
British postcard for Coliseum Theatre, London. Photo: publicity still for the play 'Casanova'.

Tamara Desni
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 795. Photo: Gaumont.

Tamara Desni
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 795a. Photo: Sound Films.

Fire Over England

Tamara Desni was born Tamara Brodsky, in Berlin in 1910 (some sources say 1913). She was the daughter of Ukrainian-born film star Xenia Desni. She took her mother's surname as her stage name. Her father, James Brodsky, left his family to settle in the United States. Tamara studied ballet as a child and appeared on stage.

In 1929, while a teenager, she married Hans Wilhelm, a dentist, but they divorced a year later. She also played in German films like the comedy Der Schrecken der Garnison/Terror of the Garrison (Carl Boese, 1931) with Felix Bressart, and Im Geheimdienst/In the Employ of the Secret Service (Gustav Ucicky, 1931) starring Brigitte Helm.

That same year she came with her mother to London for a stage role in the operetta 'White Horse Inn' (1931). For this spectacular production, credited with saving the Coliseum, which was faltering as a music hall, the entire theatre was transformed into the Tyrol. The production was based on the German operetta 'Im weissen Roessl', which had been a great success in her then home town, Berlin, the year before. 'White Horse Inn' was a smash hit and ran for 500 performances at the Coliseum Theatre. She followed this up with another leading role at the Coliseum in a German import, the musical 'Casanova', featuring music by Johann Strauss, Jr. His music was adapted by Ralph Benatsky, who had done much the same kind of thing for 'White Horse Inn' with music from various Viennese composers, including Robert Stolz.

Desni's British film career took off with the comedy Falling for You (Robert Stevenson, Jack Hulbert, 1933), supporting the popular musical comedy team of Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge. Her next films were the thriller Forbidden Territory (Phil Rosen, 1934) starring Gregory Ratoff, another Jack Hulbert comedy Jack Ahoy (Walter Forde, 1935) and the musical romance Bypass to Happiness/The Diplomatic Lover (Anthony Kimmins, 1934) starring Harold French. She played the lead in Dark World (Bernard Vorhaus, 1935), but the film, released by Fox Film Corporation, is now considered lost.

Desni played a supporting part in the historical drama Fire Over England (William K. Howard, 1937), notable for providing the first pairing of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. Leigh's performance in the film helped to convince David O. Selznick to cast her as Scarlett O'Hara in his production of Gone with the Wind. Mike Cummings at AllMovie: "But what really sets the film apart is the outstanding performance of Flora Robson as a stout-hearted, quick-tongued Queen Elizabeth I. Robson delivers barbs at court as sharp as the crossed swords on the field of battle. In private, though, she exhibits a gentle side, even spoon-feeding broth to her ailing counsellor, Baron Burleigh, portrayed with grandfatherly benignity by Morton Selten. The plot moves swiftly, depicting battles, captures, narrow escapes, and wooing on the fly -- all enhanced by the stunning black-and-white cinematography of James Wong Howe. Richard Addinsell serves up a rousing music score, and two of early filmdom's exquisite beauties -- Tamara Desni (Elena) and Vivien Leigh (Cynthia) -- turn strait-laced Elizabethan gowns into fashion statements."

Tamara Desni
Vintage photo, ca. 1920. A gift from Tatiana.

Tamara Desni
German postcard. Photo: Otto Kurt Vogelsang Lichtbildner, Berlin. From Tatiana.

Tamara Desni
British photo by Vivienne / 20th Century Studios Ltd, London. From Tatiana.

Tamara Desni
German postcard by Ross Verlag, Berlin. Photo: Otto Kurt Vogelsang, Berlin. From Tatiana.

Tamara Desni
Vintage postcard. From Tatiana.

Tamara Desni
British postcard by Lewis Repro, Charing Cross. From Tatiana.

Lithe steps and high-kicks

Tamara Desni’s film career continued through 1950. She played the lover of a small-time crook in Edgar Wallace's mystery The Squeaker (William K. Howard, 1937), with Robert Newton, Edmund Lowe and Ann Todd. Tom Valance in his obituary in The Independent: "Playing a cabaret performer named Tamara in The Squeaker, she sang two songs, 'He's Gone' and 'I Don't Get Along Without You', in a light, sub-Dietrich voice, and performed some lithe steps and high-kicks wearing a see-through evening gown."

In the wartime thriller Traitor Spy (Walter Summers, 1939) she co-starred with Bruce Cabot. Other film credits include the musical comedy Flight from Folly (Herbert Mason, 1945), the crime film Send for Paul Temple (John Argyle, 1946) featuring Anthony Hulme, and her final film, Dick Barton Strikes Back (Godfrey Grayson, 1950) about special agent Dick Barton (Don Stannard).

Tom Vallance: "The radio show Dick Barton – Special Agent (1946) had built an audience of 15 million within a year and was the third most popular radio show of its time after Radio Forfeits and Woman's Hour, but the investigator's screen adventures were lamentably low-budget, poorly written and weakly acted. Desni was second-billed to its star Don Stannard in Dick Barton at Bay, but as Madame Anna, one of the leaders of a gang out to steal a death ray, she had little to do but accept compliments for her beauty and make observations about her cohorts (‘You're getting jumpy, Fingers’)." Dick Barton Strikes Back was the second of three films Hammer Film Productions made about the British agent, although it was the last released. A fourth Barton film was scheduled, Dick Barton in Africa, but Don Stannard was killed in a car crash driving back from the wrap party and Hammer elected not to continue the series.

At the time, Tamara Desni was separating from her fourth husband. Her second husband had been actor Bruce Seton, whom she had met on the set of the forgettable film Blue Smoke (Ralph Ince, 1935) in 1934. They married in 1936 and divorced in 1940. Husband three was film producer Bill Gillet, who served in WWII as a naval flyer. The strains of that ended the marriage in 1945. Husband four was Canadian-born actor Raymond Lovell. They married in 1947, and separated in 1951. Her stepdaughter during this short marriage was the actress Simone Lovell.

After her divorce, Desni moved to the South of France, where she became romantically involved with Albert Lavagna, a builder. Given her track record, she did not wish to marry him initially, but when she became pregnant Albert insisted due to his strong religious faith. It was his first marriage and it would last for half a century. They built 'L'Auberge Chez Tamara', a restaurant and bar which became a popular attraction around Grasse in the Alpes Maritimes. The couple had two daughters. While in her late eighties, Tamara Desni’s health began declining. Aged 97 and a widow, she died in Valence d'Agen, France in 2008.

Tamara and Xenia Desni
Tamara and Xenia Desni. Photo. Collection: Didier Hanson. Given to Didier by Madeleine, Tamara's daughter.

Xenia and Tamara Desni
Tamara Desni, Xenia Desni. Vintage photo. From Tatiana.

Tamara Desni
Vintage photo, ca. 1930. A gift from Tatiana.

Tamara Desni
German postcard. Photo: Becker & Maass, Berlin. Collection: Didier Hanson.

Tamara Desni
German postcard by Verlag Harlip, no. 611. Photo: Harlip.

Tamara Desni, Xenia Desni
Vintage photo. From Tatiana.

Tamara Desni
Photo. Collection: Didier Hanson. Tamara Desni and Raymond Lovell's wedding in 1946. Given to Didier by her daughter.

Tamara Desni, Raymond Lovell
Vintage photo of Tamara Desni and Raymond Lovell. Collection: Didier Hanson. Given to Didier by Tamara's daughter.

Tamara Desni
British card. Photo: B.I.P. Publicity still for McGlusky the Sea Rover (Walter Summers, 1935).

Tamara Desni and Edgar K. Bruce in For husbands only (1949)
British flyer by Ludo Press Ltd. for Palace Pier Theatre, Brighton, 1949. Photos: publicity stills for the play 'For Husbands Only' by John Sibley, starring Edgar K. Bruce and Tamara Desni. A gift from Tatiana.

Thank you, Tatiana and Didier, for sharing your postcards and photos with us!

Sources: Tom Vallance (The Independent), Mike Cummings (AllMovie), The Telegraph, AllMovie, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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