30 June 2013

Denise Darcel

Greetings from sunny Italy! We're enjoying Il Cinema Ritrovato (29 June - 6 July 2013), the wonderful Bologna festival, dedicated to the rediscovery of rare and little-known films. 8 days long, European Film Star Postcards posts about stars of restored films, presented at the festival. One of the films I am really looking forward to is Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954), starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster. The screening is in honour of the 100th anniversary of Lancaster's birth on 2 November 1913, and Lancaster's daughter Joanna will introduce the film.

But this post is about Vera Cruz' female lead, Denise Darcel (1924-2011). In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the French singer and actress starred in a string of Hollywood films. Americans knew her as the sultry ‘French Bombshell’. Later she worked as a game show host, a striptease artiste and a casino dealer in Las Vegas. Indeed, ooh-la-la!

Denise Darcel
Italian postcard, no. 245.

The Most Beautiful Girl in France
Denise Darcel was born as Denise Billecard in Paris, in 1924. One of five daughters of a baker, she was educated at the University of Dijon. On VJ Day she was a passenger in an L-5 Stinson light observation aircraft to see the celebration from the air. According to Wikipedia, her friend at the time, US army pilot James Helinger Sr. was at the controls, while they flew under several bridges along the Seine and finally, under the Eiffel Tower, with the crowds below. After World War II, she was working as a shop assistant when she won a beauty contest that led to her being featured in the popular press as ‘The Most Beautiful Girl in France’. Determined to capitalise on this stroke of good fortune, she became a nightclub singer. She married a US Army captain who brought her to the United States. The marriage quickly dissolved, but Denise took the helmer Darcel and stayed in Hollywood. There she made her film debut in the war drama To the Victor (Delmer Daves, 1948), starring Dennis Morgan and Viveca Lindfors. Though her part as a bar singer was unbilled, she set male pulses racing with her rendition of Edith Piaf's signature song La vie en rose. Her breakthrough was in the Second World War film Battleground (William Wellman, 1949). The film tells the story of an infantry company trying to cope with the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in World War II. Darcel played a Belgian girl with whom some American GI’s are billeted overnight. In a memorable scene she presses a baguette to her tight-fitting sweater, holds up a kitchen knife, and then slowly saws off pieces towards her bosom. Battleground won two Academy Awards: for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White (Paul C. Vogel) and for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (Robert Pirosh). It was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (William A. Wellman), Best Film Editing (John D. Dunning), and Best Actor in a Supporting Role (James Whitmore). It was MGM's largest grossing film in five years, taking in a total of over $5 million in the US market alone. The film was also good for Darcel’s career. Hal Erickson at AllMovie: “She proved herself more than a beautiful face and a Gallic accent with her dramatic performance in the otherwise all-male Battleground (1949). She was then promoted as a ‘discovery’ when she co-starred with Olsen and Johnson in the 1950 Broadway revue Pardon My French.”

Denise Darcel
French postcard, no. 752. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Fifi, Gigi and Lola
Denise Darcel played characters called Fifi, Gigi and Lola in her films. Ronald Bergan in his The Guardian obituary writes that she “profited from Hollywood's ‘ooh-la-la’ conception of young, shapely French womanhood, generally inviting the adjective ‘sultry’. She made quite an impression with her ‘leg art poses’ as a sarong-wearing nurse in Tarzan and the Slave Girl (Lee Sholem, 1950) opposite Lex Barker. She co-starred with Robert Taylor in the Western Westward the Women (William A. Wellman, 1952) as a prostitute looking for a new life in 1851 California, and with Glenn Ford in the romantic comedy Young Man with Ideas (Mitchell Leisen, 1952). In 1952, she also became an American citizen. The following year she proved she looked spectacular in a swimsuit in the Technicolor musical Dangerous When Wet (Charles Walters, 1953), with ‘American Mermaid’ Esther Williams. Darcel’s most important film is Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954) set in the Mexican War of Independence. She played Emperor Maximilian’s treacherous mistress who, along with a shipment of gold which she plans to divert, is escorted from Mexico City to Maximilian’s forces in Vera Cruz by two American soldiers of fortune – Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper. According to Wikipedia, “the film's amoral characters and cynical attitude toward violence (including a scene where Lancaster's character threatens to murder child hostages) were considered shocking at the time and influenced future Westerns such as The Magnificent Seven, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, and the films of Sergio Leone, which often featured supporting cast members from Vera Cruz in similar roles.”

Denise Darcel
British postcard. Photo: Metro Goldwyn Mayer.

Banned in Boston
After Vera Cruz (1954), Denise Darcel only made one more film, Seven Women from Hell (Robert D. Webb, 1961), an undistinguished melodrama about a group of women prisoners in a Japanese prison camp in the Philippines. What was the reason that Hollywood stopped calling? The Telegraph: “It was rumoured that she had sealed her own fate by refusing the casting couch advances of Howard Hughes and Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn.” Ronald Bergan gives a less sensational explanation: “Darcel left movies for six years after Vera Cruz, living off the maintenance from her second husband, the millionaire and Washington property dealer Peter Crosby, whom she divorced in 1951. In 1958, she recorded an album of songs, Banned in Boston, which included her versions of I'm in the Mood for Love, Love for Sale and My Man, during which she occasionally reverted to French lyrics.“ She worked occasionally for television, like hosting the TV quiz show Gamble on Love (1954). At the age of 41, Darcel even became an ecdysiast (stripper), appearing in West Coast theatres in San Francisco, Las Vegas, Oakland, and Los Angeles. She retired from stripping after a few years and returned to the cabaret circuit, making a few more appearances on television. In later years she worked as a casino dealer in Las Vegas. In 1991, she was cast as Solange La Fitte in the Los Angeles 20th anniversary revival of the musical Follies, produced by the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. She would later repeat the role of Solange in 1995 for revivals in Houston and Seattle. In 2009, she was honoured with the Cinecon Career Achievement Award, presented in Hollywood at a banquet held at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel. Prior to the ceremony, a new 35mm colour print of her film Flame of Calcutta (Seymour Friedman, 1953) was screened at the Egyptian Theatre. After the screening, at the banquet, she cheerfully announced to the audience, "I'm back". iTunes made her album, Banned in Boston, available for purchase. At the age of 87, Denise Darcel died in Los Angeles in 2011, after emergency surgery to repair a ruptured aneurysm. She married four and divorced three times. Her fourth husband, George Simpson, died in 2003. Darcel had two sons, Chris and Craig.

Scene from Battleground (1949). Source: Carole Robinson (YouTube).

Trailer for Westward the Women (1952). Source: Warner Archive (YouTube).

Official trailer for Vera Cruz (1954). Source: Neondreams (YouTube).

Sources: Ronald Bergan (The Guardian), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), The Telegraph, Wikipedia and IMDb.

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