24 June 2014

May Britt

Blonde, blue-eyed Swedish actress May Britt (1933) had a brief career as a film star in the 1950s, first in Italy and later in the United States. She retired from the screen after she married Sammy Davis, Jr. in 1960.

May Britt
French postcard by Editions P.I., no. 943. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

May Britt
German postcard by Krüger, no. 902/62.


Maybritt Wilkens was born in 1933 (some sources mention 1934), in the Stockholm suburb of Lidingö, Sweden. Her father, Hugo Brigg-Wilkens, was a postal inspector; her mother was a housewife.

Maybritt was only 18 and working as a photographer's assistant, when she was discovered by two Italian film-makers. Producer Carlo Ponti and director Mario Soldati were in Sweden to cast a young blonde woman for the title role in a new film.

They came to the studio where she worked to view photographs of models. After meeting her, they offered her the part instead. May Britt, as she was renamed professionally, immediately moved to Rome.

She made her film debut as the leading actress in the adventure film Jolanda la figlia del corsaro nero/Jolanda, the Daughter of the Black Corsair (Mario Soldati, 1952) with Renato Salvatori.

In the following years she worked in a dozen Cinecittà productions, including the 3-D opera adaptation Cavalleria rusticana/Fatal Desire (Carmine Gallone, 1953) with Anthony Quinn, Le infedeli/Unfaithful (Mario Monicelli, Steno, 1953) with Gina Lollobrigida, and La lupa/The She-Wolf (Alberto Lattuada, 1953).

She also featured in international productions like the Eddie Constantine vehicle Ça va barder/Give 'em Hell (John Berry, 1955) and the epic Leo Tolstoy adaptation War and Peace (King Vidor, 1956) starring Audrey Hepburn, Mel Ferrer and Henry Fonda.

May Britt
German postcard by ISV, no. D 1. Photo: Luxardo.

May Britt
German postcard by Filmbilder-Vertrieb Ernst Freihoff, Essen, no. 115. Retail price: 25 Pfg. Photo: Dial / Unitalia Film.


In 1957, May Britt relocated to Hollywood after signing with 20th Century Fox. She starred in a few films, including the World War 2 drama The Young Lions (Edward Dmytryk, 1958) with Marlon Brando and the crime drama Murder, Inc. (Burt Balaban, Stuart Rosenberg, 1960) with Peter Falk.

She also played the lead role in the remake of The Blue Angel (1959, Edward Dmytryk) co-starring Curd Jürgens.

May Britt was first bombarded with adverse criticism for having the ‘audacity’ to step into the foortsteps of Marlene Dietrich but her performance as Lola-Lola got pretty good reviews. A reviewer at IMDb even writes: “well made production with fine performances from Jurgens and May Britt, who shines as showgirl Lola Lola. Ms. Britt did a wonderful job recreating the old Dietrich role and in my opinion was much better.”

In 1959, after a brief marriage to Edwin Gregson (1958-1959), the 19-year old son of a Southern California real estate millionaire, she met Sammy Davis, Jr., the famous black entertainer. They began dating, and, after a brief engagement, were married in 1960.

As one of the first interracial couples in Hollywood, Sammy and May were the target of nasty jokes, vicious slurs and death threats, but both survived the ordeal thanks to the strong and protective support of industry friends.

20th Century-Fox didn't renew her contract though. The studio refused to say if the action was a result of her plans to marry Davis.

A rumor or myth, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy told Frank Sinatra to tell Sammy not to marry May until after the 1960 Presidential Election. At that time interracial marriage was forbidden by law in 31 U.S. states, and only in 1967 were those laws abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Prior to the wedding, Britt converted to Judaism. She and Davis had one daughter and adopted two sons, and May retired to take care of her children. They divorced in 1968 after Davis reportedly had an affair with dancer Lola Falana.

In 1967 May Britt resumed working and did television guest appearances in TV series like Mission: Impossible (1969).

May Britt made a long overdue comeback to the screen in the quirky little thriller Haunts (Herb Freed, 1977). Reviewer Cavett Binion of AllMovie calls it “a surprisingly original murder mystery with some well-executed twists” and “This seedy but fun horror film is buoyed by Britt's enjoyably loony performance”.

Her last appearance was in the Sci-Fi TV series Probe (1988).

May Britt retired and since then she has mainly been involved in painting. In 1993 May Britt married Lennart Ringquist. They live in Los Angeles, California.

May Britt
German postcard by Ufa, Berlin-Tempelhof, no. FK 2249. Photo: Dial / Unitalia Film.

May Britt
Italian postcard by B.F.F. Edit., no. 3633. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Publicity still for The Hunters (Dick Powell, 1958).

Sources: Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Mattias Thuresson (IMDb), Cavett Binion (AllMovie), Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen, Wikipedia and IMDb.
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