01 November 2016

Jany Holt

Passionate Jany Holt (1909-2005) was a red-haired French actress of Romanian origin. From the 1930s on, she had an extensive career in the French cinema and theatre. She reached her zenith during the late 1930s and the war years playing nuns as well as prostitutes.

Jany Holt
French postcard, no. 540. Photo: R. Voinquel / Flora Films. Publicity still for Raspoutine/Rasputin (Marcel L'Herbier, 1938). Collection: Didier Hanson.

Jany Holt
French postcard by O.P., Paris, no. 16. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Flaming Red Hair and a Skinny Figure

Jany Holt was born as Ruxandra Ecaterina Vladescu Olt in Bucharest, Romania in 1909 (some sources write 1911). In 1926 she was sent to Paris by her parents to do commercial studies. Instead she preferred to inscribe for a dramatic course with Charles Dullin and Gabrielle Fontan.

Working as a stand-in on stage, she replaced Jackie Monnier opposite Harry Baur in David Golder. In 1935, Ludmilla and Georges Pitoëff engaged her to play in La Créature by Ferdinand Bruckner, which set off her stage career but also led her to the cinema.

In 1931, she had already made her film debut with the film Un homme en habit/A man in dress (Robert Bossis, René Guissart, 1931) with Fernand Gravey, but it was from 1935 on that she had an extensive cinema career. Passionate Jany Holt knew how to conquer the hearts of the film audiences.

With her sharp profile, flaming red hair and skinny figure she could not become a soubrette, so she set for the more melancholic, neurotic characters. She was Ludwig von Beethoven's 'immortal beloved' Giulietta Giucciardi opposite Harry Baur in Un grand amour de Beethoven/Beethoven's Great Love (Abel Gance, 1936) and the unhappy lover of Pierre Richard-Willm in Courrier-Sud/Southern Carrier (Pierre Billon, 1936).

On the set of Un grand amour de Beethoven she met Marcel Dalio, who was impressed by her slightly sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. They married in 1936, though the Jewish Dalio refused to convert to Catholicism as Holt's parents had wanted him to do.

From 1936 on, she played quite extreme characters such as the hallucinating daughter of a rabbi with whom the Golem falls in love in Le Golem/The Golem (Julien Duvivier, 1936), the prostitute Nastia in Jean Renoir’s Les Bas-Fonds/The Lower Depths (Jean Renoir, 1936) starring Jean Gabin, and a bar hostess involved in an intrigue between Louis Jouvet and Erich von Stroheim in L’Alibi (Pierre Chenal, 1937).

One of the roles in which she best expressed her melancholy and ardour was in La Maison du Maltais/The House of the Maltese (Pierre Chenal, 1938), in which Holt plays the consumptive prostitute Greta, who dies in Morocco while dreaming of her beloved Normandy. After La Tragédie impériale/Rasputin (Marcel L’Herbier, 1938), in which Holt played a nun who accepts she has to kill, Holt’s best parts followed in the 1940s.

In the meanwhile she divorced Dalio, who fled to Hollywood in 1940. That same year Holt married man-about-town Jacques Porel, son of the legendary stage actress Gabrielle Réjane, who had fallen in love with her radiating personality and her red hair.

Jany Holt
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris. Photo: Teddy Piaz, Paris.

Jany Holt
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 29. Photo: Studio Piaz.

Mystical Setting

Jany Holt played Anne, the adopted daughter of a countess in Le Baron fantôme/The Phantom Baron (Serge de Poligny, 1942) with dialogues by Jean Cocteau. The countess’ daughter Elfy (Odette Joyeux) who is forced to do a mariage de raison, doesn’t know that the object of her passion, Hervé (Alain Cuny), is in love with the enigmatic Anne.

In Robert Bresson's remarkable directorial debut, Les Anges du péché/Angels of Sin (Robert Bresson, 1943), Holt plays Thérèse, a woman innocently imprisoned. When released she kills the man who committed the crime for which she was sentenced, then seeks refuge at the convent of a nun (Renée Faure) who previously befriended her.

Ronald Bergan wrote in his 2005 obituary on Holt for The Guardian: "Despite Bresson's later rejection of professional actors - 'Art is transformation. Acting can only get in the way' - Holt, who moves from resentful moroseness into a spiritual awareness of her crime, gives an affecting and natural performance. 'I found the film so good that I hardly realised that I was in it,' she once remarked."

Another mystical setting surrounded Holt In La Fiancée des ténèbres/The fiancée of the darkness (De Poligny, 1944), shot at the fortified city of Carcassonne and referring to the cult of the Cathars. Holt played the central character Sylvie, who believes she is cursed.

During the occupation of France by the Nazis, Holt was working for the résistance. In June 1945, she was decorated by general Charles de Gaulle with the Croix de Guerre for services rendered.

In the postwar era, she played some memorable roles as the unfaithful wife of Michel Simon in Non coupable/Not Guilty (Henri Decoin, 1947) and the avenger in Mademoiselle de La Ferté/Miss de La Ferté (Roger Dallier, 1949) with Jean Servais. After that, Holt focused on her stage work.

Remarkable - but clearly smaller - roles in later years were in Gervaise (René Clément, 1955) starring Maria Schell, Die linkshändige Frau/The Left-Handed Woman (Peter Handke, 1978) featuring Edith Clever, La Passerelle/The Catwalk (Jean Claude Sussfeld, 1987), and Métisse/Café au Lait (Mathieu Kassovitz, 1992) with Vincent Cassel.

She also played some supporting parts in Paris-set English-language productions, a French countess in The Green Glove (Rudolph Maté, 1952) with Glenn Ford; Philippe Noiret's mother in the British film A Time for Loving (Christopher Miles, 1971), and a hotel owner in Arthur Penn's thriller Target (Arthur Penn, 1985), starring Gene Hackman.

Her last film was the thriller Noir comme le souvenir/Black for Remembrance (Jean-Pierre Mocky, 1994) starring Jane Birkin. Holt's stage career spanned from the 1930s to the 1960s, working with stage directors like Paulette Pax, Jean Cocteau and Robert Murzeau. She had also been active on television from the 1960s to the 1980s, and she translated the correspondence between Gustave Flaubert and Georges Sand in Romanian in 1991. In total she had appeared in 48 films and television productions between 1931 and 1995.

Jany Holt died in a hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris in 2005, reaching the high age of 96.

Jany Holt
French card by Massilia. Collection: Amit Benyovits.

Sources: Ronald Bergan (The Guardian), James Travers (Le Film Guide), Ciné-Ressources (French), Wikipedia (French and English), and IMDb.

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