28 June 2017

Simone Simon

We're in Bologna for Il Cinema Ritrovato, where one of the interesting festival sections this year is Colette and Cinema. The activities in the field of cinema of this 'monumental figure of French literature' were manifold and intense. She wrote the French subtitles of Mädchen in Uniform, the screenplay Divine for Max Ophüls, the dialogues for the first film version of Gigi by Jacqueline Audry, and she adapted Lac aux dames for Marc Allégret. The grand discovery of Lac aux dames was kittenish Simone Simon (1910-2005), one of the most seductive and brilliant stars of the French cinema of the 1930s and 1950s. Publicity dubbed her ‘La Sauvage Tendre’ (The Tender Savage).

Simone Simon
French postcard by Erpé, no. 658. Photo: Fox Film.

Simone Simon
French postcard by Erpé, no. 560. Photo: Fox Film.

Simone Simon
French postcard, no. 498. Photo: publicity still for Les yeux noirs/Black eyes (Marc Allégret, 1935).

Simone Simon in Les yeux noirs
French postcard. Photo: publicity still for Les yeux noirs/Black eyes (Marc Allégret, 1935).

Simone Simon
Vintage postcard, no. 98. Photo: Fox-Europa.

Simone Simon
British postcard in the Art Photo series, no. 37-2. Photo: 20th Century Fox, no. 135.

Tyrolean Romance

Simone Thérèse Fernande Simon was born in Marseille, France (some sources say Béthune, a small town in the Pas de Calais province near the Belgian border) in 1910 (some sources say 1911). She was the daughter of Henri Louis Firmin, a French engineer, and Erma Maria Domenica Giorcelli, an Italian housewife.

Simone spent much of her early childhood in Madagascar, where her father managed a graphite mine. Her schooling was somewhat unsettled, her family moving from city to city (Berlin, Budapest, Turin) before finally establishing themselves in Paris in 1930.

There she worked briefly as a singer, model and fashion designer. She was discovered for the cinema by exiled Russian director Victor Tourjansky, who cast her in Le Chanteur inconnu/The Unknown Singer (1931), starring opera singer Lucien Muratore.

By the time Tourjansky and Simon worked together again, in Les Yeux noirs/Dark Eyes (Victor Tourjansky, 1935), Simon had already established herself as a popular young player in the French film industry.

She had achieved stardom with her role opposite Jean-Pierre Aumont in the delicate Tyrolean romance Lac aux dames/Ladies Lake (Marc Allégret, 1934), adapted by Colette from Vicki Baum's novel.

Simone Simon
Dutch postcard by J.S.A. Photo: Century Fox / M.P.E.

Paul Lukas, Simone Simon
British postcard by Real Photograph, London, no. FS 101. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Publicity still for Ladies in Love (Edward H. Griffith, 1936) with Paul Lukas.

Simone Simon
British postcard in the Picturegoer Series, London, no. 1093a. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Publicity still for Seventh Heaven (Henry King, 1937).

Simone Simon and James Stewart in Seventh Heaven (1937)
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 1158/1, 1937-1938. Photo: 20th Century Fox. Still from Seventh Heaven (Henry King, 1937) with Simone Simon and James Stewart.

Simone Simon
German postcard by Ross Verlag, no. A 2911/1, 1939-1940. Photo: Twentieth Century Fox.

Simone Simon
Big German Ross Verlag card. Photo: 20th Century Fox.

Europe’s Sweetheart

After seeing Simone Simon in Lac Aux Dames, Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck brought her to Hollywood in 1936. A widespread publicity campaign billed her as ‘Europe’s Sweetheart’. However her films for 20th Century Fox were only moderately successful.

In Girls’ Dormitory (Irving Cummings, 1936) she competed with Ruth Chatterton for the attentions of Herbert Marshall; and in Ladies in Love (Edward H. Griffith, 1936), she was fourth-billed after Janet Gaynor, Loretta Young, and Constance Bennett.

In Seventh Heaven (Henry King, 1937), a remake of the 1927 silent version with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell, she played one of her best roles as a Parisian street urchin romancing a miscast James Stewart. Unfortunately the film flopped, and 'See-moan See-moan' returned, dissatisfied, to France.

There, she reestablished herself as an actress to be reckoned with in the influential, moody drama La Bête Humaine/The Human Beast (Jean Renoir, 1938), based on Emile Zola’s novel. The film exudes the dark, fatalistic sensibility of the ‘poetic realism’ cycle of sombre romances of Marcel Carné and Julien Duvivier in the 1930s. A train driver (Jean Gabin) falls in love with the wife of a railwayman , beautifully played by Simon.

The exquisite film was a huge hit. Jean Renoir offered her next the role of Christine de la Chesnaye in La règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939), but Simone Simon preferred to return to Hollywood.

Simone Simon
Vintage postcard, no. 2903. Sent by mail in Belgrade in 1960.

Simone Simon
French postcard by Collection Chantal, Paris, no. 98. Photo: Fox Europa.

Simone Simon
Small collector's card.

Simone Simon
French postcard, no. 61.

Simone Simon
French postcard.

Bewitching, Unearthly Seductress

For RKO Studios Simone Simon achieved her greatest Hollywood successes with a bewitching portrayal of an unearthly seductress in The Devil and Daniel Webster (William Dieterle, 1941), and as a troubled woman who believes she turns into a panther whenever she gets emotionally stirred up, in the cult horror film Cat People (Jacques Tourneur, 1942).

These films, however, did not lead to more good roles and she languished in mediocre films – and a small part as a ghost in the interesting sequel The Curse of the Cat People (Robert Wise, 1944) - until the end of the war. Then she returned to France permanently.

She and Edwige Feuillère were owners of an 1880s girls' boarding school in the controversial Olivia/The Pit of Loneliness (Jacqueline Audry, 1950), which had censor boards outraged at its portrayal of lesbianism.

The same year, she was one of the many stars in La Ronde/Roundabout (Max Ophüls, 1950), a witty version of Arthur Schnitzler's play depicting love as a bitterly comic merry-go-round. Two years later she made a second film with Ophüls, Le Plaisir/House of Pleasure (Max Ophüls, 1952), based on three stories by Guy de Maupassant. In the third episode, La Modèle, she was the lovesick model of a philandering artist (Daniel Gélin). When a suicide attempt leaves her crippled, he marries her out of pity, and in the haunting last shot he is seen wheeling her along the beach.

Her film roles were few after this, and she worked mainly onstage. Her final film appearance was in La Femme en bleu/The Woman in Blue (Michel Deville, 1973).

Simone Simon never married. During WW II she was dating double-agent Dusko Popov, who worked for MI5. In 1942 Simon was watched by the FBI, because of this relationship. The couple broke up in 1943. In the 1950s, she was romantically involved with the French banker and racehorse owner/breeder Alec Weisweiller. Simone Simon died in Paris in 2005, aged 94.

Clip of James Stewart and Simone Simon in Seventh Heaven (1937). Source: ClassicMovieShop (YouTube).

Trailer La Bête Humaine/The Human Beast (1938). Source: felixxxx999 (YouTube).

Trailer Cat People (1942). Source: ClassicMovieTarilers (YouTube).

Trailer Pétrus (1946). Source: _ XYZT (YouTube).

Sources: Andre Soares (Alternative Film Guide), Tom Vallance (The Independent), Bruce Eder (AllMovie), I.S. Mowis (IMDb), Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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