Darrieux, Danielle (1917—)

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Darrieux, Danielle (1917—)

French actress who, in an international career lasting more than six decades, appeared in a number of classic films, including Mayerling (1936) and La Ronde (1950). Born in Bordeaux, France, on May 1, 1917; daughter of Jean and Marie-Louise Witkowski Darrieux; married Henri Decoin (a film director), in 1934 (divorced 1940); married Porfirio Rubirosa, in 1942 (divorced 1947); married Georges Mitsinkides (an author), in 1948; children: (third marriage) one son, Mathieu.

Born in Bordeaux in 1917, Danielle Darrieux and her family moved to Paris when she was two years old. When she was seven, her father, an ophthalmologist and military physician, died. A cello student at the Paris Conservatory, Darrieux was only 14 when she made her film debut in Le Bal (1931), in which she depicted a willful adolescent. Although she abandoned whatever plans she might have had of a musical career as an instrumentalist, Darrieux's considerable vocal talents were quickly discovered, and in 1934 she appeared in a highly successful musical, La Crise est finie. Another 1934 film that showcased Darrieux's emerging talent was Mauvaise Graine. Based on a Billy Wilder story and co-directed by Wilder, Darrieux played a girl who acted as a decoy for her brother's gang; her portrayal gave the film much of its special flavor. Taking advantage of her newfound fame, Darrieux made another film in 1934, Volga en flammes. Set in Russia during the Bolshevik revolution, this epic was mostly filmed in Prague.

In 1935, Darrieux took on her first truly dramatic role in Le Domino vert, depicting a heroine under both emotional and—significant for the 1930s—financial stress. At the same time, she continued to work in musical comedies with established stars like the Polish tenor Jan Kiepura. It was the 1936 film Mayerling, in which she co-starred with the prominent actor Charles Boyer, that brought Danielle Darrieux to world attention. Based on the true story of the 1889 suicide of Austro-Hungarian crown prince Rudolph of Habsburg and his young mistress Marie Vetsera , this film revealed Darrieux's astonishing talent to a global audience and remains the most moving and popular of the many screen versions of the Mayerling story. Critics were at a loss to describe the intensity and depth of the performance given by an actress not yet 20 when the film was released in France. The entire film world was now interested in Danielle Darrieux.

In 1934, she married film director Henri Decoin, who appreciated his wife's talents, seeing to it that she could choose from not only excellent scripts but from a variety of styles including musicals.

In 1937, she starred in Decoin's Mademoiselle ma mere, portraying a woman who, after rejecting her parent's advice not to marry an older man, then proceeds to have a passionate affair with her new husband's son. At this time, Darrieux made her stage debut in Jeux Dangereux, a play by her husband that she performed in both Paris and Brussels. In January 1937, she accepted a generous offer by Universal Studios to work in Hollywood, signing a nine-year contract, with options, at $4,000 a week. But she was not happy in California, and the only starring film she made there, The Rage of Paris (1938), is generally not considered one of her significant achievements. Litigation over breach of contract with Universal Studios and other American film firms clouded the late 1930s for Darrieux and dimmed prospects that she would ever return to America. Despite the war clouds on the immediate horizon, Darrieux made several more films to delight her millions of loyal fans, including Katia (1938), which was filmed in Hungary. The movie reestablished a Mayerling mood of doomed European aristocracy by sketching the tragic life of Tsar Alexander II and Ekaterina Dolgorukova , the woman who loved him.

German troops defeated France in a few weeks in the late spring of 1940 and by June of that year had occupied Paris. Darrieux and her husband Henri Decoin, whom she divorced that same year, established a production company, Continentale, and set about to make films. In the first movie to be made under German occupation, Premier Rendezvous (1941), Darrieux is an orphan who runs away to join her pen pal, but finding him unattractive and middle-aged fortunately meets his nephew (Louis Jourdan) who is young, handsome and interested. Dramatic changes took place during the war in Darrieux's private life. In 1942, she married the notorious playboy from the Dominican Republic, Porfirio Rubirosa. Apparently unaware, or at least uninterested, in the Nazi persecution of Jews and French patriots, Darrieux and most of her fellow stars were more than willing to collaborate with the Nazi occupation forces. In March 1942, she and other glamorous celebrities, including Junie Astor, Suzy Delair , and Viviane Romance , accepted a German offer to visit Berlin, where they were wined and dined and became valuable grist for the Nazi propaganda mills of Joseph Goebbels.

In 1945, after the liberation of France, Darrieux resumed her film career. That year, her adoring public was pleased with her performance in Adieu Chérie, a light entertainment perfect for a nation only too ready to forget the sufferings—and moral compromises—of the previous five years. Her next several films were unsuccessful, but Darrieux had a smashing success on stage starring in L'Amour Vient en Jouant. When she and Rubirosa divorced in 1947, rumors swirled through France asserting that American tobacco heiress Doris Duke had "bought" him from the French actress for the price of $1 million. In 1948, Darrieux married the author Georges Mitsinkides, a union that would last. Her one child, Mathieu, was born from this, her third and final marriage.

A major triumph for Darrieux was her starring role in La Ronde, a 1950 film directed by Max Ophüls and based on the 1903 play Der Reigen by the Austrian naturalist playwright Arthur Schnitzler. As a married woman in bed with her student lover who is embarrassed by his temporary impotence, Darrieux won rave reviews for the exquisite subtlety of her acting. Her triumph in La Ronde led to two further well-received roles in films directed by Ophüls, as Rosa in Le Plaisir (The House of Pleasure, 1952), and as Madame Louise de … in The Earrings of Madame de … (1953). In the latter film, regarded by many critics as the one in which Darrieux gave her greatest cinema performance, she portrayed a dazzling but debt-ridden socialite married to a general (Charles Boyer). To get money, she sells the diamond earrings her husband gave her as a wedding gift, telling him that she had lost them. Her unhappy marriage leads her into an affair with an Italian diplomat (Vittorio de Sica), who bestows on her the same earrings. One admiring critic wrote that "Darrieux covers the spectrum of aristocratic femininity—she goes from being a heartbreaker to being heartbroken without missing a halftone."

Exhibiting remarkable versatility, Darrieux was able at all stages of her career to star in both films and on stage while also carrying the day as a singer and a television performer. In the 1956 film epic Alexander the Great, she gave a fine performance as Alexander's mother Olympias . Willing to forget her earlier unpleasant experiences in Hollywood, Darrieux more than held her own as a co-star with James Mason in the 1952 spy thriller Five Fingers. Her singing talent by no means discarded, she turned in excellent performances in the 1951 musical Rich, Young, and Pretty, a Hollywood extravaganza in which, at age 34, she was featured as Jane Powell 's mother. In Jacques Demy's 1967 musical The Young Girls of Rochefort, Darrieux expertly handled the role of café proprietor Yvonne, mother to twin sisters Delphine and Solange (played in the film by real-life sisters Catherine Deneuve and Françoise Dorléac ). In this film, Darrieux turned out to be the only performer who sang well enough to use her own voice, all of the others having to depend on dubbed singing voices.

As she gracefully entered middle age, Danielle Darrieux showed little sign of slowing down. She continued to accept film roles that usually earned her strong reviews and the loyalty of her many fans. At the same time, she increasingly turned her attention to the theater and quality television roles. Just to prove that she still possessed star quality, in the 1980s she returned to the screen to turn in a series of superb performances. These included her depiction of Françoise Canavaggia in the 1983 film En Haut des marches, a role that displayed the full range of human emotions as a Frenchwoman attempting to revenge her husband's death at the hands of Nazi collaborators. Equally impressive was her portrayal in the 1982 film Une Chambre en ville (A Room in Town) of Baroness de Neuville, an unhappy alcoholic factory owner determined to crush a strike launched by her angry workers.

After more than 60 years of acting, Danielle Darrieux remained the star she had become in her late teen years. In 1991, she appeared on French television in "Plège infernal," in 1992 in the film les Mamies, and on the Paris stage in 1995 in Harold et Maude. A grateful French nation rewarded her for lifetime achievements in the dramatic arts on numerous occasions, including the granting of the Chevalier de la legion d'honneur (1962), the rank of Officier de la legion d'honneur (1977), as well as the film industry's César d'honneur (1985) and the prix de l'Amicale des cadres de l'industrie cinématographique (1987). In a remarkable career extending over seven decades, Danielle Darrieux won the admiration of several generations of film fanciers both in France and abroad, earning for herself the title of a cherished artiste dramatique.


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Halimi, André. Chantons sous l'Occupation. Paris: O. Orban, 1976.

Le Boterf, Hervé. La Vie Parisienne sous l'Occupation 1940–1944 (Paris bei Nacht). Vol. 1. Paris: Éditions France-Empire, 1974.

Webster, Paul. "Hand in glove with the Nazis," in Manchester Guardian Weekly. Vol. 154, no. 13. March 31, 1996, p. 27.

Whitehall, Richard. "Danielle Darrieux," in Films and Filming. December 1961.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia