France's Grande Dame of Cinema
When Michele Morgan passed away on December 20 in Meudon, at the age of 96, France lost one of its grande dames of cinema. Her death was announced by President François Hollande, who called her “a legend who made her mark on numerous generations.”
She was often referred to as the woman with the most beautiful eyes in the world, an appellation she received from her 1938 film, Port of Shadows. Jean Gabin’s character tells her, “You have beautiful eyes, you know,” to which she replies, “Kiss me.” The film was very popular, and as a result, the phrase caught on.
She was already an actress of note when she fled the German Occupation to America. But she came back after the war and it was as if she had never been away. Picking up almost right where she left off, she won the best actress award at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946 for her role in Andre Gide’s drama, La Symphonie Pastorale, directed by Jean Delannoy, for whom she worked frequently over the years.
I once interviewed the lovely Michele back ago more years that I care to remember. I was just a young tyro at the time, looking to make a niche for myself and she was so taken with my persistence and forthrightness that she agreed to sit down and share some of her time. We talked of many things, but what I remember most was her rather bitter memories of her stay in Hollywood during World War II.
“They (Hollywood) stifled me artistically. Their idea of handling an actor was to try to make me look just like everyone else. After Joan of Paris I thought maybe I could be a star; maybe it would lead to bigger things, but they couldn’t even be bothered to photograph me correctly.”
Michele continued. “Another thing that bothered me was their idea of a working day. A 15- or 16-hour day was considered normal there. I didn’t know how long the war was going to last, so I bit my tongue and did as I was told.”
While in America, Michele met and married her first husband, William Marshall, a band leader and later an actor and director. “We had only known each other for just about a month,” she said. “To this day I don’t know why I married him. I was very lonely when I came to America, torn away from the country where I was raised. He turned out to be nothing like the man I married. It was like living under a dictator, and after he was injured in the war, he only got worse. He called me ‘Mike’ because he couldn’t pronounce ‘Michele’ and he didn’t like France. So why did he marry a Frenchwoman? The only good thing that came out of it was my son Mike.”
They had a very acrimonious divorce in 1949. “At the time I was having an affair with Henri Vidal, who I later married, he was having an affair with my friend Micheline Presle. He knew I wanted custody of Mike and had a private detective follow us. He eventually got his incriminating shot, and as I had no evidence of his adultery, he was awarded custody of my son. When he later married Micheline they lived in Paris and I could see my son on a regular basis. But then he moved back to America and it became harder and harder to see my son. Only after he finished his studies was I able to spend time with him.”
We spoke for quite a while. She told me that as she was unsure how long the war would last she decided to build a home in Los Angeles to remind her of France. Built in the style of a 19th century French farmhouse in the Benedict Canyon section of Los Angeles, it didn’t quite bring her the happiness she hoped for, whether with her marriage or her career. Years later it become infamous as the house were Sharon Tate and four others were brutally murdered by Charles Manson in 1969.
She still shivered at the thought of the house. “It was somewhat isolated from the other homes in the area and had an eerie effect on me. Perhaps it was from staying there alone, but I frequently hard some strange noises. To keep myself company I hired a few maids, but they were of no help whatsoever. Good help was very difficult to find during the war, and when these people weren’t getting drunk they were sealing my jewelry and whatever else they could find. I was better off without them."
“Once I married, he demanded I sell the place and move in with him. According to his family, a man loses honor if he moves into the woman’s place. So I sold the house, which was not a bad thing. Years later, when I read of the murders there, I knew I did the right thing. I think that place was cursed from the beginning.”
She was born Simone Renée Roussel in Neuilly-sur-Seine (now Hauts-sur-Seine), a well-to-do suburb of Paris, on February 29, 1920. Her father was an executive at a fragrance company who lost his job after the Crash of 1929. He moved the family north, to Dieppe in Normandy, where Michele grew up. She began to attend stage shows at the Dieppe Casino and became so enamored with the idea of acting that she left home at the age of 15 with her brother Paul. They went to Paris, where she was determined to become an actress, taking acting lessons while working as an extra in several films to pay for her classes and rent. Her film debut was as an extra in Meet Miss Mozart (1936), a comedy starring Danielle Darrieux. It was then that she adopted the stage name of "Michèle Morgan,” reasoning that she didn’t look like a Simone, and that "Morgan" sounded more Hollywood-friendly and easy to pronounce the world over. “Morgan” came from the Morgan Bank in Paris.
Her breakthrough came in the film Gribouille (Heart of Paris, 1937), directed by Marc Allegret. Morgan plays Natalie Rouguin, a young girl on trial in the accidental death of her rich boyfriend. It looks bad for her, but one juror convinces the others to acquit after new evidence is discovered and she is released. Now free, she cannot find work of any kind and the juror who convinced the rest of her innocence takes her in, where she falls in love with his son. Hollywood remade it in 1940 as The Lady in Question with Brian Aherne, Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford. Shortly after, she co-starred with Jean Gabin in Le Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows, 1938), about an army deserter and a teenage runaway directed by Marcel Carne; Orage (Storm, 1938), with Charles Boyer; and Remorques (Stormy Waters, 1941) directed by Jean Gremillon.
During the filming of Port of Shadows, there was an incident between her co-stars Pierre Brasseur and Jean Gabin. At a cast dinner, Brasseur made several off-color and inappropriate remarks to Michele, which bothered Gabin. The next day, Brasseur apologized to Michèle and brought her flowers. However, later that day he had to shoot a scene where his character, Lucien, gets punched in the face by Gabin's protagonist, Jean. But instead of faking the punch, Gabin hit Brasseur full force, knocking him over. Brasseur know what it was for and said nothing. Ironically, the scene was later noted by critics, who lauded its “realistic feeling.”
When the Germans conquered France in 1940, Morgan fled to the United States and RKO, with whom she signed a contract while still in France. Her career started off well with Joan of Paris (1942), with Paul Henreid and Thomas Mitchell before being loaned to Universal for Two Tickets to London (1943) with Alan Curtis. She returned to RKO to make Higher and Higher (1943) with Frank Sinatra and Jack Haley, a film that did not do well either commercially or critically. From here on it was all downhill. She tested and was strongly considered for the role of Ilsa Lund in Casablanca, but RKO balked at the compensation Warners was offering and she was replaced by Ingrid Bergman. She would eventually work with Bogart in Passage to Marseille (1944), her next to last film in America. In 1945, she filmed The Chase, a film noir with Robert Cummings, for independent producers Nero Films, before returning to France.
She told me she wasn’t happy with any of the films she made in America, but nothing could compare with her experience filming Passage to Marseille.
“That was my worst time in Hollywood. The director (Michael Curtiz) was the worst I ever worked with. All he did was belittle me. He offered no support. And apart from (Peter) Lorre, I received no help or support from my co-stars. I really can’t blame Humphrey Bogart, though. He had his own problems. I think he was going through hell, which is why I couldn’t blame him when he left his wife for Lauren Bacall.”
She was warmly welcomed back in Paris and immediately began working in La Symphonie Pastorale, where she played Gertrude, a young blind woman adopted by Jean Martens (Pierre Blanchar), a Swiss minister who raises her with his own four children. But as time passes and Gertrude grows into a very beautiful young woman, Martens finds himself falling in love with her. He refuses to admit this turn of events to himself and later fools his conscience by interpreting the Scriptures to his advantage. However, once she regains her eyesight in an operation she soon sees for herself how sin has corrupted the minister’s soul and decides to take her own life in shame. Though highly praised upon its release, both the film and its director came under heavy criticism from Francois Truffaut in Cahiers du Cinema among others and is now regarded as hopelessly dated and maudlin.
Morgan’s next film, The Fallen Idol (1948), with Ralph Richardson was notable as the straw that broke the back of her marriage to Marshall. While shooting in London, Michele and Marshall were staying at the Savoy Hotel. One day they ran into her good friend Micheline Presle, who was staying there before a trip to America. “I remember remarking to him about how beautiful Micheline looked,” she told me. “He told me he had already noticed that. I was too dumb to pick up on what was going on between them. He married her right after we were divorced. For someone who told me how he despised France and the French, he spent a lot of time here and married a few of our citizens. I didn’t bear Micheline any ill will. I thanked her for taking him off my hands. The only error I made was in not hiring a detective to follow him. Maybe if I had I would have gotten custody, but, frankly, I never expected him to sink that low.”
For her part, Michele married actor Henri Vidal (The Damned, The Gates of Paris) in 1950. They remained married until his death in 1959. “Henri was very, very handsome,” Michele said. “He had the world at his feet, but he couldn’t overcome his demons. As a teenager, he was introduced to drugs and he could never kick the habit. I think in the time we were married he went to rehab about a dozen times. The drugs definitely affected him for the worse. He was jealous of whoever I was working with and believed I was having an affair. I remember working on a film with Jean Gabin (The Moment of Truth, 1952) early in our marriage. He was jealous, intensely jealous, of Jean and would show up on the set looking for me. (He knew Michele had a brief affair with Gabin while filming Coral Reefs in 1939.) God help me if I wasn’t on stage or in my dressing room. I used to tell him the drugs were killing him and that he would die early. I wasn’t surprised when his heart gave out at the age of 40.”
Other notable films from the late ‘40s and ‘50s include Fabiola (1949), The Proud and the Beautiful (1953), Les Grandes Maneuvers (1955, directed by Rene Clair) and Marie-Antoinette reine de France (Shadow of the Guillotine, 1956).
In 1960, she married director, actor and writer Gerard Oury. Though they stayed married until his death in 2006 they lived in different domiciles. During the decade her career lost momentum, the main reason being the dominance of the French New Wave and its cutting of ties with classic French cinema and its stars in favor of discovering new faces. Truffaut had been a critic of her work since his days as a reviewer for Cahiers du Cinema. The only New Wave director she worked for was Claude Chabrol as a victim of Charles Denner’s murderous title character in Landru (Bluebeard, 1963), a faithful account of the notorious Henri Desire Landru, who murdered and dismembered more than 10 women during World War I. It had been previously adapted by Charlie Chaplin as Monsieur Verdoux in 1947. Michele’s character, Celestine Buisson, is one of his victims.
After appearing in movies of little interest for most of the decade, Michèle eventually decided to concentrate on other interests, such as painting, and limited her roles to occasional appearances over the following years. She made her stage stage debut in 1978 in Francoise Dorin’s Le Tout pour le tout (All For All).
Her final screen role was in La Rivale (1999), a film about love and age made for French television.
But she kept busy nonetheless. Her art brought her a new world of fame and she he had a solo exhibition March 2 to April 30, 2009, at the Espace Cardin in Paris. She also presided over and served on the jury at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1977, she released her autobiography, With These Eyes, and founded her own tie label called “Cravates Michèle Morgan.”
Over the years Michele earned her share of awards. She was awarded the "Victoire du cinéma Français" for Best Actress in 1954, 1955 and 1956. In 1954, she won the “Triomphe du Cinéma” for her performance in The Proud and the Beautiful. Cinérevue magazine awarded her the prize for Most Popular actress in 1950, 1952, 1953, 1954 and 1955. In 1960, she was made a Knight of the French Order of Arts and Letters. In 1967, she received the “Médaille de vermeil de la Ville de Paris” (Paris Vermeil Medal). In 1969, she was named Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, raised to Officer in 1994, to Grand Officer in 2009, and received the Grand-Croix in 2013. In 1975, she was made an Officer of the French National Order of Merit.
In 1992, she was given an honorary Cesar Award for her contributions to French cinema. In 1996, the Venice Film Festival awarded her the Career Golden Lion for lifetime achievement. And last, but not least, she has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1645 Vine Street).
Sadly, her son Mike died in 2005. He worked as an actor in both the United States and France, having been bitten by the acting bug when Michele brought him on the set of her film, The Grand Manuever. She is survived by several grandchildren. Her funeral was held at the Église Saint-Pierre in Neuilly-sur-Seine on December 23, 2016, and she was buried at the Montparnasse Cemetery.