In its issue of April 30th 1946, the weekly French film magazine Cinévie began a multi-part series on the life and career of Danielle Darrieux. That first installment, which promised to provide the details of her “first love” (“Premier Amour!”), began instead with Darrieux’s first film, Le Bal, from 1931. That movie, according to Cinévie, “was a great success,” but then the magazine cautioned that “an initial success doesn’t make a great star.”
Darrieux, who died in October at 100, would of course go on to become perhaps the greatest of all French movie stars. We think of her now in an astonishing number of terrific films over an extended period of time; from Billy Wilder’s Mauvaise Graine (1934) to her Hollywood debut in The Rage of Paris (1937), to Ruy Blas (1948) and Occupe-toi d’Amélie, (1949), to her three Max Ophuls films, La Ronde (1950), Le Plaisir (1952), and Madame de… (1953), on through Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967) and, more recently, Persepolis (2007). Even as a 19-year old in her first great star turn, Mayerling (1936), she shows the extraordinary, ethereal gravitas that always marked her acting, and she fully holds her own against her formidable costar, Charles Boyer.
So it’s hard to imagine Darrieux as a not-quite 14-year old in Le Bal, a movie that seems practically impossible to view now (you can, however, hear Darrieux singing from the film, at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TIMM5ngHDLY and also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kL777pX33Hw). At the time, the Parisian press certainly took notice, and when the film opened in September 1931, it received a great deal of attention. Le Bal was based on a novel by the popular writer Irène Némirovsky (David Golder, another film based on her work, had been a very big hit in France the year before). The film was directed by Wilhelm Thiele, an Austrian director with something of a reputation at the time, and who had overseen two versions, one in French and the other in German (Der Ball, in which 21-year old Dolly Haas appeared in place of Darrieux). Germaine Dermoz, who had played the title character in Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923) starred in the French version, as did André LeFaur, a major character actor who had been making films since 1911.
Le Bal opened in the eighteenth arrondissement, at the recently-remodeled Gaumont-Palace, the largest cinema in France (and the subject of another blog post from October 2015). The Gaumont used the film to inaugurate a new program of increased screenings, because, as the Gaumont publicity department claimed, the 6000-seat cinema was nevertheless “too small” to accommodate all of the people who wanted to see movies there. Starting with Le Bal, the Gaumont added a special, reduced-price screening at midnight, and for the first two weeks of the film’s run there included, as well, a “grande soirée” for the public at 9:00. The Gaumont’s own corps du ballet would entertain audiences between screenings, performing “Impressions of Spain” in three tableaux.
The reviews for Le Bal ranged from lukewarm to quite positive, but they all paid special attention to the adolescent actress. “A meager screenplay,” the film magazine Cinéa claimed, and then criticized the “theatrical acting,” adding, “except for Danielle Darrieux, remarkable for a debut.” Another film magazine, Hebdo, referred to Darrieux, simply, as “la révélation de l’année,” the revelation of the year. La Vie Parisienne, a weekly magazine of culture, fashion, and gossip, agreed. First, the magazine quoted Dulac herself, who called the film a chef-d’oeuvre, and then La Vie Parisienne gave special praise to Darrieux, calling her “a revelation,” and marveling at this young girl’s ability “already to grip the scene” whenever she appeared in the film.
Le Bal took nine months to come to North Africa, not unusual for the period, and opened in Algiers at the Regent, one of the three or four most important cinémas d’exclusivité in the city. The critics there responded just as the Parisian ones had. The review in Les Spectacles d’Alger duly praised the star of the film, Germaine Dermoz, but paid special to the much younger performer. “But what a revelation is Danielle Darrieux, just thirteen-and-a-half and in her first film.” Then, to emphasize the point, the reviewer added, “there is such candor, such simplicity…the acute sense of just the right attitude and gesture.”
At about the same time, in May 1932, Le Bal appeared in another French colonial location, Hanoi, at one of the most important exhibition sites in that city, the Cinéma Palace. The advertising for the film emphasized LeFaur as the star but gave equal billing to Dermoz and Darrieux. To attract an audience presumably made up of French officials and expats, the ads also stressed just how big a hit the film had been in Paris, and referred to its “success considerable” at the Gaumont-Palace there.
While the film made its way to audiences throughout the empire, Le Bal also remained in Paris, moving out to other cinemas; the Olympic in the fourteenth arrondissement and the Auteuil-Bon-Cinéma in the sixteenth in January 1932, for instance, then to the Secrétan in the nineteenth in March, and returning to the Gaumont- Palace in August. But Parisians also had the chance to see other films with Darrieux, who worked constantly during the first two or three years of her career.
Critics and audiences may have been taken by surprise by Darrieux in Le Bal, but just a year later, when her fourth film, Panurge, opened in Paris, they were ready for the performance of a great new star. The movie played in the eighteenth arrondissement at the Studio 28, always an important cinema for commercial films with artistic pretensions. Le Figaro ran a brief report as the film was about to premiere, and it was all about Darrieux, “who had established herself definitively among our greatest stars of cinema” after Le Bal. The newspaper continued to gush that with Panurge, “we applaud yet again this new beauty, her grace, and her talent.” L’Intransigeant agreed, and singled out one particular scene in its review: “In a corner, a ravishing blonde…in her chiffon dress, the heroine, Danielle Darrieux, thoughtful and sad.” Then the reviewer entered into a conversation with the young woman on the screen. “Why are you like this, Mademoiselle Darrieux, why so concerned?” The critic imagined her answering, “I’m bored,” and then he asked, incredulously, “But how can that be, when the whole world celebrates your beauty and your talent?”
With some significant ups and downs, and at least in France and much of Europe, if not “the whole world,” this is how it would be, really, for the rest of Darrieux’s career, which was also the rest of her life. If we go now once again to 1946 and to Cinévie, in January, just a few months before the multi-part biography, the magazine put her on the cover, to celebrate her marriage to her third husband. Darrieux appears in a glamorous closeup in her wedding dress and veil, and to my knowledge this is the only Cinévie cover that’s not taken from a movie (although the image certainly looks like it might have been). Inside the magazine, a three-page spread with photos detailed the occasion.
After that appearance in Cinévie, Darrieux would go on to make movies, television shows, recordings, and perform on stage for more than sixty years. There might be some other examples, but I can’t think of anyone who was a great star so early and who stayed a great star for so long. As if returning to the responses to her earliest films and to the critic’s imagined conversation with the teenage girl in the corner of the scene in Panurge, Le Figaro began her obituary by comparing Darrieux to all other French actresses and calling her, simply, “the most ravishing.”