The Paris Cinema Project

Suzy Delair died last month, on March 15th. Not quite 103 years old, she was one of the last surviving French movie stars of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, not quite on a level with Michèle Morgan and Danielle Darrieux, but then, no one could be. Delair worked with some of the great filmmakers of the period: Marcel L’Herbier (La Vie de bohème [1945]), Jean Grémillon (Pattes Blanches [1949]), René Clément (Gervaise [1956]), and Luchino Visconti (Rocco and His Brothers [1960]), and most famously with her partner of many years, Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le dernier des six [1941], which Clouzot wrote, followed by L’Assassin habite…au 21 [1942] and Quai des Orfèvres [1947], which he directed). For decades, she worked with a who’s who of great French stars, including Fernandel, Louis Jouvet, and Pierre Fresnay, and while she may not always have been the lead actress in her films, she created two of the most memorable characters in French cinema from the period, Mila Malou in her first two films with Clouzot and Jenny Lamour, Madame Tra la la, in her third. As celebrated as she was for her movies, she was perhaps an even greater attraction as a singer, and she remained a constant presence in French music halls as well as on radio and television.

Delair began making movies in 1931, with a very small part in Un caprice de la Pompadour. The French press really didn’t notice her for ten years, but began paying careful attention in 1941 with the murder mystery Le dernier des six. As a sign of its significance, that film opened in Paris in September at the Normandie, an important, 2000-seat cinéma d’exclusivité on the avenue des Champs-Élysées. The reviewer in Le Matin gave the film a particularly positive review, and ended with, “I’d like to say a few words about…[the] ravishing Suzy Delair, a young, talented artist whom you’ll want to see often on French screens.” The top billing in that movie went to Pierre Fresnay and Michèle Alfa, another great star from the period. But the filmmakers seemed to have a sense of Delair’s impact, and so just a few days later ran an advertisement in Le Matin letting readers know that “In the film Le dernier des six…Mademoiselle Suzy Delair is dressed by Maggy-Rouff,” one of the more important coutourières in Paris, whose shop was just a few doors away from the Normandie.

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An ad for Defense d’aimer, featuring Delair, from La Vie Parisienne, November 11, 1942

Her next two films—L’Assassin habite…au 21 and Defense d’aimer­ (1942)—were similarly successful with critics. At around the same time, and at least in part because of her new celebrity as a movie star, Delair was able to begin her career as a singer. She made her Paris debut in September 1943, at the Folies-Belleville, one of the oldest music halls in the city, in the twentieth arrondissement, and for the next few years she was a frequent performer in the city, at the Casino Montparnasse, the ABC music hall, and elsewhere. When they couldn’t see her in person, her fans were able to listen to her on the radio. During the late-1940s and early-50s, the newspaper L’Aurore regularly ran its Ecoutez…vos vedettes préférés column (“Listen…to your favorite stars”), to let people know when they might hear a range of performers (on radio stations apparently linked to the newspaper). The edition from September 3, 1950, for instance, lists programs with Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Tino Rossi (as well as singers unknown to us today, like Zappy-Max). Along with them was Delair, who would appear twice that week, on Friday and Saturday, with this kind of radio schedule typical for her for a number of years.

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Announcing that Delair had been dressed by Maggy-Rouff, Le Matin, September 23, 1941

In October 1948, she became one of the first French stars to appear on television. On the occasion of the meeting of the Congrès de la Télévision, as the newspaper Combat reported, Radiodiffusion française would televise a gala radiophonique. The gala included just about everybody who was anybody in French entertainment, including Josephine Baker, Georges Guétary, Yves Montand, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Maria Montez, and the list included Delair.

The beginning of Delair’s great celebrity coincided with the Nazi occupation of Paris and much of the rest of France, and the installation of the collaborationist regime in Vichy. In fact, Delair made her breakthrough movies, Le dernier des six and L’Assassin habite…au 21 for Continental Films, the studio created by the Nazis to make films in France. I’ve posted before about German control of French film culture during this period, and this would include French stars, who were enlisted to demonstrate the positive effects of Nazi authority (see posts from March 22, 2016, April 22, 2016, and September 19, 2017). In 1942, Nazi officials sent Delair along with Junie Astor, Albert Préjean, Danielle Darrieux, and others, on an extended goodwill tour of German film studios, and the French weekly movie magazine published by the Germans, Ciné-Mondial, covered the tour over several issues.

Delair figured prominently, mostly as the cheerful, upbeat opposite of Darrieux, who was typically more sensitive and brooding about the possibilities of cinema to unite all of Europe under benevolent German control. During a stop on the tour, Delair allegedly exclaimed to one of the accompanying German leaders—Fritz Dietrich, the chief of the SS—“But you are so elegant!” It’s impossible, of course, to assess the truth of this, and while some French celebrities collaborated without much coaxing, others had to be coerced. We know, for example, that Darrieux complied only when the Germans agreed to call off their pursuit of her partner at the time, Dominican playboy—and diplomat—Porfirio Rubirosa. We can’t know anything about Delair’s motives or the pressures placed on her. Delair’s obituaries reported that, because of the tour, she was “suspended from work for three months after the end of World War II,” but I have been unable to determine exactly what this means (see, for example, Her partner, Clouzot, faced a trial before the Comité de liberation du cinéma français for having made films for Continental, and was forbidden to have anything to do with filmmaking for the rest of his life, a ban that was lifted after two years.

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From the left, Delair, Danielle Darrieux, Junie Astor, and Albert Préjean, leaving Paris at the start of their tour of German film studios, April 1942

Whatever her offenses, Delair seemed fairly quickly redeemed in post-Liberation Paris, with Combat, the newspaper of the French Resistance, writing about her—and praising her—often. In February, 1945, Combat reported that Delair would play a significant role in a gala to benefit the French army, and she would be joined by such luminaries as Edith Piaf and Raimu. Just a little more than two years later, in September 1947, Combat ran a laudatory review of Quai des Orfèvres, Clouzot’s first film since his ban had been lifted, from the Venice Film Festival. The film critic for Combat, Jean Desternes, praised the film’s “psychological counterpoint,” and particularly applauded an extraordinary rhythm of the images, one that hardly required any dialogue and that recalled the silent cinema of Charlie Chaplin—perhaps the highest compliment any French reviewer could give a film at the time. Then Desternes wrote of his “admiration for the technique” of the two stars, Delair and Louis Jouvet.

This would be Delair’s great star turn, the film where she introduced Tra la la, performing the song in an extended scene covering different locations, while she wore, first, a simple dress, then a spectacular full-length fur coat, and finally a tight-fitting fin de siècle gown ( The number became her trademark, and she sang it again and again over the years.


Singing Madame Tra la la, from Quai des Orfèvres

The film and the song also marked her ascension to the status of diva, at least as she was understood in the French press. In June 1948, Combat ran an interview with the star, just as she was beginning work on Pattes Blanches. She arrived late, of course, and then apologized, or, actually, didn’t: “Don’t blame me…I don’t have a moment to myself…If you only knew! No time to sleep, no time to comb my hair…just galas and films and fittings…” She went on like this, complaining about having to sing outdoors at some concerts and, in general, having too much to do (J’ai tellement de choses à faire). When Delair was finished and then rushed out, the interviewer, after having recovered from the flurry, realized his “one regret,” that the actress had given him no time to speak, and so no opportunity to ask about her “legendary tra la la.” At around the same time, Combat ran the headline, “Suzy Delair Made a Big Tra la la in Brussels” (Suzy Delair a fait un grand Tra la la à Bruxelles), and here, her star behavior seems to have been predictable but not admirable. Because of a dispute with a producer, Delair refused to go on stage. Belgian police ordered the audience to evacuate, Delair’s friends started a fight, and as a result the theatre concierge was wounded.

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The caricature of Delair that Combat ran alongside its interview with the star, June 26, 1948

Quai des Orfèvres marked the high point of Delair’s career. She appeared, improbably enough, with Laurel and Hardy in their last film, Atoll K (Utopia [1950]). She continued performing in movies and television shows until 1987, and remained a celebrity in France until her death. Michèle Morgan died in 2016 and Danielle Darrieux a year later. With Delair’s passing, there is perhaps now only Micheline Presle left, the last of the great stars to have made films in France during the 1930s and ‘40s. In an obituary for Delair, the website francemusique summed up that entire generation of great performers: Appartenant à cette catégorie de comédiennes qui savaient tout faire. She belonged to that category of actresses who knew how to do everything.