Obituary: Chili Bouchier

REGARDED AS the British cinema's first female sex symbol and one of the country's first international stars, the beautiful actress Chili Bouchier first achieved stardom in the silent cinema as Britain's answer to Clara Bow, Hollywood's "It" girl. Labelled "The Brunette Bombshell", and initially specialising in vamps and profligate flappers, she later softened her image to play more romantic roles, and her career was to span over 60 years, embracing both the silent and talking screens plus over 90 stage appearances. She last appeared on stage in 1990, and died just two days short of her 90th birthday.

Born Dorothy Irene Boucher in 1909 in Fulham, London, she was the daughter of an assessor for a painting and decorating firm. As a child, her initial ambition was to be a dancer and she enrolled at a ballet school, but her first job was that of a typist. Her brother Jack worked at Harrods, and in 1925 Bouchier was hired by the store as a fashion model in their "small ladies" department. It was her colleagues at Harrods who nicknamed her Chili after a popular song of the day, Cliff Friend and Walter Donaldson's "Chili Bom Bom". But the dark-eyed beauty and curvaceous figure that had attracted the firm also brought her to the attention of a trainee manager, who seduced her, which led to her being sacked by the store in 1927. (Asked years later if it was worth it, she replied firmly, "Yes".)

She quickly found work modelling in a silent commercial short, and this led to a film contract. "During the First World War, mum and dad used to take us to the cinema as a treat," she recalled later. "It was so wonderful - all those glamorous people and places. That was what I was determined to do. I wanted to make pictures to take people out of their dreary lives. To make fairy stories come true, but I didn't set out to be famous."

Her feature film debut came in Shooting Stars (1927), written by Anthony Asquith and directed by Asquith and A.V. Bramble. A melodrama set in the world of film- making, the film starred Brian Aherne and Annette Benson and featured Bouchier as a bathing beauty. Asquith's debut as a director, the film is remembered for the fresh invention he brought to the film, drastically reducing the number of sub-titles by the use of rapid and impressionistic cutting. His co-director Bramble was impressed with Bouchier (still calling herself Boucher) and gave her extra close-ups and bits of business. The result was a contract with British and Dominion Films, based at Elstree.

One of the studio's chief executives was the producer-director Herbert Wilcox, who took the actress under his wing and directed her in small but telling roles in both Mumsie (1927) starring Pauline Fredericks, and Dawn (1927) starring Sybil Thorndike. With the British press comparing her to Clara Bow (Bouchier used to apply her own make-up, including a cupid's-bow mouth) she then decided to change her surname to Bouchier because "it sounded more French and glamorous".

While making Chick (1928), an Edgar Wallace thriller directed by Bramble in which she played a vamp, she fell in love with one of her co-stars Harry Milton and they were married in 1929. After several more silent movies, including Palais de Danse (1928) with John Longden and You Know What Sailors Are (1928) with Cyril McLaglen, brother of Victor, she was given the leading role in a Michael Balcon production City of Play (1929) filmed partly in Paris, where Bouchier, as a hypnotised trapeze artist, parachutes from the Eiffel Tower.

Midway through shooting, Hollywood's talkie revolution hit the British film industry, and the last half of City of Play was shot with sound. Unlike many silent stars, Bouchier had no difficulty adjusting to sound - she could even sing - and the early years of talkies found her at her peak as a film star. In 1930 she made three films and appeared in two stage revues, and in 1931 was directed by Herbert Wilcox in one of her most popular films, Carnival, in which as part of a husband-and-wife acting team appearing in Othello she is nearly strangled by her jealous spouse (Matheson Lang).

At the age of 13, Bouchier had been taken to see Lang play the same role in a silent version of the story, and later recalled standing outside the Hammersmith cinema dreaming of acting in such a film. "This was my first really big talkie," she told the interviewer Michael Grantside last year, "and still with the great Matheson Lang. It was very strange. I was completely entranced by the original silent and to be making it myself was so amazing."

Set in Venice, Carnival - and its leading lady's risque costumes - became a talking point and a private screening was arranged for mogul Howard Hughes, who later asked Bouchier to go to Hollywood and to marry him. She declined both offers. The actress was billed as Dorothy Bouchier in Carnival - an attempt to get away from the vamp image - and was billed this way for the next few years. Wilcox directed her next film, The Blue Danube (1931) which co-starred Brigitte Helm and Joseph Schildkraut in a romantic musical about Hungarian gypsies, but according to Bouchier her rejection of Wilcox, who wanted their relationship to become more personal, led to his concentrating instead on the career of Anna Neagle.

Wilcox was one of four directors on The King's Cup (1932), an air- racing saga which teamed Bouchier with her husband Harry Milton, and was followed by a popular soap-opera, Ebb Tide (1932). "The Thirties were the happiest years of my life," said Bouchier. "I was working so hard, and it was a joy making all those pictures. Ebb Tide for Paramount made me an international star. The film was exhibited in the US and made in French and German." But her next roles in Wilcox productions were not prestigious ones, playing foil to such comics as Ralph Lynn in Summer Lightning (1933) and Sydney Howard in It's a Cop (1934) and when he refused her request to play the title role in Nell Gwyn, which he gave to Neagle, she asked to be released from her contract.

Her husband's infidelities, notably with the musical star Jessie Matthews, resulted in her marriage breaking down, and her health began to suffer. She had a personal success on the London stage in C.B. Cochran's musical Magnolia Street (1934) but her films during this period were slight pieces with the exception of Rene Clair's The Ghost Goes West (1935), in which she had a supporting role.

She had reverted to the name Chili, and in 1935 signed a contract with Warner Bros', once more playing primarily vamps and temperamental fireballs. In Faithful (1936), she was a socialite who tries to woo a night-club singer away from his wife, and in Gypsy (1936) she was a gypsy dancer who causes havoc when she follows her lover to England. In 1937 Bouchier fell in love again when she met the American band-leader Teddy Joyce (billed as "Hollywood's Dancing Bachelor") at a party. "He became the love of my life," she later said. The pair lived together from 1937 until his sudden death from meningitis in 1941.

Warners eventually asked Bouchier out to Hollywood, but the trip proved a disappointment for the actress when she found there was nothing ready for her and her reaction did not help her career. "I hated Hollywood," she told Grantside. "and I was most unhappy and lonely. I didn't want to go and had turned down several offers, but I was under contract and had to. Eventually I fled back to England. Jack Warner was furious and vowed to get rid of me once my contract, having six months to go, had elapsed." She was given supporting roles in two more Warner productions, including Everything Happens to Me (1938) with Max Miller, to finish her contract, then she and Teddy formed a repertory company, The Chili Bouchier Players, shortly before Joyce's death.

Bouchier made two films during the Second World War - one of them, My Wife's Family (1941) featuring a newcomer, Patricia Roc, who would become one of the decade's most popular players - but spent most of the war years touring with ENSA entertaining the troops. Her first post-war movie Murder In Reverse (1945) was a bleak but impressive thriller with Bouchier as an unfaithful wife whose husband serves a 15-year prison sentence for the murder of her seducer and, finding on release that the supposed victim is still alive, commits the crime for which he has already paid the penalty.

Bouchier followed this with Laughing Lady (1946), a vehicle for the singers Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth, and Mrs Fitzherbert (1947), with Joyce Howard as the mistress of the Prince Regent in the 1870s. These last three films were all made for British National and are rarely shown today. A role in Old Mother Riley's New Venture (1949) indicated that Bouchier's days as a major film name were ended, and she concentrated on the theatre. "Things haven't always been a bed of roses," she commented, "and I have been saved from poverty more than once by the treadmill of touring plays."

In the early 1970s she returned to the West End to do two periods with The Mousetrap, and in 1975 had a supporting role as a doctor's wife in Harvey with James Stewart at the Prince of Wales Theatre. "Jimmy was such a lovely man, and I really enjoyed that time with him in Harvey," she said. After an unhappy wartime marriage, she had met the Australian film director Bluey Hill, and they lived together for 23 years, eventually marrying, until his death in 1986. In 1985 Bouchier scored a hit in the Manchester production of Stephen Sondheim's Follies, singing "Broadway Baby", and two years later played Madame Armfeldt in the same composer's A Little Night Music, with Dorothy Tutin as her daughter Desiree.

Although the play Paris Match (1989) closed quickly in the West End, her co-star Sian Phillips said of Bouchier: "During the hard months when we tried to make the play work, she never lost her glamour, optimism or gaiety, and showed that quality which I adore in people, which is grace under pressure." Phillips made those comments when Bouchier was honoured in 1996 with a This Is Your Life television show, having been surprised by Michael Aspel while signing copies of her autobiography in Harrods, the store which had once sacked her.

The celebrations to mark the Century of the Cinema put Bouchier in great demand, as the only silent star left in Britain, and she was seen by the biggest audience of her life (over 12 million) when in 1995 she appeared on the Michael Barrymore Show and sang Sondheim's anthem to show business survival, "I'm Still Here".

Tom Vallance

Dorothy Irene Boucher (Chili Bouchier), actress: born London 12 September 1909; married first Harry Milton, second Peter De Greef, third Bluey Hill; died London 9 September 1999.

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