Denise Darcel: Actress and singer who excelled both as vamp and comic foil
Saturday 14 January 2012
Denise Darcel was a voluptuous actress and singer who appeared in several feature films in the early 1950s.
She tempted Tarzan in Tarzan and the Slave Girl (1950), was leading lady to Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich's western Vera Cruz (1954), and had a particularly rewarding association with director William Wellman, playing the only female speaking role in his persuasively gritty war movie Battleground (1949), and heading a wagon train of 150 resourceful mail-order brides led by wagon master Robert Taylor in Westward the Women, the director's undervalued account of a pioneering trek from Chicago to California.
One of a French baker's five daughters, she was born Denise Billecard in Paris in 1924 and educated at the University of Dijon. She was working as a cashier in a department store in 1945 when she won a beauty contest that brought her publicity as "The Most Beautiful Girl in France". Capitalising on this, she fashioned a night-club act built around risqué songs that suited her saucy personality, touring the night-spots of the Riviera and performing as a featured singer at the Comedie Francaise. She then travelled to the US as the "GI Bride" of an American army captain, and though the marriage proved short-lived she was spotted by a talent scout from Warners and made her screen debut in Delmer Daves' To The Victor (1948).
Set in a post-war Paris of black marketeering and the rooting-out of Nazi collaborators, with Dennis Morgan as a cynical café owner, it was an unsuccesssful attempt to be emulate Casablanca, but Darcel's one scene (unbilled) as a buxom bar singer delivering a seductive version of the French standard "La Vie En Rose", was a highlight. The film's female star was Viveca Lindfors, one of several continental actresses of the time whom Hollywood vainly hoped might equal the impact of Greta Garbo or Ingrid Bergman; Darcel would join that list, along with such actresses as Marta Toren, Micheline Presle and Corinne Calvet.
She played a mail-order bride in the logging adventure Thunder in the Pines (1949), then was cast by Wellman as a farm girl who provides hospitality for war-weary GI's in Battleground, which follows the fortunes of a group of 12 soldiers during the battle of Bastogne. "In Paris I am a glamorous singer," she quipped. "I come to Hollywood and I am a peasant!" A hit with both critics and audiences, Battleground won an Oscar for its writer, Robert Pirosh, and Darcel figured in one of the film's few light moments when her zestful cutting of a loaf of bread, slicing it with the knife pointing towards her breasts, causes a perturbed GI (Van Johnson) to leap up and warn her of possible injury.
Darcel then played in Tarzan and the Slave Girl, as a nurse kidnapped by a lion-worshipping tribe, "The Lionians". Tarzan historian Gabe Essoe wrote, "As a half-breed nurse with a yen for men and an immediate fancy for Tarzan, Denise Darcel added a lot of spice to the film, especially when attired in a revealing sarong."
She made her Broadway debut as leading lady to comics Olsen and Johnson in the revue Pardon Our French (1950), singing and displaying an impish sense of humour as foil to the comedians. After its three-month run she returned to Hollywood for Wellman's fine western Westward the Women, though some critics felt she was unconvincing as an earthy frontierswoman. She was more comfortable in Young Man with Ideas (1952) as a French chanteuse piquantly named Dorianne Gray, trying to woo married lawyer Glenn Ford with her rendition of "I Don't Know Why I Love You As I Do".
She was at her most likeable as an aspiring channel swimmer in the Esther Williams musical Dangerous When Wet (1953), sharing with Jack Carson a chorus of the best of the Arthur Schwartz-Johnny Mercer songs, "Ain't Nature Grand?" She received top billing for the only time as a French rebel leader in 1760 in the lively Flame of Calcutta (1953), then had one of her best roles as a countess who enlists two mercenaries (Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster) to escort her as she transports a gold shipment during the Mexican revolution of 1866 in Vera Cruz.
Though probably the film for which she is most remembered, it was her last major movie – audiences reputedly found it difficult to understand her accent. She returned to cabaret work and recorded an album, Banned in Boston, which featured similar material to her club act, such as the unexpurgated version of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" from Rodgers and Hart's Pal Joey, plus "Den of Iniquity" from the same score, and Cole Porter's lament of a prostitute, "Love for Sale".
In summer theatre seasons she played a bigamist's French wife (created on Broadway by Abbe Lane), in the musical Oh, Captain (based on the British film The Captain's Paradise), and starred as the café owner who scandalises Paris with her dancing girls (and sings "I Love Paris") in Cole Porter's Can-Can. She made one more film, the shoddy B-movie Seven Women from Hell (1961), set in a Japanese prison camp during the war. On TV she sang on The Ed Sullivan Show, played foil to comics Milton Berle and Martha Raye and had roles in The Naked City and Combat!
In the mid-1960s she performed as a stripper, and she later found work as a croupier in a Las Vegas casino. "All my life I go up, down, up, down," she said. "I am indestructible." In 1995 she appeared in a revival of the musical Follies, singing "Ah, Paris!" She was married four times, and in the 1950s she had a long relationship with the actor Steve Cochran. Two sons, to whom she remained close, survive her.
Denise Billecard (Denise Darcel), actress and singer: born Paris 8 September 1924; married four times (divorced three times, fourth husband died 2003), two sons; died Los Angeles 23 December 2011.
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