Simone Simon

Kittenish star well cast in 'Cat People'
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The Independent Online

Simone Simon was a delightfully kittenish actress, whose triangular face and gamine figure were often called feline, an appropriate description of an actress whose most famous American film was the classic Val Lewton production Cat People. In her native France, she worked with some of the finest directors, including Renoir and Ophuls, in such films as La Bête humaine, La Ronde and Le Plaisir, and, in the perception of her as a "sex kitten", she could be described as a precursor of Brigitte Bardot.

Simone Simon, actress: born Béthune, France 23 April 1910; died Paris 23 February 2005.

Simone Simon was a delightfully kittenish actress, whose triangular face and gamine figure were often called feline, an appropriate description of an actress whose most famous American film was the classic Val Lewton production Cat People. In her native France, she worked with some of the finest directors, including Renoir and Ophuls, in such films as La Bête humaine, La Ronde and Le Plaisir, and, in the perception of her as a "sex kitten", she could be described as a precursor of Brigitte Bardot.

Born in 1910 (or 1911) in Béthune, France, the daughter of a French engineer and an Italian housewife, she grew up in Marseilles. She worked briefly as a singer, model and fashion designer in Paris before making her screen début in Le Chanteur inconnu ("The Unknown Singer", 1931).

She achieved prominence with her role opposite Jean-Pierre Aumont in Marc Allégret's lightweight but delicately handled Tyrolean romance Lac aux dames ( Ladies Lake, 1934), adapted by Colette from Vicki Baum's novel. The film made stars of both Simon and her leading man, and shortly afterwards she was offered a Hollywood contract by Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox, although, as often happened with continental leading ladies, the studio seemed unsure what to do with her.

Her first American film, Girls' Dormitory (1936), is remembered now mainly as Tyrone Power's first speaking part. He had just one line, "Can I have this dance?", addressed to Simon in the final scene, but it provoked such a response from the public that he was propelled to instant stardom. Simon also made an impression, the New York Times critic Frank Nugent suggesting "that Congress cancel a substantial part of France's war debt in consideration of its gift of her to Hollywood".

She was one of four girls finding romance in Budapest in Ladies in Love (1936), which had one of the studio's favourite themes - working girls hiring a lavish apartment to make an impression on boyfriends. A minor comedy, Love and Hisses (1937), was followed by her best role from this period, as the tragic waif of Seventh Heaven (1937), although her leading man, James Stewart, hardly made a convincing Parisian sewer worker, and the film was judged inferior to the 1927 silent version with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell.

After Allan Dwan's amusing but slight comedy Josette (1938), Simon returned to France and made one of her finest films, Renoir's La Bête humaine (1938) co-starring Jean Gabin. An updated version of Zola's 1890 novel, it was part of the "poetic realism" cycle of sombre romances that especially characterised the work of Marcel Carné and Julien Duvivier in the 1930s. Its emotionally charged tale, of a train driver who falls in love with the wife of a railwayman that the couple plan to kill, was exquisitely directed, beautifully played by the coquettish Simon and brooding Gabin, and was a huge hit.

Hollywood beckoned again, and she returned with a bewitching portrayal of an unearthly seductress in William Dieterle's The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941), an adaptation of Stephen Vincent Benét's fable about a simple farmer who sells his soul to the devil. Simon later confessed she thought the piece "too heavy-handed".

She was then cast in the film for which she is best remembered, as the tragic heroine who turns into a cat when jealous, in Jacques Tourneur's Cat People (1942). One of the most intelligent and haunting of "B" movies, with two sequences, one set in a swimming pool and the other in a deserted street, that are among the most eerily disturbing ever put on film, it has deservedly become a classic, and was so popular in its day that, despite its brief running time (73 minutes), it often played as the prime attraction.

Declassified records, which became available at the UK Public Records Office in 2002, revealed that during 1942 Simon was watched by the FBI, because she was dating Dusko Popov, a "double agent" who worked for MI5. She gave him a loan of £10,000 late in 1942, before he left for Lisbon, and the couple broke up in 1943, with Simon apparently not recovering the loan.

After the great success of Cat People, its producer Lewton was asked to do a sequel with the title The Curse of the Cat People (1944). He eschewed the obvious and with the director Robert Wise made a gripping psychological thriller about a lonely child, with Simon (whose character had died at the end of the previous film) appearing as a friendly spirit. Lewton and Wise had less success with Mademoiselle Fifi (1944), although Simon was agreeably spunky as the brave French laundress of Guy de Maupassant's story, defying the Prussian invaders of 1870. She later claimed that US censorship harmed the film.

Her other movies in the US were minor, and at the end of the Second World War she returned to Paris, where she made her stage début in Le Square du Pérou ("Peru Square", 1945). In 1947, she journeyed to the UK to star opposite Robert Newton in Lance Comfort's powerful Temptation Harbour (1947). Adapted from a story by Georges Simenon, it evoked La Bête humaine in its downbeat tale of a railway worker and a gold-digger.

In France, Simon's work was sporadic but included three notable movies. She and Edwige Feuillère were owners of an 1880s girls' boarding school in Jacqueline Audry's controversial Olivia (1950, aka The Pit of Loneliness), which had censor boards outraged at its portrayal of lesbianism. The same year, she was one of several stars in Max Ophuls's witty version of Arthur Schnitzler's play depicting love as a bitterly comic merry-go-round, La Ronde, which won the British Film Academy's Best Film award.

In 1952 she made a second film with Ophuls, Le Plaisir, based on three stories by Maupassant. In the third episode, " La Modèle", she was the lovesick model of a philandering artist (Daniel Gelin). When a suicide attempt leaves her crippled, he marries her out of pity, and in the haunting last shot is seen wheeling her along the beach. She returned to the stage in La Courte paille ("The Short Straw", 1967) and made her last film, La Femme en bleu ("The Woman in Blue"), in 1973.

Tom Vallance

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