Tamara Desni: Stage and screen star of the 1930s

Tamara Desni was an exotic, brunette actress, singer and dancer of Russian descent, who had a measure of success on stage and in films. Her peak year as a movie star was 1937, when she was romanced by Laurence Olivier in the historical epic Fire Over England, and sang and danced as the lover of a small-time crook in The Squeaker.

Playing a cabaret performer named Tamara in The Squeaker, she sang two songs, "He's Gone" and "I Don't Get Along Without You", in a light, sub-Dietrich voice, and performed some lithe steps and high-kicks wearing a see-through evening gown. In Fire Over England she played a Spanish aristocrat fiercely opposed to her father's assisting an English spy – until she sets eyes on him.

When the spy (Laurence Olivier) returns years later she is now married to a Spanish nobleman, but has to fight the conflicting passions of patriotism and passion. She and Olivier also had a song together, a folk ballad entitled "The Spanish Lady's Love". Though her performance is fine, it tends to be forgotten because of the film's notoriety: it was the movie that brought together Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who began a torrid affair while making it.

The daughter of the singer Xenia Desni (also known as Dada), who appeared in several German movies, she was born Tamara Brodsky in Berlin in 1911. She was only a child when her father abandoned the family to live in the United States. Tamara married her first husband, a dentist, while still in her teens. She made her film début in 1931 in Der Schrecken der Garnison ("Terror of the Garrison"), the same year she made a triumphant London stage début in the operetta White Horse Inn at the Coliseum Theatre. For this spectacular production, credited with saving the Coliseum, which was faltering as a music hall, the entire theatre was transformed into the Tyrol. "You have not time to breathe watching this wonderful spectacle," stated the News Chronicle, and Tamara Desni was also featured in the next Coliseum show, Casanova (1932).

Desni made her first British film, Falling for You, in 1933, supporting the popular musical comedy team of Cicely Courtneidge and Jack Hulbert, who played reporters searching for a missing heiress (Desni), with whom Hulbert falls in love. She made an elegant dancing partner for Hulbert, who introduced several new songs by Vivien Ellis and Douglas Furber. The teaming was successful enough for Hulbert to cast her with him in another hit movie, Jack Ahoy, in which Hulbert introduced his famous number "My Hat's on the Side of My Head".

Her other films included Forbidden Territory (1934), adapted from a Dennis Wheatley novel, in which she was one of two Russian girls who assist in the rescue of a British nobleman from the secret police; a sprightly musical comedy, How's Chances? (1934), in which she played the sweetheart of Harold French; and an excellent psychological thriller, Bernard Vorhaus's Dark World (1935), in which Desni played a dancer loved by two brothers. Blue Smoke (1935), a story of gypsy life in which she again came between two rivals in love, is notable only because she and her co-star, Bruce Seton – best remembered for his television series Fabian of the Yard – fell in love. In 1937 he became the second of her five husbands.

Desni sang again when she played Olga, a gold-digging vamp who also brings tragedy to two brothers, this time in Roy William Neill's His Brother's Keeper (1939). Reportedly grim but gripping, this film is one of several made by Warner-First National at Teddington Studios that are now considered lost. Desni was then off the screen until 1945, when she returned in a supporting role in the musical Flight from Folly, a vehicle for Pat Kirkwood. Having divorced Seton in 1940, she was briefly married to a naval flyer during the Second World War, then in 1947 she wed one of the British screen's most memorable villains, Canadian-born Raymond Lovell.

Her last three films were "B" movies – Send for Paul Temple (1946), the musical drama The Hills of Donegal (1947) and Dick Barton at Bay (1950). The radio show Dick Barton – Special Agent (1946) had built an audience of 15 million within a year, and was the third most popular radio show of its time after Radio Forfeits and Woman's Hour, but the investigator's screen adventures were lamentably low-budget, poorly written and weakly acted. Desni was second billed to its star Dick Stannard in Dick Barton at Bay, but as Madame Anna, one of the leaders of a gang out to steal a death-ray, she had little to do but accept compliments for her beauty and make observations about her cohorts ("You're getting jumpy, Fingers").

Shortly after the Barton film, Desni moved to France, where she and Albert Lavagna, a builder, successfully opened an inn and restaurant in the Alpes Maritimes: L'Auberge Chez Tamara, in Grasse. Though she was wary of taking another husband, when Desni discovered in 1955 that she was pregnant, she and Lavagna decided to marry. The first of two daughters was born in 1956, and the marriage lasted for 50 years until Lavagna's death.

Tom Vallance

Tamara Brodsky (Tamara Desni), actress, singer and dancer: born Berlin 22 October 1911; married first Hans Wilhelm (marriage dissolved), secondly Roland Gillet (marriage dissolved), thirdly Bruce Seton (marriage dissolved), fourthly Raymond Lovell (marriage dissolved), fifthly 1955 Albert Lavagna (deceased; two daughters); died Valence d'Agen, France 7 February 2008.

Suggested Topics
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised
Life and Style

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Brian Harvey turned up at Downing Street today demanding to speak to the Prime Minister

Met Police confirm there was a 'minor disturbance' and that no-one was arrested

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Life and Style
Northern soul mecca the Wigan Casino
fashionGone are the punks, casuals, new romantics, ravers, skaters, crusties. Now all kids look the same
Life and Style

I Am Bread could actually be a challenging and nuanced title

Nigel Farage has backed DJ Mike Read's new Ukip song
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 5 Teacher

£80 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Year 5 Teacher KS2 teaching job...

Software Developer

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum Pensions Scheme After 6 Months: Clearwater People So...

Systems Analyst / Business Analyst - Central London

£35000 - £37000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst / Busines...

Senior Change Engineer (Network, Cisco, Juniper) £30k

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Senior Change ...

Day In a Page

Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

Terry Venables column

Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

Michael Calvin's Inside Word

Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past