IN THE HEYDAY of French popular cinema, people liked stories of princes and princesses set in the remote kingdoms of real or imaginary central and Eastern Europe. With her bubbly blonde beauty and strong accent, Elvire Popesco was the exotic queen of the genre, on stage and on screen.
Born Elvire Popescu (as an actress in France she called herself Popesco) in Bucharest, in 1894, into a theatrical family, she was a member of Bucharest's national theatre; she married and had a daughter, Tatiana. Legend has it that King Ferdinand was madly in love with Popesco, a story which sounds just like one of her French plays, as does that of her Parisian debut. In 1923, the playwright Louis Verneuil asked her to take over the lead in his hit play Ma Cousine de Varsovie. Popesco promptly came to Paris, where she remained for the rest of her life. Her triumph in Ma Cousine de Varsovie (filmed in 1931) started a long personal relationship with Verneuil, and a longer professional one; on and off, she performed the play until 1955.
Popesco's genius was her ability to evoke both exoticism and typical high Parisian life. In the 1920s and 1930s, many Russian exiles lived and worked in Paris. With the flourishing 'Slav' cabarets and restaurants, they popularised the glittering nostalgic culture of the exiled aristocracy, a champagne- drinking world where women, however impoverished, had constant love affairs, and wore satin dresses and jewels - exactly Popesco's image on and off stage and screen. In this context, her exact origins did not matter. Her sophisticated looks and strong accent evoked white, aristocratic European otherness. At the same time, her comic talent was brilliantly suited to boulevard comedy. Her best films were adaptations of Verneuil's plays, such as L'Habit vert (1937), Andre Berthomieu's Eusebe depute (1937, based on Tristan Bernard), Abel Gance's Paradis perdu (1939), and Sacha Guitry's Ils etaient neuf celibataires (1939), in which Guitry famously summed her up with the judgement 'She's not French, but she's a Parisienne'. Like many exiles in show business, she resented, but capitalised on, her stereotypical 'foreignness'.
Apart from small parts in Rene Clement's Plein Soleil and Guitry's Napoleon (both 1959), her film career was mostly confined to the 1930s filmed plays. She pursued a brilliant career in boulevard theatre, however, well into the - and her - Seventies (her sole tragic part was Jocasta in Cocteau's La Machine infernale in 1954). Andre Roussin's La Mamma, written for her in 1957, and which she played until 1974, was her last triumph; she went back on tour with it in 1982. She crowned her theatrical career as director of the Theatre de Paris, and later the Theatre Marigny.
Elvire Popesco was awarded the Legion d'Honneur in 1970, graduating to the higher rank of Commandeur in 1989.