One of France’s greatest and most versatile performers, Danielle Darrieux was born in Bordeaux, France, on 1st May 1917. Her father was an army doctor who died when she was 7. Her family were keen music enthusiasts and she studied the cello and piano at the Paris Conservatory.
Darrieux made her film debut at the age of 14 after her mother encouraged her to audition for the part of a headstrong teenager in Wilhelm Thiele’s Le Bal (1931). Her charming feminine allure and beauty, coupled with an instinctive and capable acting ability, drew the attention of public and film directors. She was quickly signed up for roles in a string of films in the 1930s, many of which were musical comedies which allowed the actress to demonstrate her impressive talent as a singer. The two films which established her as an actress of repute were Litvak’s Mayerling (1936) and Farkas’ Port-Arthur (1936). Darrieux scored another success in Abus de confiance (1937), directed by her husband Henri Decoin.
Bouyed up by the international success of Mayerling, Darrieux moved to Hollywood with Decoin where, under contract with Universal pictures, she appeared in her first American film, Henry Koster’s The Rage of Paris (1938). Soon after, the actress returned to France where she starred in Retour à l’aube (1938) and Battement de coeur (1938), two of Decoin’s better films.
Under the Nazi occupation, Darrieux became the leading light of the Continental, a Franco-German film company which was closely scrutinised by the Nazis. She distinguished herself in films such as Premier rendez-vous (1941), again directed by Decoin (although the couple had recently split up). After a visit to Germany, where she entertained the German troops, Darrieux’s popularity in France immediately plummeted and her name was placed on a death-list of the French Resistance. Even when her death sentence was lifted after the war, it was several years before she had regained her former popularity. Her grand return came in 1949 with Claude Autant-Lara’s period farce Occupe-toi d’Amélie.
The 1950s saw a marked change in Darrieux on-screen persona. She was no longer the care-free ingenue of her pre-war years. She had become a sophisticated and passionate society woman, often appearing cold and calculating, but sometimes showing a tender tragic vulnerability. The film which defined Danielle Darrieux in this period was Madame de… (1953), in which she gave probably her best screen performance. This was the third of three films she appeared in which were directed by her fond admirer Max Ophüls – the other two being La Ronde (1950) and Le Plaisir (1952). Darrieux gave a comparable performance in Decoin’s most austere film, La Verité sur Bébé Donge (1952) and made an impressive co-star to Gérard Philipe in Autant-Lara’s romantic epic Le Rouge et le noir (1954).
In the early 1950s, Darrieux made a brief return to the United States, where she appeared in Rich, Young and Pretty (1950) and Five Fingers (1952). In the late 1950s, her film career was beginning to wane, but she made a surprising comeback in Jacques Demy’s popular musical hit Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1966) and then in Paul Vecchiali’s En haut des marches (1983).
In addition to her long and illustrious film career (which spans a remarkable seventy years), Darrieux also had a number of stage successes, most notably La Robe mauve de Valentine. She simultaneously pursued a singing career, appearing in concert in the 1960s, and then taking the lead role in the Broadway musical Coco in the 1970s. In the 1980s, she won further plaudits for her role in the Paris stage musical Gigi.
© James Travers 2001