Simone Simon (pronounced “see-moan see-moan”) is one of my favorite Golden Age movie actresses. She was born Béthune, France on April 1911 and 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 (1942). The film has been sited as a major influence to many of today’s most successful filmmakers and if you’ve ever seen it you know why. The film is creepy as hell. And Simone is absolutely mesmerizing as a woman who turns into a panther when she becomes jealous. She was the original catwoman, or, “sex kitten” for her time and was a precursor of Brigitte Bardot. That said, I think she’s more glamorous and refined than Bardot, but to each his own.
In 1934, Simone came to the attention of Darryl F. Zanuck at 20th Century-Fox who offered her a contract. However, as often happened with overseas leading ladies, the studio seemed unsure what to do with her. Her first American film, Girls’ Dormitory (1936), is best remembered if at all for Tyrone Power’s first speaking part. He had just one line, “Can I have this dance?”, addressed to Simone in the final scene. It provoked such a response from the public that he was propelled to instant stardom. Simone made an impression as well, as the New York Times critic Frank Nugent suggested “that Congress cancel a substantial part of France’s war debt in consideration of its gift of her to Hollywood”. I would agree.
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. But just thinking of Jimmie doing his schtick in a Paris sewer should get you to rent this movie. And the fact that Simone is absolutely stunning opposite him is worth it altogether.
Hollywood beckoned again, and Simone 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”. That’s relative, of course, and the portrayal stands up today as a femme fatale worth losing your eternal soul to possess – at least for a little while.
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, there were two scene that stand out for their iconic imagery.
The best one is set in a swimming pool (that’s Jane Randolph freaking out in the pool while being stalked by Simone). The other is in a deserted street and among one of the most eerily disturbing images ever put on film. Its become a classic, and was so popular in its day that, despite its brief running time (73 minutes), was often played as the main attraction. Simone Simon was now officially an A-list movie star.
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). Instead, Lewton and 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. The film confused the hell out of audience even though the final film stands on its own today.
Curse of the Cat People was basically a child’s tale on the perils of childhood, and this is where the confusion lies – in the title. Robert Wise, who co-directed the film, said they had screened the film for child psychologists who thought the film was terrific. He said that one of the psychologists then turned to him and said “However, what’s it doing with that horrible title?” This is how RKO ran the show back then (and not too much different than studios today trying to cash in while they can).
Director, Guillermo Del Toro, a huge fan of the Lewton films, has attributed Curse of the Cat People as an inspiration for Pan’s Labyrinth, as both films are pretty much told to us through the eyes of a child. Lewton and Wise turned in one of the most unique and haunting non-horror movies ever. One that has influenced directors like Del Toro ever since. For me, it’s worth watching for Simone’s performance as a ghost. A feline-ghost, to be precise.
An interesting footnote to Simone Simon’s story occurred when declassified records, which became available at the UK Public Records Office in 2002, revealed that during 1942 she 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 never recovering the rather large loan. But a woman this beautiful needn’t worry about being alone for long. Another famous lover, George Gershwin the composer, wrote his famous tune “Love Walked In” for Simone. Talk about making a lasting impression.
Simone’s 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’s a downbeat tale of a railway worker and a gold-digger. A stunningly beautiful gold-digger. Simone would continue to work on stage and in minor movie roles in the ensuing decades, her last film being La Femme en bleu (“The Woman in Blue”), in 1973. The beautiful and captivating Simone died in her beloved Paris on February 23, 2005. I’ll always remember her as the original catwoman and an actress that transcended “B” movie vehicles to become an “A” list actress and a class-act in my book.
This cheesecake shot is not of Simone Simon. I just couldn’t help myself. Happy Halloween!