Born near Marseille, the French beauty got her start on the silver screen after a chance encounter. She spent her childhood, for the most part in France after relocating to Madagascar, Budapest, Berlin and Turn then Marseille to finish high school. All of this travel was made possible due to her French father's job as an engineer that transitioned to his becoming a fighter pilot during WWII. Sadly it would become the ultimate sacrifice for his country as he was captured then placed in a concentration camp where he eventually died. Simon's Italian mother would make due with small jobs in order to care for her family.
Simone made her way to Paris in 1931 to find work. Like most young girls she wasn't quite sure which of her interests she would pursue as a career. At one point she wanted to become a sculptress, a model, a singer and a fashion designer. It was a chance encounter that would choose her career path for her. I guess you could say it was the Lana Turner story French style. (No word on if she was wearing a tight sweater). While dining at a restaurant with friends Simon was spotted by the Russian director, Victor Tourjansky who offered her a film contract. She would make her film debut in Le chanteur inconnu (The Unknown Singer) that same year. The film was an instant success, paving the way for Simone to be offered steady work in foreign films.
Although a famous star in France by 1934, it would be her performance in Marc Allegret's "Ladies Lake" that year that would get the attention of Hollywood heavy hitter Darryl Zanuck, another encounter that would propel her to worldwide fame. Like so many actresses before her, she was brought to Hollywood where the studio machine launched a campaign to get her noticed, the name recognition that would fill theater seats. After filming one more film in her native France in 1935, Simone was ready to relocate to California, embracing all that it had to offer, good or bad.
Once settled in CA, Simone was given her first assignment, not on screen of course but in a classroom where she would take weeks of lessons, not for acting but to actually learn English well enough to fit into certain roles. She was to appear in her first English speaking film in 1936, "A Message to Garcia" Unfortunately the studio felt Rita Hayworth was better suited for the role. I can only imagine the young Simone trying to adjust to her second language then being offered a role where she would be tanned, and directed to give a Spanish accent. Perhaps it was lucky for her that Rita, who was actually of Spanish decent took the role.
click on Simone's autograph and photos from my collection for a closer view.
Before Simone's International career even got started there was a bit of hubbub over her being fired from her first film during 1935. While filming "Under Two Flags" under director Frank Lloyd, she was let go after a few weeks and Zanuck let it be known that it was her temperamental behavior on set which Simone disputed, having cited a lingering illness for her being discharged from the picture. Years later she would admit that she was a bit temperamental during her first year in Hollywood but it was due to getting used to the California lifestyle which she felt was a bit too extroverted. Her behavior also changed after a confrontation with Marlene Dietrich on set who told her "A star is only as important as she makes herself out to be" (Meowww, hiss). Claudette Colbert would replace Simone in "Under Two Flags" which co-starred Ronald Coleman. It should be noted that Simon was actually hospitalized during this time, most likely due to exhaustion. Luckily it wasn't from Dietrich clawing her eyes out. (I wonder if she was thinking of dear, sweet Marlene years later while playing a black panther?)
By 1936, Simone had grown disillusioned with Hollywood and was preparing to sail back to France when she was offered a supporting role in "Girls Dormitory". The romantic drama starred Herbert Marshall and Ruth Chatterton. Obviously Chatterton like Dietrich before her witnessed the same temperamental behavior which caused immediate conflict on the set between her and Simone. Ruth felt Simone was getting too much attention and Simone's excuse this go around was that she was extremely nervous due to the studio watching her so closely. In the end the much anticipated film was a box office flop although Simone did get positive reviews for her first American on screen performance. In just a few years she would be watched closely by the FBI but more on that a bit later.
With the public clamoring to see more of the French beauty, she was immediately cast in "White Hunter" which would also be directed by Irving Cummings. Although a B film, the director was anxious to work with her again but once again Simone was waylayed with the flu and had to be replaced shortly after production began. This time she was replaced with June Lang. (I wonder how many out of work actresses waited around Simone's sets waiting on work?)
The studio still wanting to avoid losing Simon, cast her instead in "Lady in Love" during 1936 which co-starred Constance Bennett, Loretta Young and Janet Gaynor. Of course it wasn't long before the three actresses made noise about Simon getting too much attention so to avoid any further outcries about her behavior, Simone hired an assistant to speak for her, decreasing her need to get involved in all of the 'bitchiness' between the three very large ego's she was now surrounded by. She would go on to star in the remake of "Seventh Heaven" with Janet Gaynor and James Stewart in 1937 which didn't have great success but I love the scenes between Simone and a very young but adorable Jimmy Stewart. Once it was released in theaters she was cast in "Danger-Love at Work" but she was once again replaced, this time with Ann Sothern, the official reason being her heavy French accent not fitting with the character. With nothing to do she took a 6 week vacation back to France, returning to Hollywood in the summer of 1937 in anticipation of filming "Suez". This time filming was delayed and Simone was eventually replaced once again. This would be the end of her working relationship with 20th Century Fox. (Obviously there was more bickering than actual working)
With Jimmy Stewart in "Seventh Heaven" 1937
By the end of the 1930's Simone returned to France, feeling her reputation had been tarnished and in need of steady work. Her move to America left her deflated and frustrated that all of the publicity had backfired, affecting her ability to work in her native France. She did get to work and realized that her appeal was still there, being given a role in the Renoir picture "La Bete Humaine in 1938 (The Human Beast) followed by the successful French Historical drama, "Love Cavalcade" which was released in 1940. By now WWII was in full swing so to escape the ongoing devastation in her beautiful homeland, Simone returned to Hollywood, this time signing a contract with RKO Radio Pictures.
Her first film for RKO was the very successful Fantasy Drama, "The Devil and Daniel Webster" which co-starred Edward Arnold, Walter Huston and Jane Darwell. The film was a welcome escape during WWII, garnering two Academy Award nods in 1942, Walter Huston for Best Actor and for Best Music Scoring. Simone, finally finding her niche, was immediately cast in the role that she has become synonymous with, "Cat People" 1942 which co-starred Kent Smith, Tom Conway and Jane Randolph. I don't know many old film fans who haven't seen Cat People and I actually re-watched it again just a few weeks ago. Perhaps Simon just needed a French director to understand her and to allow her to express herself, director Jacque Tourneur made that happen. RKO invested in a few cheap, quickies to recoup some of their losses after Citizen Kane. (That seems odd to even type) The film that many consider the best film of all time, Citizen Kane just about bankrupted RKO so they churned out these B rated Horror films to bail themselves out of financial ruin.
Like so many early horror films you don't actually see anything gruesome or scary, but you're left to your imagination as to what actually happens when Simone's character, a Serbian immigrant who winds up stateside and in love, all while we see her life unravel as she visits her Psychiatrist. Oh, and there's the fun little fact that she turns into a killer black panther when she gets upset, aroused. You have to feel for her doctor who crosses the line by falling in love with her all while she's delving into her terrifying past of strange curses about women turning into black cats and her obsession with these very objects that cause her life to spiral out of control. If only that silly doctor and her wayward husband had repossessed her day pass to the Bronx Zoo!
Simone would get another chance at success in a Musical Comedy with " Tahiti Honey" in 1944, which co-starred Michael Whalen and Dennis O'Keefe. I haven't had the pleasure of seeing this film (sarcasm) so I'll go with IMDb's rating of 8.5 and if anyone has actually seen it please enlighten us. Simon would star in three films for RKO during 1944. The War Drama, "Mademoiselle Fifi" which was directed by Robert Wise takes place during the French-Prussian War with Simone giving a beautiful performance in a film that given a bigger budget could have had even more success. (huh-hum Calvalcade) but it was during wartime so RKO did accomplish an eye appealing piece with strong performances by Simon and her co-stars John Emery and Kirt Krueger. Interestingly the period piece was produced by Val Lewton who also produced Cat People and was known mostly for B rated Horror films at RKO during the 40's.
Simone would next shoot the sequel to "Cat People", reuniting with Kent Smith and Jane Randolph in "The Curse of the Cat People". I have to admit that I wasn't all that crazy about this one. Simone is back but only as a ghost and the imaginary friend of a little girl, the daughter of Irena's widower husband. It did have box office success though so I won't rip on it too much. Simone's last film of 1944 was the Romantic Comedy "Johnny Doesn't Live Here Anymore" which co-starred James Ellison and William Terry. I actually liked this film in all it's campy glory. I found Simone just great as she deals with the trials of sharing an apartment with young men during wartime at no fault of her own. The ending was a fun twist and the cast really did have good chemistry. I wish she had been given more chances at comedy, I think she would have excelled.
Simon did not work during 1945 and it was with the assistance of Director Marc Allegret that she was able to star under him in the French film "Petrus" in 1946, a Crime Mystery that had very little success. Her last film of the decade would be in the Crime Drama "Temptation Harbor" 1947, co-starring Robert Newton and William Hartnell. A film about greed over weighing what's morally correct, with mediocre performances by all involved. Simone seems to have trouble maintaining her English accent after more than enough years to do so. (But it's not near as bad as the accents Angelina Jolie has tried to pull off over the years. Don't even get me started on "The Tourist" and that mess "Alexander").
Simone would return to France where she would continue to work in B rated pictures until retiring from the silver screen in 1956. It's assumed that she led a quite life in and around Paris during this time and she would appear only once on screen in 1973 in the French film "The Woman in Blue". Simone never married nor did she have any children. She passed away from natural causes at the age of 94 in her Paris apartment. She was buried at the Cemetery, Chateau-Gombert in the Cote d'Azur region of France. I hope her retirement was filled with love and laughter. It must be a hard to spend your later life without parents, siblings or children around you. I'm sure she had a very fine circle of friends though.
With Don Ameche in one of her early 20th Century Fox films, "Josette"
Simone Simon Trivia:
The only bit of scandal that Simone ever found herself in was when her maid was caught stealing from her then later convicted. To get revenge, her maid leaked the rumor that Simone would hand out a gold key to her boudoir to any man she found herself attracted to. Of course Simone disputed this rumor and the maid was quickly put under a gag order as part of her sentencing.
Simone had an affair with composer George Gershwin which she never denied when asked about it late in life, stating above all else it was music that they had in common. It's been suggested that Gershwin wrote Love Walked In with Simone in mind.
Her most notorious affair was with the double agent and Spy, Dusko Popov. It's not often that a Yugoslavian spy get's to spy for the German's (so they thought) only to be spying for the British. Popov's close friend Ian Fleming, used his life adventures for his character James Bond.
During the production of "Cat People", Simone was under FBI surveillance for her association with Popov.
Thanks for joining me for my look back at Simone Simon's life and career. And please enjoy the below clip of Simone and Jimmy Stewart in a scene from "Seventh Heaven"
See you all soon,