Her porcelain beauty allowed actress Michèle Morgan to rise swiftly through the French film industry before World War II, but success in Hollywood proved elusive. The beguiling co-star of Charles Boyer in "Storm" (1938) and Jean Gabin in "Port of Shadows" (1938) fled the Nazis in 1940, arriving in the United States and signing with RKO-Radio Pictures. She won the hearts of American moviegoers as "Joan of Paris" (1942), a beautiful martyr for the cause of freedom against the Third Reich. Losing out to Ingrid Bergman as Humphrey Bogart’s co-star in "Casablanca" (1942), Morgan joined Bogart for Warner Brothers’ follow-up "Passage to Marseilles" (1944), but the mismatched co-stars lacked chemistry and her Hollywood stock declined. Morgan traveled for work, to England for Carol Reed’s "The Fallen Idol" (1948) and to Italy for Alessandro Blasetti’s "Fabiola" (1949), but it was back in France that she resumed the balance of a long and distinguished career. In her thirties, Morgan enjoyed leading roles in Marc Allégret’s "Maria Chapdelaine" (1950), Sacha Guitry’s "Napoléon Bonaparte" (1955), and Claude Autant-Lara’s "Marguerite du nuit" (1955), while transitioning in middle age to character parts in Claude Chabrol’s "Bluebeard" (1963) and Mark Robson’s "Lost Patrol" (1966), her last performance in English. Thrice-married and twice-widowed, Morgan retired from acting in 1999, just shy of her 80th birthday, retreating to a comfortable private life rich in accolades and honors for her value to the legacy of French cinema.
Michèle Morgan was born Simone Renèe Roussel in Neuilly-sur-Seine, an affluent western suburb of Paris, France, on Feb. 29, 1920. Leaving home at age 15, Morgan fled to the City of Lights, where she enrolled in acting classes with Renè Simon, while earning her tuition as an extra in such French language films as Yvan Noé’s "Mademoiselle Mozart" (1936) and "La vie parisienne" ("The Parisian Life") (1936), directed by Robert Siodmak, a German Jew in flight from the Nazis. Morgan’s porcelain attractiveness and large, expressive eyes caught the attention of Marc Allégret, who cast her as the lead in "Gribouille" ("The Meddler") (1937). Playing the daughter of a lowly army deserter made to stand trial for the accidental death of her lover, Morgan was well matched with older actor Raimu, who takes pity on the girl and convinces his fellow jurors to give her the benefit of a doubt. In later life, Morgan would credit Raimu with teaching her everything she needed to know about film acting.
Allégret next paired Morgan with Charles Boyer – himself on the cusp of stardom in Hollywood – for "Orage" ("Storm") (1938), the tale of a bourgeois engineer who falls in love with his brother’s spirited fiancée. Allégret had intended the film as little more than a showcase for his pretty protégé and the tack worked – Morgan was subsequently cast opposite French superstar Jean Gabin in Marcel Carné’s poetic-realist crime drama "Le quai des brumes" ("Port of Shadows") (1938), as yet another doe-eyed innocent (in a see-through raincoat, no less) who finds in Gabin’s world-weary deserter a protector against underworld predators. Morgan and Gabin went on to co-star in Maurice Gleize’s "La récif de corail" ("Coral Reefs") (1939), as lovers wanted for murder during an influenza epidemic, and in Jean Grémillon’s "Remorques" (1939), in which Morgan made life difficult for Gabin’s married tugboat captain. Dubbed into English for distribution in the United States under the title "Stormy Waters," the film brought Morgan to the attention of the major Hollywood studios.
With the German invasion of France in 1940, Morgan fled to Hollywood. While fellow expatriate Jean Gabin had gone to work for 20th Century Fox, Morgan signed with RKO-Radio Pictures and accepted the lead role in Archie Mayo’s "Joan of Paris" (1942), as a Parisian barmaid who forfeits her life to help Allied airmen slip the Gestapo. Released in the aftermath of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, the film pleased American moviegoers and its success made Morgan a marketable commodity. Producer Hal Wallis considered her while developing "Casablanca" (1942) at Warner Brothers, but Morgan’s salary demands prompted the hiring of Swedish import Ingrid Bergman. Morgan received top billing for the RKO musical "Higher and Higher" (1943), in which she co-starred with a debuting Frank Sinatra. Warners borrowed the actress for "Passage to Marseilles" (1944), but her casting opposite Bogart was forgotten in the wake of his onscreen pairing that same year with newcomer and wife-to-be Lauren Bacall in "To Have and Have Not" (1944). Off-screen, Morgan enjoyed greater chemistry with actor William Marshall but the marriage proved short-lived despite resulting in the birth of a daughter.
After World War II, Morgan played a gangster’s wife who makes a play for mob driver Robert Cummings in Arthur Ripley’s noir-inflected thriller "The Chase" (1946). The independent production reflected a downturn in Morgan’s Hollywood stock that coincided with the ascension of such fresh young faces as Rita Hayworth, Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. Morgan returned to France to make "La symphonie pastorale" ("Pastoral Symphony") (1946), playing a blind country girl, raised from childhood by a Protestant minister, who becomes the adult object of affection for both the clergyman and his son. After winning a Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival, Morgan traveled to work. In England, she was used to excellent effect as the mistress of a valet (Ralph Richardson) suspected of murdering his shrewish wife in "The Fallen Idol" (1948), a collaborative effort by director Carol Reed and writer Grahame Green prior to their more celebrated "The Third Man" (1949). In Italy, she headlined Alessandro Blasetti’s sword-and-sandal melodrama "Fabiola" (1949), later marrying co-star Henri Vidal.
Back in France, Morgan was reunited with Marc Allégret for "Maria Chapdelaine" (1950), a Franco-British coproduction in which the actress was wooed by Brits Kieron Moore and Jack Watling, and Frenchman Philippe Lemaire. For director Sacha Guitry, she was Josephine to Raymond Pellegrin’s "Napoléon Bonaparte" (1955), backed by an international cast that included Jean Gabin, Yves Montand, Jean-Pierre Aumont and Orson Welles. For Claude Autant-Lara’s Faustian fable "Marguerite du nuit" (1955), she played the title role opposite Montand as Mephistopheles in a banker’s trilby and topcoat. The actress was a stoic "Marie-Antoinette reine de France" ("Shadow of the Guillotine") (1956) opposite Richard Todd as the doomed French queen’s lover Axel von Fersen and was cast against type as a peasant (albeit desirable) in MGM’s "The Vintage" (1957) with Mel Ferrer. As she entered her middle years, Morgan remained a viable screen presence, transitioning effortlessly into character roles, among them a victim of French serial killer Henri Landru in Claude Chabrol’s "Bluebeard" (1963), an aristocratic war widow in Mark Robson’s "Lost Command" (1966), and a titled murder suspect in Claude Lelouch’s "Le chat et la souris" ("Cat and Mouse") (1975).
After contributing cameos to Lelouch’s "Un homme et une femme, 20 ans déjà" ("A Man and a Woman, 20 Years Later") (1986) and Giuseppe Tornatore’s "Stanno tutti bene" ("Everybody’s Fine") (1990), Morgan withdrew from cinema, though she received an honorary César award in 1992 for lifetime achievement and a Career Golden Lion at the 1996 Venice Film Festival. After appearing in a handful of made-for-television films in France, she retired in 1999 at the age of 79. Having been widowed by the death of second husband Henri Vidal in 1959, Morgan married actor-writer-director Gérard Oury in 1960, a union that lasted until his death in 2006, after nearly 50 years of marriage. Celebrated in her homeland as a living icon of French cinema, Morgan remained all but forgotten in Hollywood, recalled less often for her tenure as an A-list leading lady than for having built and occupied the house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills where actress Sharon Tate and four others were murdered in August 1969 by followers of messianic madman Charles Manson.
By Richard Harland Smith
Cast (Feature Film)
Worked as an extra in French films such as Yvan Noé¿s "Mademoiselle Mozart" (1936) and "La vie parisienne/The Parisian Life"
Cast in lead role by Marc Allégret in "Gribouille/The Meddler"
Paired with Charles Boyer in "Orage/Storm"
Fled to Hollywood, CA during German invasion of France
Signed with RKO-Radio Pictures; played lead role in Archie Mayo¿s "Joan of Paris"
Received top billing for RKO musical "Higher and Higher" opposite debuting Frank Sinatra
Cast as a gangster¿s wife who makes a play for mob driver Robert Cummings in thriller "The Chase"
Returned to France to film "La symphonie pastorale/Pastoral Symphony," playing a blind country girl
Starred in Carol Reed directed mystery-drama "The Fallen Idol"
Reunited with Marc Allégret for "The Naked Heart"
Played Josephine to Raymond Pellegrin¿s "Napoléon"
Received star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
Cast as a victim of French serial killer Henri Landru in Claude Chabrol¿s "Bluebeard"
Served as jury president at Cannes Film Festival
Starred as a murder suspect in Claude Lelouch¿s "Le chat et la souris/Cat and Mouse"
Appeared in romantic drama "A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later"
Made cameo in Giuseppe Tornatore¿s "Stanno tutti bene/Everybody¿s Fine," starring Marcello Mastroianni
Retired at age 79
Held solo exhibition of her abstract paintings at Paris gallery "Artistes En Lumière à Paris"