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Monday, January 13, 2014

20th Fox At Peak Merchandising Mode

Enter Simone Simon and Girl's Dormitory (1936)

There was this French pastry 20th Fox baked in the mid-thirties called Simone Simon, who gave good as she got and lived to 94 besides. Fox stardom wasn't had for Simon despite merchandising at herculean pitch. She'd be better known in native France and for immortal Cat People, that accounting for our knowing or caring about See-Moan See-Moan (studio-recommended pronunciation). What's as interesting, if forgotten, is the storm of interest she momentarily generated with US screen debut Girl's Dormitory, an otherwise throwaway recalled, if at all, for early glimpse of Tyrone Power just before Lloyds Of London launched him skyward. But Simone was something else noteworthy --- the precursor to Euro sex kittens that would flower fullest twenty years later with arrival of Brigitte Bardot to our excited shores. If not for shackles of censorship, Simone Simon would have been Bardot and then some. She certainly had the goods for it.

Simon was brought over on a Fox hunch that she'd click in America. Others of foreign origin had ... and hadn't. For every Garbo and Dietrich, there was Anna Sten and Franciska Gaal. Simon would combine fresh-face of youth with purring promise of French abandon, a knowing spin on squeak-clean that was Deanna Durbin and stateside teens who'd not melt butter in their mouths. Simon being age twenty-six wasn't emphasized. In fact, they wanted her eighteen at most to occupy Girl's Dormitory, its severe Teutonic backdrop an interesting choice considering what was going on over there in 1936. An opening shot of girls marching to and lined up on opposite sides of a swimming pool, awaiting the matron's whistle to dive in perfect unison, was like a preview of Leni Riefenstahl's Olympia.

I'll spoiler alert here, the end of Girl's Dormitory a breath-taker that must be disclosed, a wrap you'd not dream of today were the pic remade. Simone's schoolgirl character has hots for stolid professor Herbert Marshall, him with no idea that such a young girl could harbor such romantic interest. Why, she doesn't even know what love means (and how Girl's Dormitory ads emphasized this). Marshall's more age-appropriate colleague (Ruth Chatterton) loves him too, and you figure for 66 minutes that they're a cinch to get together and send graduating Simone down life's pathway. Only that's not what happens, and it was thanks to 1936 preview audiences that we got the coda that still shocks ( ... by telephone and letter, they demanded that Simone get Marshall at the end of the picture, said Picture Play). So SS winds up with the aging headmaster and it's Chatterton who gets the breeze. Girl's Dormitory had actually been filmed the opposite way, but test crowds forced reshooting that let kitten Simone get her cream, student/teacher decorum be damned. Imagine any 21st Cent writer floating that notion, yet it could be and was done in Gold Age shows before-and-aft the Code. Look at massive hit Margie of 1946 for more of the same.

Marshall wasn't the only old man (and in 1936, his forty-six was considered elderly) who'd swoon for Simone. Critics like The New York Times' Frank Nugent put standards aside to pant like fanboys. His review opens thus: Officially this has no weight, but we suggest that Congress cancel a substantial part of France's war debt in consideration of its gift of Simone Simon to Hollywood. Nugent had it bad, though what he called an "astonishing debut at the Roxy yesterday" was evidently just that, as The Film Daily would confirm on 8/29/36: Simone Simon took the audience by storm, and the emotional reaction from the work of this clever and charming personality was plainly noticeable throughout the theatre. Whatever concern over 20th "overplaying their hand" with Simon publicity was dashed by this response, said the Daily. Simone Simon was a star born at the Roxy that opening day (a new house record of $6,879), but what of elsewhere?

Word had spread. Crowds lined San Francisco streets and waited ninety minutes to buy admission. Photoplay called Girl's Dormitory "a beautiful picture throughout," and Simone "amazingly fresh and sweet." The Hollywood Reporter came closer to the point, applauding her "come-hither eyes" and "full, pouty lips." The stun effect could be expected, as Fox had loaded Girl's Dormitory with lingering SS close-ups to surpass worship accorded any actress on the lot. She even got a post-end title salute and further promise that Simone Simon was an actress we'd hear much more from. Toward fulfillment of that, however, there were potholes. Seems Simone brought hot temperament over from the continent. There was tension with Girl's Dormitory co-star Ruth Chatterton (above with Simon), who looked like Old Mother Hubbard beside saucy Simone. Is it a wonder that Ruth called the newcomer "unprofessional"?  SS would blow off a newsreel photographer who wanted footage of her playing tennis. There was fussing with Zanuck, whom she'd later accuse of "chasing me around the office," and of course, she was never caught. Was there an actress (or actor) in pic history who admitted to a submit, and using same as career advance? Because a lot of them did, and continue to (though I don't know of any besides Barbara Payton and Aldo Ray who owned up to it memoir/interview-wise).

More serious were rifts with Girl's Dormitory director Irving Cummings. It got sufficiently bad for him to ask for release from his Fox contract rather than work with Simon again, citing "temperamental outbursts." Girl's Dormitory would do well with $1.1 million in worldwide rentals against negative costs of $476K. Fox's campaign was called brilliant by those inside and out of the industry. There was even a request from Stanford University for all of materials 20th had generated to sell Girl's Dormitory, the idea being to use these as teaching aids in the school's advertising class. Follow-ups for Simone Simon were touch-and-go. She didn't hit it off with femme cast mates of Ladies In Love, and there were roles washed out by repeated bouts with "flu." Another issue was said to be her accent. The Independent Exhibitor's Film Bulletin spelled out concern over patron complaints of "being unable to understand much (of what) she said." Simon's advance, according to the trade, "was retarded in many places by the thickness of her accent." Fox should have delayed its debut, they said, so that "her tongue might have been better trained to handle English." The joke here was claim by Simon and insiders that she could speak our language perfectly well, but played inarticulate so execs could take less advantage of her. After a handful more for Fox, including Seventh Heaven, Love and Hisses, and Josette, the pact was ended and Simone Simon returned to France. She'd come back when German boot-steps got close and do a string to feed cultists forever after: All That Money Can Buy, Cat People, and Curse Of The Cat People. Through them all, she'd use the French accent to enticing effect.


Blogger Dave K said...

Simone Simon! Fascinating character on screen and off. Nobody else in old time Hollywood had that exact blend of little girl winsomeness and worldly sex appeal. One could also make the argument she was the first unofficial Bond Girl, considering her romantic relationship with Dusan Popov, one of Ian Fleming's 007 real life models!

10:55 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Barbara Payton not only was caught...she charged a fee.

11:04 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Had this been a Woody Allen picture, I think it would have had a similar ending.

11:01 AM  

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