Simone Simon: Remembering the ‘Cat People’ and ‘La Bête Humaine’ actress
Pert, pretty, pouty, and fiery-tempered Simone Simon – who died at age 94 ten years ago, on Feb. 22 – is best known for her starring role in Jacques Tourneur’s cult horror movie classic Cat People (1942). Those aware of the existence of film industries outside Hollywood will also remember Simon for her button-nosed femme fatale in Jean Renoir’s French film noirLa Bête Humaine (1938).
In fact, long before Brigitte Bardot, Annette Stroyberg, Mamie Van Doren, Tuesday Weld, Ann-Margret, and Barbarella‘s Jane Fonda became known as cinema’s Sex Kittens, Simone Simon exuded feline charm – with a tad of puppy dog wistfulness – in a film career that spanned two continents and a quarter of a century. From the early ’30s to the mid-’50s, she seduced men young and old on both sides of the Atlantic – at times, with fatal results.
Besides Jean Renoir, in her native country she collaborated with the likes of Jacqueline Audry (The Pit of Loneliness), Max Ophüls (La Ronde and Le Plaisir), and, in a brief comeback in the early ’70s, Michel Deville (The Woman in Blue).
Additionally, Simon was seen in five films directed by Marc Allégret, whom she credited for her development as an actress and with whom she was reportedly involved in the early ’30s.
The Allégret-Simon collaborations included the highly popular romantic drama Lac aux Dames (1934), which made her a star, and Happy Days (1935) – both also featuring Jean-Pierre Aumont.
In Hollywood, besides starring for fellow French national Jacques Tourneur, Simon also worked for Henry King (Seventh Heaven), Allan Dwan (Josette), William Dieterle (The Devil and Daniel Webster), and Robert Wise (The Curse of the Cat People and Mademoiselle Fifi).
In addition to Jean-Pierre Aumont, with whom Simon was also seen in Black Eyes, among her leading men were Jean Gabin (La Bête Humaine), Herbert Marshall (Girls’ Dormitory), James Stewart (Seventh Heaven), and Don Ameche and Robert Young (both in Josette).
Below and in upcoming posts, you’ll find a (not all that) brief overview of Simone Simon’s life and career.
Something else: This multi-part Simone Simon article is a fully revised and expanded version of a post originally published at the time of her death in Feb. 2005.
From Madagascar to the Paris stage
Although sources do agree that she was born Simone Thérèse Fernande Simon on April 23, they disagree as to her birth year: 1910 or 1911. (20th Century Fox would later claim 1917 or 1918.)
Simon’s place of birth is equally unclear. Some assert that she first saw the light of day in Béthune, a small town in the Pas de Calais province near the Belgian border. Others – including one fan magazine writer citing Simon herself – affirm that she was actually born in Marseille.
And that isn’t all.
Despite Simone Thérèse Fernande’s family name – Simon – if online sources are to be believed she was the only child of Jewish-French engineer Henri Louis Firmin Champmoynat and his 17-year-old stay-at-home Italian wife, Erma Maria Domenica Giorcelli.
Champmoynat is supposed to have become a pilot (at what age?) during World War II, eventually dying in a Nazi concentration camp. Erma Maria, for her part, would be rebaptized “Monique” – in American movie fan magazines, that is.
One assertion left undisputed is the young Simone Thérèse’s move with her family to Tananarive, Madagascar.
What’s less clear is when exactly the move took place (anywhere between the outbreak of World War I and 1921), and whether or not she moved with both parents to southeast Africa, or with her mother and her new husband. Either Simon’s father or her stepfather managed a graphite mine in Madagascar.
While in Tananarive, the young Simone spent much of her time romping about, but she also developed an interest in reading. By the late 1920s, she was back in France, where her interests now lay in the arts: drawing (including fashion design), sculpting, singing, and dancing.
Stories about her attending schools in Berlin, Budapest, and Turin quite possibly stem from the mind of a creative Fox publicity department employee. More plausible is the story that has her living for two years with an uncle in Lyon because of problems with her stepfather. (Her parents had clearly separated by then.)
After moving to Paris around 1930, Simon began landing modeling gigs and stage roles. She had by then decided to become an operetta star.
Simone Simon movies: First French phase
As the story goes, sometime in 1931 the 21-year-old Simone Simon was drinking coffee on the terrace of the Café de la Paix in Paris when she was spotted by exiled Russian director Viktor Tourjansky, previously associated with the Moscow Art Theater.
“You must forgive me,” Tourjansky said to the young woman – at least according to Picture Play writer William McKegg. “You are so beautiful. I am an artist. Will you …”
“Here,” adds McKegg, “he received the Simone slap.”
The slap, however imaginary, must have been effective. Tourjansky cast her in a small role in The Unknown Singer, starring operatic tenor Lucien Muratore.
By the time the director and his “discovery” were reunited for the 1935 drama Black Eyes, Simone Simon had already established herself as a well-known actress.
Fan magazine tales aside, Simon likely already had a bit of film experience prior to her encounter with Tourjansky.
After singing lessons with soprano Ninon Vallin and a small role in Léopold Marchand’s Balthazar at the Théâtre de l’Apollo, director Jean Tarride gave her a supporting part in the 20-minute, 1931 comedy short On opère sans douleur (“We Operate without Pain”).
That same year, she auditioned for 30-year-old Marc Allégret, who cast her – in another small role – in the musical comedy Mam’zelle Nitouche (1931). Unfortunately for her, most (or possibly all) of her scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor.
Thus, Tourjansky’s movie became Simone Simon’s “official” feature film debut.
Following her appearance in The Unknown Singer, she would be cast in a succession of mostly minor film roles. Notable among her movies of the period were:
- The Chocolate Girl (1932).
- King of Hotels (1932).
- L’étoile de Valencia (“The Star of Valencia,” 1933).
Following the Mam’zelle Nitouche fiasco, Marc Allégret was back on the scene, offering Simon a more important role in this comedy with Raimu in the lead. The stage star had recently become a big-screen draw thanks to the Alexander Korda-directed movie adaptation of Marius (1931), based on Marcel Pagnol’s stage hit.
Directed by Carmine Gallone and starring Jules Berry (pictured, with Simon) as a hotel doorman torn between two women, the musical comedy King of Hotels / Le roi des palaces was the French-language version of an Anglo-French co-production.
Simone Simon got the chance to put her operetta training to good use, delivering in a pleasantly soft voice Raoul Moretti and Serge Véber’s romantic ballad “L’amour, ça dure un jour” (“Love, It Lasts a Day”). Check it out below.
Heavily made-up and scantily dressed, Simon had a key supporting role in this French-language version – at least partly shot in Berlin – of UFA’s German-language The Star of Valencia.
Directed by Serge de Poligny, L’étoile de Valencia was toplined by Brigitte Helm (Metropolis), Thomy Bourdelle, and a pre-stardom Jean Gabin, besides featuring a young Ginette Leclerc in a bit part.
Below: Simone Simon singing ‘L’amour, ça dure un jour.’
Simone Simon on the Paris stage
Adding to Simon’s show business experience and (admittedly quite modest) prestige as a performer, she also kept herself busy on the Paris stage.
Sometime in the early ’30s – it’s unclear exactly when – she joined the cast (including upcoming movie stars Edwige Feuillère and Suzy Delair) of Albert Willemetz and Arthur Honegger’s operetta Les aventures du roi Pausole, which opened in December 1930 at Paris’ Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens, running for more than 400 performances.
In October 1933, Simon was back at the Bouffes Parisiens in a production of Sacha Guitry and Reynaldo Hahn’s Ô mon bel Inconnu. And she would return the following year to star in a musical comedy by Cuban composer Moïses Simons and author / screenwriter Henri Duvernois, Toi c’est moi (“You Are Me”).
In this stage hit, Simon played the sensual, free-spirited daughter of a plantation manager (René Koval) in the Antilles, singing in broken French “Moi tout faire pour te plaire” (“Me Does Everything to Please You”) and “Afin de plaire à son papa” (“To Please His Father”).
Also at the Bouffes Parisiens in 1934, she was seen as a young (and married) seductress in Albert Willemetz’s successful musical adaptation of Francis de Croisset’s comedy Le bonheur, mesdames (“Happiness, Ladies”), with songs based on the work of Henri Christiné. Simon’s co-stars were André Numes fils as her husband, and Michel Simon (no relation) and Arletty as a married couple whose happiness is about to be tested.
As a plus, movie stardom would become a reality that same year.
“Simone Simon Remembered: Sex Kitten and Femme Fatale” follow-up post: “Marc Allégret: From André Gide Lover to Simone Simon Starmaker.”
‘Simone Simon Remembered’ sources
 Simone Simon is not related to symphonic metal band Epica lead singer Simone Simons. Or, for that matter, to singer-songwriter Nina Simone.
 If online sources, including the IMDb, are to be believed, Simone Simon also had an undetermined role in Le voleur (“The Thief”), in which Jean-Pierre Aumont becomes involved with married woman Madeleine Renaud. This 1933 release co-starring Victor Francen was directed by Maurice Tourneur, father of Cat People director Jacques Tourneur.
 Among other versions, Mam’zelle Nitouche a.k.a. Oh No, Mam’zelle would be remade in 1954, under the direction of Marc Allégret’s younger brother Yves Allégret. Fernandel, Pier Angeli, and Jean Debucourt were the leads.
Simone Simon movies
 Below are the original (or alternate) titles of the Simone Simon movies mentioned in this article, in addition to her other early film appearances. The list includes directors and key cast members:
- The short On opère sans douleur (“We Operate Without Pain’) (1931).
Director: Jean Tarride.
Cast: Henri Crémieux. Michel Durand. Josyane. René Lefèvre. Simone Simon in a small supporting role.
- Mam’zelle Nitouche (1931).
Director: Marc Allégret.
Cast: Raimu. Janie Marèse. André Alerme. Jean Rousselière. Jean Renoir in a small role. And in bit parts: Edwige Feuillère, Simone Simon, and Viviane Romance. (Simon’s role may have ended up on the cutting-room floor.)
- The Unknown Singer / Le Chanteur inconnu (1931).
Director: Viktor Tourjansky.
Cast: Lucien Muratore. Simone Cerdan. Jim Gérald. Simone Simon in a bit part.
Future filmmaker Henri-Georges Clouzot (The Wages of Fear / Le salaire de la peur, Diabolique / Les diaboliques) was one of the film’s screenwriters.
- Durand contre Durand (“Durand Against Durand”) (1931).
Director: Eugen Thiele and Léo Joannon.
Cast: Roger Tréville. Paul Asselin. Jeanne Helbling. Simone Simon in a small role.
- Pour vivre heureux (“To Live Happy”) (1932).
Director: Claudio de la Torre.
Cast: Noël-Noël. Suzet Maïs. Pierre Etchepare. Simone Simon in a small role.
- The Chocolate Girl / La petite chocolatière (1932).
Director: Marc Allégret.
Cast: Raimu. Jacqueline Francell. Pierre Bertin. Jean Gobet. Simone Simon. André Dubosc. Michèle Verly.
- A Son from America / Un fils d’Amérique (1932).
Director: Carmine Gallone.
Cast: Albert Préjean. Annabella. Gaston Dubosc. Guy Sloux. Henri Kerny. Jane Loury (a.k.a. Jeanne Lory). Simone Simon.
- King of Hotels / Le roi des palaces (1932)*.
Director: Carmine Gallone.
Cast: Jules Berry. Betty Stockfeld. Simone Simon. Armand Dranem. Georges Morton. Guy Sloux. Alexander D’Arcy (a.k.a. Alexandre D’Arcy or Alex D’Arcy). Emmanuel Ligny.
Screenplay: Henri-Georges Clouzot and Serge Véber co-adapted Henry Kistemaeker’s play.
- Mind the Paint / Prenez garde à la peinture (1933).
Director: Henri Chomette.
Cast: Jean Aquistapace. Milly Mathis. Jean Périer. Simone Simon in a small role.
- The Sad Sack / Tire au flanc (1933).†
Director: Henry Wulschleger.
Cast: Bach. Félix Oudart. Pierre Feuillère. Simone Simon in an undetermined role.
- L’étoile de Valencia (“The Star of Valencia”) (1933).
Director: Serge de Poligny.
Cast: Brigitte Helm. Jean Gabin. Simone Simon. Thomy Bourdelle. Joe Alex. Ginette Leclerc in a bit part.
- Ladies Lake / Lac aux Dames (1934).
Director: Marc Allégret.
Cast: Jean-Pierre Aumont. Rosine Deréan. Simone Simon. Illa Meery (a.k.a. Ila Meery). Vladimir Sokoloff. Michel Simon. Odette Joyeux.
- Happy Days / Les beaux jours (1935).
Director: Marc Allégret.
Cast: Simone Simon. Jean-Pierre Aumont. Raymond Rouleau. Jean-Louis Barrault. Fernand Charpin. Maurice Baquet. Madeleine Robinson in a bit part.
- Black Eyes / Dark Eyes / Les yeux noirs (1935).
Director: Viktor Tourjansky.
Cast: Harry Baur. Simone Simon. Jean-Pierre Aumont. Jean-Max. André Dubosc. Viviane Romance.
* The English-language version of King of Hotels, renamed King of the Ritz, came out in 1933. Directed by Carmine Gallone and Herbert Smith, it starred Stanley Lupino and Betty Stockfeld. Gina Malo was cast in Simone Simon’s role.
† Directed by Jean Renoir, a 1928 version of The Sad Sack / Tire au flanc featured Michel Simon and Georges Pomiès. There would be at least a couple of other versions of André Sylvane and André Mouézy-Éon’s play:
- The Sad Sack / Tire-au-flanc (1950).
Director: Fernand Rivers.
Cast: Maurice Baquet. Francis Blanche. Pierre Bertin. Paulette Dubost.
- The Army Game / Tire-au-flanc 62 (1960).
Director: Claude de Givray, with the assistance of François Truffaut.
Cast: Christian de Tillière. Ricet Barrier.
‘The Star of Valencia,’ Albert Willemetz
 Directed by Alfred Zeisler, the German-language The Star of Valencia / Der Stern von Valencia was toplined by Liane Haid, Paul Westermeier, Peter Erkelenz, and, in Simon’s role, early silent film star Ossi Oswalda (Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess / Die Austernprinzessin)* – at the time 36 years old.
The Star of Valencia turned out to be Oswalda’s last film role.
* Die Austernprinzessin is also known as My Lady Margarine.
Les aventures du roi Pausole and Le bonheur, mesdames composer Albert Willemetz reportedly wrote more than 3,000 songs and more than 100 musical comedies.
Directed by Alexis Granowsky, The Adventures of King Pausole / Les aventures du roi Pausole reached French screens in 1933. Simone Simon was not part of the cast.
Featured were André Berley, Edwige Feuillère, and future Beauty and the Beast / La belle et la bête star Josette Day.
René Guissart, Charlotte Greenwood
 Former Hollywood cinematographer René Guissart (Ben-Hur, Madame Sans-Gêne) directed the 1936 film version of Toi c’est moi, with Pauline Carton and the duo Jacques Pills & Georges Tabet reprising their stage roles. Claude May replaced Simone Simon, who by then was already in Hollywood.
In 1935, Charlotte Greenwood – in Pauline Carton’s original role – starred in the English-language version of Toi c’est moi, retitled Gay Deceivers. Claire Luce – not to be confused with The Women author Claire Boothe Luce – was cast in Simone Simon’s original role.
Adapted by Reginald Arkell, and featuring a score by Greenwood’s husband Martin Broones, Gay Deceivers was presented at London’s Gaiety Theatre.*
Gay Deceivers, I should add, is not to be confused with Bruce Kessler’s 1969 comedy The Gay Deceivers, about two young men (Kevin Coughlin and Larry Casey)† pretending to be gay in order to evade the Vietnam War draft.
* Source: Grant Hayter-Menzies’ Charlotte Greenwood The Life and Career of the Comic Star of Vaudeville, Radio and Film.
† Larry Casey is also known as Lawrence P. Casey.
Simone Simon Cat People image: RKO Radio Pictures.
Simone Simon publicity images: Doctor Macro.
Image of Simone Simon and Jules Berry in King of Hotels / Le roi des palaces: Gainsborough Pictures.