Friday, December 4, 2020

Marcel Dalio: What a (French) Character!


This is my entry for the annual What a Character! blogathon hosted by Paula at Paula's Cinema Club, Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and Kellee at Outspoken & Freckled. Click here for links to all participating blogs.


I was watching Josef von Sternberg’s flamboyantly decadent noir The Shanghai Gesture (1941) a while ago. Taking in the dense and elaborate décor, sinister atmosphere and louche characters the maestro whipped together for this wickedly twisted cinematic excursion, I marveled that the censors had left so much intact. The setting is a palatial Shanghai gaming house, a den of iniquity if there ever was one, with vice of every kind lurking in its shadowed nooks.

As I watched, I noticed a croupier at the center of the casino’s terraced gambling pit. For just a moment I went blank and thought I must be watching another film. A completely different film. One of the most celebrated of Hollywood films and possibly the greatest, Casablanca (1942), for this man was surely Emil, the croupier at Rick’s in French Morocco.

But this croupier was not Emil. This man was credited as “The Master of the Spinning Wheel” at Madame Gin-Sling’s Shanghai gambling den. Maybe so, but it was plain that both croupiers were portrayed by one and the same actor.

Jean Gabin and Dalio in Renoir's Grand Illusion (1937)
The actor, Marcel Dalio, was a French émigré who still spoke little English when he made The Shanghai Gesture in 1941. A recent arrival in the U.S., he brought an impressive list of film credits with him from France. He was known as “Dalio” in the French cinema and had become one of its most visible character actors. He’d had his first big success in the role of the informer in Julien Duvivier’s monumentally influential Pepe le Moko (1937) alongside Jean Gabin, who became an icon in the title role. One year later, Hollywood would remake the film as Algiers with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. For Dalio, major roles in Jean Renoir’s two greatest films, Grand Illusion (1937) and The Rules of the Game (1939), would follow.

In Grand Illusion, Renoir’s anti-war masterpiece set during World War I, Dalio portrayed Rosenthal, a prisoner of war from a wealthy French Jewish banking family. An expansive character, Rosenthal was proud of his family and its accomplishments and generous with his fellow prisoners. The Rules of the Game, Renoir’s other equally venerated classic, is a tragicomedy that offers an ultimately chilly take on the “rules” of society. As Robert de la Chesnaye, Dalio portrayed an urbane French aristocrat with a penchant for mechanical playthings. In one scene Dalio’s character shows off his latest joy, a glittering calliope with, literally, lots of bells and whistles. As Roger Ebert retells it, Renoir needed a specific facial expression, in close-up, from the actor in this scene. It had to imply pride along with slight embarrassment for feeling so proud, and delight with a bit of shyness for revealing such delight. Renoir would say that what he got from Dalio may have been the best shot he ever filmed.  

Dalio with calliope in Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939)
By the time he left France Dalio had more than 25 films to his credit and had worked with many respected and successful filmmakers. Along with Renoir and Duvivier, he had also appeared in the films of Robert Bresson, Pierre Chenal, Abel Gance, Sacha Guitry and Robert Siodmak.

When the German Army occupied Paris in June of 1940, Dalio and his young wife, actress Madeleine Lebeau, had just left the city and were on their way across southern Europe and on to South America, then to Mexico. In Mexico they learned that the visas they had purchased were forgeries, but eventually managed to obtain temporary Canadian passports. From there the couple was able to enter the United States. With the help of friends in the industry who had preceded them to the U.S. – among them Charles Boyer, Rene Clair, Jean Renoir and Julien Duvivier - they would finally come to Hollywood.


Marcel Dalio was born Israel Moshe Blauschild, of Romanian Jewish descent, in Paris on July 17, 1900. He trained as an actor at the Paris Conservatoire and in 1920 started performing in the theater. His film career began in the early '30s. About choosing a stage name, Dalio would later recall:

“Marcel de Blancheville or Marc de Beauchili?  On the eve of leaving for the first time on tour with a company of actors I had to choose a name for myself. Something properly French, also a bit grandiloquent, and naturally aristocratic. Because there was no question of appearing on the poster under my real name: Israël Mosche Blauschild! It was enough to make the brave Swiss for whom we were to perform flee! ‘Blancheville or Beauchili? My decision was made: neither one nor the other...I had my idea. I was still dazzled by the memory of the handsome prince Danilo in The Merry Widow and a name formed itself in my head: Dalino...Dalo...DALIO !!! I was baptized.”

Dalio’s film career reached a high point with the release of The Rules of the Game in July 1939, but within two months World War II would explode across Europe. He made two more films before his last minute departure with his wife. Although Dalio was no longer in France, his films still were. Apparently his appearance – and perhaps the fact that he had successfully evaded the Nazis – offended the new collaborationist Vichy government because publicity stills of him were chosen for use on posters to be displayed all over Paris. The intention was to illustrate what "a typical Jew" looked like so citizens could more easily identify and report suspected Jews to the authorities. In addition, in 1944 when his 1938 film Entrée des artistes was to be re-released, all of Dalio’s scenes were re-shot with a non-Jewish actor.


Dalio with Bogie & Bacall in To Have and Have Not (1944)
Dalio’s first Hollywood film was a Paramount production, One Night in Lisbon (1941), a wartime tale set in London and Portugal, starring Fred MacMurray and Madeleine Carroll. Dalio had the role of a concierge. His third and final film of 1941 was The Shanghai Gesture. 1942 would bring four small roles, the last of which was Emil in Casablanca. There are reports that Dalio was considered early on for the role of Capt. Renault but was eliminated because of his still heavy French accent and limited grasp of English. Of course, Claude Rains would be cast as Louis Renault and deliver a brilliant performance that brought an Oscar nomination.

Both Dalio and his wife were cast in Casablanca, with Madeleine in the memorable part of Yvonne, Rick’s sometimes unruly ex-girlfriend. By the time the picture was in production, the couple was about to divorce, but they would both appear in the French Resistance drama Paris After Dark the following year. Among Dalio’s other wartime Hollywood film roles were the part of a French policeman in The Song of Bernadette (1943), French Premier Georges Clemenceau in the Oscar-winning biopic Wilson (1944), and, later the same year, Gerard/aka Frenchy, owner of the Martinique hotel where To Have and Have Not is set. Though his filmography in France had included a spectrum of characters from the treacherous to the congenial, once in Hollywood Dalio quickly – and not very surprisingly for the time and the world situation - became typed. It’s fair to say that the nickname of his character in To Have and Have Not – “Frenchy” – could generally apply to many of his roles in American films, even those with names like “Luigi” and “Vladimir.”

When World War II ended, Dalio returned to Paris and the French cinema for a while. In the 1950s he worked mostly in Hollywood, first appearing in the Danny Kaye vehicle On the Riviera (1951), a musical comedy. In The Snows of Kilimanjaro (1952), Dalio portrayed Emile, owner of Emile’s nightclub in Paris. (Did adding an “e” to Emil help him advance to a position comparable to Rick’s in Casablanca?) It was an adaptation of a Hemingway story starring Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward and Ava Gardner. Dalio was cast in the bit part of an exasperated Parisian magistrate in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), the runaway hit that made a star of Marilyn Monroe. That same year he played fellow cooking class student Baron St. Fontanel next to Audrey Hepburn in Billy Wilder’s Sabrina


Dalio would also have small roles in the 1957 version of The Sun Also Rises, with its all-star cast top-lined by Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power, and in 1959's Pillow Talk, the first of the classic Doris Day/Rock Hudson romcoms. From the mid- to late-‘50s he also worked regularly on American television in classic series like Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Peter Gunn, Maverick, One Step Beyond, Playhouse 90, Death Valley Days, 77 Sunset Strip, Adventures in Paradise and Ben Casey.

In 1960 Dalio turned 60. His American films of that decade brought more small parts in films like The Devil at 4 O’Clock (1961) an adventure/drama set in Hawaii starring Frank Sinatra and Spencer Tracy; The List of Adrian Messenger (1963) a mystery/thriller packed with top leading men of the time including Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum and Frank Sinatra; the 1965 comedy Lady L (1965) with Sophia Loren, Paul Newman, David Niven and Dalio heading the cast in that order; and William Wyler’s comedy caper How to Steal a Million (1966) starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole. Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 (1970) gave Dalio a sardonic few moments as a worldly wise and very “Old Man” opposite Art Garfunkle’s innocent young soldier.


Dalio's final role in the U.S. was as a French fight promoter in The Great White Hope (1970) starring James Earl Jones, a film based on the life of boxer Jack Johnson. The remainder of his career would take place in Europe.

Marcel Dalio’s filmography on IMDB contains 186 entries. Reflected on this list are featured roles in masterpieces of the French cinema as well as minor roles in many enduring Hollywood classics.  Whether the part was large or small, Dalio brought distinction to his role. He was versatile. If called for, he brought humanity and warmth to the part. If cunning was required, he could play that just as believably. A responsive and expressive actor, he was blessed with versatility and credibility, the hallmarks - along with a good dose of charisma - of a great character actor.

His passing came in 1983 at age 83. Dalio's final onscreen performances were on French television, three TV-movies that aired in 1982. His film career in France had been disrupted for years because of the war. In Hollywood he was known for lesser or even bit parts, but Dalio managed to stay onscreen continually, whether in Europe or in the U.S., for more than 50 years. In his later career he had the serendipity to be cast in a leading role in a comedy that turned out to be a big hit in France. The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob (1973) was a wild romp about shifting identities and the return of a rabbi long absent from the Parisian neighborhood that loves him. Dalio portrayed the (real) rabbi.


  • Marcel Dalio’s ex-wife, Madeleine Lebeau, was born in 1923 and returned to France after the war. She continued to make films in Europe, perhaps most notably in Fellini’s 8 ½ in 1963. She was the last surviving cast member of Casablanca for several years until her passing in 2016 at age 92.
  • Paris After Dark (1943), in which both Dalio and Madeleine Lebeau appeared, was directed by émigré director Léonide Moguy. Moguy’s films would inspire contemporary filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who learned of him while writing Inglourious Basterds (2009). Tarantino would go on to name a character for him in Django Unchained (2012).


French Cinema in Close-Up by Michael Abecassis and Marcelline Block (Phaeton Publishing, 2015) 

I, Dalio, a documentary short film by Mark Rappaport (2015)

The Rules of the Game film review by Roger Ebert,, February 29, 2004


  1. Thank you. We adore Marcel Dalio around here. I awaited your article with great anticipation and read it with delight.

    If I were to choose a favourite Marcel Dalio role, it would be Grandpere Bonnard in The Happy Time, 1952. The flirtiest flirt in a family of flirts His sons are Charles Boyer, Louis Jourdan, and Kurt Kaszner, who drinks because he is married to Jeanette Nolan.

    Tip on a Dead Jockey is a movie that isn't as good as its title, but the presence of Marcel Dalio draws me to it. Some actors have that way about them.

    1. Dalio is easy to love, I think. I haven't seen The Happy Time or Tip on a Dead Jockey but will keep an eye out. To be honest, it was a while before I realized that the "Dalio" in Pepe le Moko, Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game was also the croupier at Rick's and the hotelier in To Have and Have Not, etc. Now I see him everywhere. What a treat.

  2. I first discovered Marcel Dalio as an older teenager when I saw Casablanca for the first time, and I developed an instant crush on him.

    Like you said, he's an actor who's utterly convincing, no matter the role. And he's something of a Master of Disguise. When I first saw him in Sabrina, I didn't recognize him. Only later I realized, "Hey, wait a minute! That's my boyfriend Marcel Dalio."

    1. Hey, wait a minute! Marcel Dalio is my boyfriend!

  3. Thank you for this great post. I just adore this guy.

  4. I loved this magnificent post. You do such meticulous research and your essays are always a delight. Thanks for so much info on Dalio, someone whom I think many classic film fans love to pick out in so many films (though I confess, I did not realize he played the Baron in SABRINA).

    1. Many thanks, Jacqueline. I love my subjects and try to be as accurate as possible and also to entertain a bit. Dalio is a joy onscreen and was a joy to spotlight here.

  5. Oh, I love the scene with the calliope in The Rules of the Game! Dalio's expression in it is indeed great. It's a bit of a bum that he became typecast in Hollywood, but maybe he was relieved he could scape the Nazis and find work. Those immigrants are admirable for their talent and their courage.

    1. One day I will blog about the European emigres of the '30s and '40s. Their stories are not only of interest and often moving, but what they brought to American film is immeasurable. Good to hear from you, Lê.

  6. I've always liked Dalio in his various roles, whether in French films or American. And there was no confusion from his accent that he was French He was one of those great "character" actors that could add depth to any role. But your most thorough and enlightening review of his career is fascinating. Thank you Lady Eve for selecting Monsieur Dalio for your blog post.

    1. It was a pleasure, Christian. I agree wholeheartedly that Dalio added "depth to any role" - whether near the top of the cast or uncredited. Such talent.