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

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Gene Tierney Centenary, Pt. 2: "...carried by the winds and the tides"


Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Gene Tierney's birth on November 19, 1920

Link to Pt. 1

Gene Tierney would admit that before she married Paramount costume designer Oleg Cassini, “I dated dozens of young men, had fun with all, made commitments to none.” This crush of eligible fellows ran the gamut from Howard Hughes to Desi Arnaz, but when she met Cassini at the end of 1940 she was instantly smitten. By their third date the couple was talking marriage. Though her parents and the studio were united in opposition, the couple broke the impasse when they eloped to Las Vegas in June 1941.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Gene Tierney Centenary, Pt. 1: "I felt luck was with me"

 Celebrating the 100th anniversary of Gene Tierney's birth on November 19, 1920


Marlene Dietrich once said, “The relationship between the make-up man and the film actor is that of accomplices in crime.” Amusing, and probably true of some whose faces have graced the silver – or Technicolor – screen, but not Gene Tierney. One of Hollywood's foremost leading ladies of the 1940s, she was a tall, elegant beauty, with cheekbones that might’ve been shaped by a master sculptor, eyes the shimmery green of the sea on a windswept day, lips plush as an orchid in full bloom. And yet she was more, a young woman who burned with ambition and the desire to be a respected actress. "I simply did not want my face to be my talent," she would reflect, looking back years later.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

The (Almost) Great McGinty

There is Fitzgerald’s Jay Gatsby who aspired to a romantic fantasy that was his vision of the American Dream. And there is Preston Sturges’s Dan McGinty whose aspirations didn’t, at first, extend beyond the opportunities of the moment, a warm bowl of soup, a couple of quick bucks. Different as they were, both of these fictional fellows rose from nowhere to stunning prominence…for a while. Gatsby’s tale is a celebrated tragedy; McGinty’s saga is comic/ironic and not nearly as well-known as it should be.

Saturday, August 8, 2020



This is my contribution to Maddy's 4th Annual Alfred Hitchcock blogathon, click here to learn more...

In 1962, French film director/critic Francois Truffaut spent a week sequestered at Universal Studios with Alfred Hitchcock, a filmmaker he admired extravagantly. There, the two explored each of Hitchcock’s films to date in detail. Discussing Stage Fright (1950), one of his lesser films, Hitchcock remarked, “The greatest weakness of the picture is that it breaks an unwritten law: The more successful the villain, the more successful the picture. That’s a cardinal rule, and in this picture the villain was a flop!” Truffaut was delighted, “The better the villain, the better the picture,” he exclaimed, “that’s an excellent formula!”

Is it? Let’s take a closer look at the villains in some of Hitchcock’s best films.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Gimme Shelter: Classics for Comfort, CMBA Spring Blogathon 2020

The Classic Movie Blog Association is hosting its annual spring blogathon from May 19 – 22. This year’s theme is “Classics for Comfort,” about films that soothe us in difficult times. Click here for more info and links to participating blogs.


When we first began to shelter-in-place in my area two months ago, I pulled a Marilyn Monroe collection from the shelf. What could lighten the heart more than frolicking through Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, How to Marry a Millionaire, The Seven Year Itch and Some Like it Hot? Not much. And so I did. Seems a very long time and lots of movies ago now. Among the films I’ve watched since then that have given comfort or relief in different ways are these. 

Saturday, May 16, 2020

6 from the '60s for National Classic Movie Day

It's May 16, National Classic Movie Day, and Rick over at the Classic Film & TV Cafe is hosting his annual blogathon to celebrate the occasion. This year the subject is 6 from the '60s, in which we participating bloggers put the spotlight on six films of that decade. Click here to find out more and for links to all participating blogs.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Film Series Alert! "Simenon 2020" Launch Spotlights "Inspector Maigret"

Great noir news! Midcentury Productions, the brilliant and groundbreaking little company that has so far staged six terrific French film noir festivals at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater over the past several years, is about to launch a new, unique series, Simenon 2020. The program begins with a double bill this weekend, on Sunday the 23rd at the Roxie, and will run ‘til October. Here’s what it’s all about…

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Many Loves of Elizabeth Taylor

This exploration of the life, loves and career of Elizabeth Taylor is my entry for "The Wedding Bells Blogathon" hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood


She exchanged wedding vows for the first time at age 18 in 1950 and married for the eighth and last time in 1991 at 59. Of her apparent proclivity for collecting husbands, actor/composer/raconteur Oscar Levant would razz Elizabeth Taylor with the quip, "Always a bride, never a bridesmaid!"


Friday, January 10, 2020

Celebrating "The Shop Around the Corner" on its 80th Birthday

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the premiere of what has been called Ernst Lubitsch’s “most discreet tour de force of art concealing art,” The Shop Around the Corner (1940).