The Washington Post

Denise Darcel, French-born actress, dies at 87

Denise Darcel, the buxom French-born chanteuse and actress who gained screen popularity in the early 1950s playing opposite some of Hollywood’s most popular leading men, died Dec. 23 at a hospital in Los Angeles.

Her family told the Associated Press that she had complications from an emergency surgery to repair a ruptured aneurysm. She was 87.

“France’s gift to the sweater brigade,” as Ms. Darcel was once dubbed, saw her brief stardom propelled by her looks. After a brief nightclub career in France, she began winning sensuous roles in Hollywood movies. She stood out as the only woman in William Wellman’s acclaimed war drama, “Battleground” (1949).

She played a peasant woman who invites a group of battle-weary GIs to her home for a meal. She drew attention for a scene that called on her to press a loaf of bread to her bosom and, wielding a large knife, aggressively saw ample slices for the men billeted in her home.

The next year, she was given a featured role on Broadway in the Olsen and Johnson revue “Pardon My French” as a nightclub singer who speaks in fractured English. Ms. Darcel was soon elevated to starring roles in tepid movie dramas such as “Tarzan and the Slave Girl” (1950) with Lex Barker and the Wellman-directed “Westward the Women” (1951), starring Robert Taylor as the leader of a wagon train filled with determined women.

New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther called Ms. Darcel, playing a character named Fifi Danon, “just a little too hootchy-kootchy to sell belief in the ruggedness of dames, especially when she melts down Mr. Taylor after he has given her a couple of whacks in the face.”

She was an ambitious cabaret singer in the comedy “Young Man With Ideas” (1952), starring Glenn Ford, and played a countess transporting a gold shipment in “Vera Cruz” (1954), a 19th-century ad­ven­ture drama set in Mexico and featuring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster.

In 1953, Ms. Darcel starred in another historical drama, “Flame of Calcutta” and had a supporting role in the Esther Williams musical “Dangerous When Wet.” Her final film appearance was in the undernourished drama “Seven Women From Hell” (1961), set amid a Japanese prison camp during World War II.

A baker’s daughter, Denise Billecard was born in Paris on Sept. 8, 1924. She was working as a dime-store cashier when she won a beauty contest. She was subsequently promoted as “the most photographed girl in France.”

After her movie career faded, Ms. Darcel popped up occasionally on television and in nightclubs and, for a while, turned to striptease work. She later appeared in community theater.

Her marriages to William Shaw, Peter Crosby and Richard Vance ended in divorce. Her fourth husband, George Simpson Jr., died in 2003. Survivors include two sons.

Early in her career, Ms. Darcel said she had conflicts with a Hollywood designer who bowed to a censor’s wishes and made her a dress that covered her trademark features. She told the Associated Press that, while the dowdy dress frustrated her, “Maybe some of the fans will discover I have a face, too.”

Adam Bernstein has spent his career putting the "post" in Washington Post, first as an obituary writer and then as editor. The American Society of Newspaper Editors recognized Bernstein’s ability to exhume “the small details and anecdotes that get at the essence of the person” and to write stories that are “complex yet stylish.”
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