Michèle Morgan, a French Film Legend, Dies at 96


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Michèle Morgan with Humphrey Bogart in “Passage to Marseilles” (1944).

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Warner Bros., via Photofest

Michèle Morgan, an elegant actress who escaped occupied France for Hollywood and went home to win the best actress award at the first Cannes Film Festival, in 1946, died on Tuesday in Meudon, France, just outside Paris. She was 96.

President François Hollande of France announced the death, calling Ms. Morgan “a legend who made her mark on numerous generations.”

The Nobel laureate André Gide once praised her “natural and strange grace.”

Ms. Morgan was just 26, but she had already appeared in almost 20 European, British and American films when she starred as a young blind woman lusted after by a minister in Gide’s drama “Pastoral Symphony” (1946), directed by Jean Delannoy.

At the inaugural Cannes festival, a project dreamed up before World War II to compete with the Venice Film Festival, both she and the film won top prizes. Decades later, she presided over the awards jury at Cannes, which had become the world’s most prestigious film festival.

American moviegoers knew her best from the wartime adventure “Passage to Marseille” (1944), in which she played Humphrey Bogart’s wife, and “Higher and Higher” (1943), a musical comedy in which she starred opposite Frank Sinatra. She also acted with Ralph Richardson in Graham Greene’s “The Fallen Idol” (1948), set in London, and played an American tough guy’s wife in “The Chase” (1946), with Robert Cummings.

French cinephiles connected her name with that of the debonair actor Jean Gabin. Their films together included “The Moment of Truth” (1952), in which she played a doctor’s wife confessing to an affair with an artist, and “Port of Shadows” (1938), an early film noir about an army deserter and a teenage runaway.

It was Gabin’s character in “Port of Shadows” who told her, “You have beautiful eyes, you know,” to which she replied, “Kiss me.” She was often referred to as the woman with the most beautiful eyes in the world.

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Ms. Morgan and her husband, Gérard Oury, arriving at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001.

Credit
John Schults/Reuters

Ms. Morgan’s final screen appearance was in “La Rivale,” a French television film about love and age, in 1999.

Simone Renée Roussel was born on Feb. 29, 1920, in Neuilly-sur-Seine, the affluent Parisian neighborhood-cum-suburb. Her father, a fragrance-company executive, was hit hard by the financial crisis of 1929, and the family soon moved north, to Dieppe in Normandy.

As a teenager, she studied acting with René Simon and made her film debut as an extra in “Meet Miss Mozart,” a 1936 comedy starring Danielle Darrieux. A year later she made her mark in “Gribouille” (English title: “Heart of Paris”), as a young woman on trial for her lover’s murder.

Her years in the United States served their purpose as a form of political asylum, but she considered them disastrous professionally.

“Hollywood crushed my personality,” she told The New York Times in 1948. “They tried to make me look like everybody else, and then they photographed me badly.”

The 15-hour workdays weren’t particularly welcome either.

She met and married William Marshall, an American actor, in 1942. They had one child before divorcing in 1948. In 1944, Ms. Morgan, seeking a touch of home, had a house built in the style of a 19th-century French farmhouse at 10050 Cielo Drive, in the Benedict Canyon section of Los Angeles. Sharon Tate and four others were murdered there by Charles Manson’s followers in 1969.

Ms. Morgan returned to France after the war. She and Henri Vidal, an actor, were married from 1950 until his death in 1959. She married the actor, director and screenwriter Gérard Oury the next year; he died in 2006.

Her survivors include several grandchildren. Her son, Mike Marshall, died in 2005.

Early in her career, Ms. Morgan took no credit for her blossoming fame.

“If I have had or if I do have some success, it is not I at all but fate,” she told an American reporter in 1942. “I am just a poor little balloon transported along by circumstances and people.”

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