Wednesday, August 26, 2009

June Duprez: Say a prayer for Dr Watson

I was watching The Brighton Strangler again the other day. (Once or twice a year I get the urge to re-acquaint myself with this peculiar little semi-classic; you know how it is, I'm sure.)
As always, I was struck by the fact that I knew virtually nothing about its beautiful, somewhat feline British star June Duprez, and by the fact that her career, which had seemed so promising, appeared to abruptly come to an end just as she was reaching her peak.
Did she die young, marry and retire, or what?
This time, I decided to find out...
Born in 1918 (during an air raid), she was the daughter of Fred Duprez, an American vaudevillian who had made his professional home in Britain during the 1930's. (He played Groucho's role in the British stage run of The Cocoanuts and is very funny as the studio mogul in the Crazy Gang's Okay For Sound [1937]. The following year he accompanied Will Hay to America for his oddball co-production Hey! Hey! USA [1938], and suffered a fatal heart attack, at the age of fifty-four, on the ship coming back home.)
June got her big break from Alexander Korda, who gave her four big roles between 1939 and 1940: The Four Feathers, The Spy In Black, The Lion Has Wings and The Thief of Bagdad. The latter production was moved to Hollywood after the outbreak of war, and gave June, who is photographed beautifully throughout in Technicolor, her first taste of the film capital. The film was a huge success and June opted to stay in America and give Hollywood a try.
Why did her career not take off as expected? Not for want of anything in her performances or screen presence. Incredibly, her agent made the elementary mistake of setting her per-picture salary far too high for a largely untested actress, with the result that she received a fraction of the work she merited, and never made the impact on audiences that she she should have. And with that one simple, infuriating error of judgement an entire career was stalled.
According to this excellent Powell & Pressburger site "at one point she was so impoverished she nibbled on dog biscuits, which she covered with marmalade."
"Whenever you see a Sherlock Holmes movie, say a prayer for Dr. Watson," June has been quoted as saying. "Because if it hadn't been for the kindness of Nigel Bruce and his wife, I just don't know what I'd have done in Hollywood. They kept me circulating socially when I was stagnating professionally. And the times they gave me dinner!
"But the very worst part was the men out there. I spent few minutes at a Barbara Hutton party talking with David O. Selznick. Later that same night he appeared at my door, and when I wouldn't let him in, he broke my window.
"Another time, on a warm day, I had my apartment door opened and in walked Harry Cohn - right into my house. I'd never met him. I didn't know who he was, even when he told me. When I told my agent that I nearly had him arrested, he told me that such a thing would have ruined me. Me! I had been assured that I was the prime contender for the lead in Sundown, the part that was to be the making of Gene Tierney, but after that horrible scene with Selznick, it was never again mentioned... Do you wonder why it's called a jungle?"

She is worth looking out for in three Hollywood movies, however. Cary Grant and director Clifford Odets overrode studio objections to cast her in None But the Lonely Heart (1944); she considered the result her best movie appearance. She's also splendid as the female lead in Rene Clair's And Then There Were None (1945), one of the best and most under-rated Hollywood films of the forties, and by a million miles the best ever film of an Agatha Christie novel.
And then, of course, there is The Brighton Strangler (1945), a decidedly minor but still bafflingly little-known melodrama with a lovely Christmastime setting and a strange and rather splendid set-up: an actor who has been playing 'the Brighton Strangler' on the London stage is conked on the head when the theatre is hit during an air raid, loses his memory and comes to believe that he is the real strangler. So he travels to Brighton and begins murdering totally innocent strangers unfortunate enough to serve as surrogates for the characters in the play.
Because the murders are really not his fault the film has a somewhat black comic edge, never more pronounced than when he attempts to explain his motives to the people he is about to kill and they, naturally enough, don't have a clue what he's talking about.
June, in military uniform a lot of the time, is relaxed and charming, as is John Loder as the strangler, another jobbing Brit in Hollywood who turned up just about everywhere but never quite made it.
. June later moved to New York, where she appeared on Broadway, then to Rome for a time, before finally returning to London, where she died in her sleep on August 17, 1984.