If you want to immerse yourself in true, early 20th century glamour, I hereby introduce you to one of the most gorgeous women who ever lived, the largely uncelebrated Lili Damita, three of whose films are being shown on Turner Classic Movies this Sunday, January 9, starting at 8 pm (eastern).
None of the films – THIS IS THE NIGHT (1932), THE MATCH KING (1932) and FRIENDS AND LOVERS (1931) – are any great shakes, but Damita is a strikingly sexy, charismatic presence in all of them, superbly gowned by, respectively, Travis Banton, Orry-Kelly (especially) and Max Ree. Possessed of a perfect, petite figure, leonine mane of astonishingly versatile hair (quite possibly the best in all cinema), and a smoulderingly exotic face, with smoky, tilted eyes, intriguingly cleft chin and a sensuously generous mouth whose smile could be literally blinding, she was the perfect pre-Code temptress, born to appear deshabille, combining the outrage of Dietrich with the statuesque poise of Garbo and her own impishly Gallic flavor. She moved magnificently, like the literal panther in seductive moments and, in farce, with a sprightly, bouncy elan. She had something of the unbridled quality of Lupe Velez, too, but more than a tad more refined.
Born Liliane Marie-Madeleine Carré in Blaye, France, on July 10, 1904, she had an international education in convents and ballet schools – France, Spain and Portugal – and got an early professional start. At 14, she danced at the Opera de Paris, and followed this with music hall work which led her to the Revue at the Casino de Paris. Calling herself Lilly Deslys (to capitalize on the popularity of legendary French revue star Gaby Deslys), she made her film debut in 1922, in LA BELLE AU BOIS DORMANT.
In 1925, she starred in the German production, DAS SPIELZEUG VON PARIS, directed by Michael Curtiz, whom she was married to for a year, and who ironically went on a decade later to direct her second – and most famous – husband, Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD, the film which made him a star. She also worked with prominent directors Robert Wiene (DIE GROSSE ABENTEUERIN, 1927), G.W. Pabst (MAN APIELT NICHT MIT DER LIEBE, 1926) and Max Ophuls (ON A VOLE UN HOMME, aka MAN STOLEN, 1934).
Producer Sam Goldwyn – always enamored of Euro/Slavic beauties like Vilma Banky, Anna Sten, and Merle Oberon – invited her to Hollywood in 1928, where she made THE RESCUE for him in 1929 with Ronald Colman. After this rather inauspicious American debut, she was loaned out to various studios. Goldwyn supposedly didn’t care for her describing all her millionaire lovers to the press or mentioning the fact that her contract forbade marriage. Her name was linked with Prince Louis Ferdinand, the son of the Crown Prince of Germany, and their relationship, acording to writer David Shipman, was the basis of the Edward G. Robinson-Kay Francis film, I LOVED A WOMAN (1933).
Her successes included THE COCKEYED WORLD, Maxwell Anderson’s follow-up to his smash success of a soldiers’ story, WHAT PRICE GLORY? (1929) and MGM’s THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY (1929), adapted from Thornton Wilder’s book.
She made the transition to sound, acting in English, while appearing in French versions of films like LET US BE GAY (1930), done in English by Norma Shearer, whom she sometimes resembled, and ONE HOUR WITH YOU (1932), in the husband-stealing role Genevieve Tobin made so delectable. But it was not long before it became obvious that she – like so many other exotic imports (Tala Birell, Gwili Andre, Lillian Harvey, and, later, her countrywomen, Danielle Darrieux, Simone Simon and Michele Morgan) was not going to prove a box office bonanza on the order of Garbo or Dietrich.
It was at this point that her offscreen life began to take precedence over her on-, with her 1935 meeting of Errol Flynn (on a transatlantic liner) and subsequent marriage. They were undoubtedly Hollywood’s most beautiful, sexy couple, regular fan magazine features but the marriage was so stormy that he took to calling her “Tiger Lil.” Damita officially retired from the screen in 1937 with the French film, L’ESCADRILLE DE LA CHANCE, and she and Flynn continued to battle it out, constantly reconciling in the bedroom, with her bearing him a son, Sean, in 1941, but eventually divorcing in 1942.
She memorably took Flynn to the cleaners (half his property and $1,500/month) and moved to Palm Springs to raise their son, who grew up into a handsome, adventurous replicant of his wild Dad. After Flynn’s death in 1959, she would marry – in 1962 – and divorce one final time, to retired Iowa businessman Allen Loomis. He owned a dairy, and while they were married, Damita spent part of the year in Fort Dodge, Iowa. Sean Flynn made some films, including, shamelessly, SON OF CAPTAIN BLOOD (1962), but became a daredvile photojournalist, which would end tragically when, covering the Vietnam War for TIME magazine, he disappeared forever in Cambodia n 1970. A devastated Damita ran through her money trying to find him for the rest of her life. 1984, the year that he was declared legally dead was also the year she died of Alzheimer’s disease. She was buried at Oakland Cemetary in Fort Dodge, undoubtedly its most glamorous occupant.
An ultimately sad, stormy life to be sure, but I prefer to remember Damita, a Cancer like me, as the breathtakingly vibrant presence she was in her 1920s-30s heyday. She was strikingly photogenic, and rarely looks the same in any picture, a favored subject of all the greatest photogaphers of her day, from Steichen to Hurrell to Hoyningen-Huene to Horst.
Mesmerizing candid shots reveal the allure and sense of fun which must have fascinated all who came her way. For a while, in the mid-1930s, she was an integral part of Hollywood’s so-called Sapphic Sewing Circle, forming part of an intriguing triangle with the equally sexually ambiguous Marlene Dietrich and Dolores Del Rio who, in their day, were something like the infamous supermodel “trinity” of Linda Evangelista-Naomi Campbell-Christy Turlington in the 1990s. All three of these women were absolute exemplars of sartorial chic, as well, having utterly no need of pesky stylists to tell them what to wear. The very idea of anyone controlling their look would have undoubtedly made them laugh out loud and they were sought after as both inspiration and informed collaborators by the greatest couturiers of their day – Schiaparelli, Alix Gres, Lanvin, Patou, Molyneux, et al. In Hollywood, all three women were big, early supporters of the great designer, Irene, but it was Damita who first discovered her, in a little shop she was operating in 1932. Their public appearances during this time remain absolutely unmatched for sheer, timeless elegance: you know things came to a complete halt whenever these three entered a room.
Feast your eyes and return to the ultimate glory that was Old Hollywood (and here’s a cool game
for you sharp-eyed, informed fashionistas out there, try to identify who designed her outfits and message me):
here they are again, both dressed by Irene, again sans Damita, but with Del Rio’s husband Cedric Gibbons, MGM Art Director, and John Gilbert, Dietrich’s then lover, who would die shortly after this photo was rraken at the Countess DiFrasso’s party in 1936
working the peekaboo bang way before Veronica Lake, dressed by Orry-Kelly for THE MATCH KING