Corinne Calvet was a smart and ambitious actress, whose talents were squandered by a Hollywood system that failed to see beyond her obvious sexual allure.
Corinne was no dumb blonde. She hung out in Paris after World War II with Jean Cocteau, Jean Anouilh, Jean-Paul Sartre and the existentialist set. She also had the intellect and eloquence to win a place at the Sorbonne to study criminal law before deciding to become an actress. As she herself pointed out:
A lawyer needs exactly what an actor needs: strong personality, persuasive powers and a good voice.
Now, it has to be said that Corinne was no saint. She was well aware of her very considerable charms and not averse to deploying them when it suited her. If a décolleté dress would increase her chances of gaining the attention of a director or producer who could help her further her career, then so far as she was concerned that was all in a day’s work.
She bares all in Has Corinne Been A Good Girl?, the autobiography she published in 1983. Among other things, it’s a strikingly candid exposé of the predatory behaviour of the moguls, directors and producers who had it in their power to make or break her career. They come across as a group with a sense of entitlement and no moral compass.
Corinne Dibot becomes Corinne Calvet
Corinne Dibot is born in 1925, the youngest of four children. Her father is an impoverished count, her mother, Juliette, an heiress as well as being one of the scientists who contributed to the invention of Pyrex glassware, seemingly at the expense of spending time with her children. Corinne is devastated when Juliette suddenly and unexpectedly dies in 1935.
She becomes something of a wild child, hanging out with the local boys. Age 15, she’s expelled from the convent school she’s been attending after she’s found with an erotic book from her father’s office. Her sexual adventures result in two very unpleasant backstreet abortions.
By the time she sets out around 1947 to find fame and fortune in Hollywood, she’s had stints at art school, law school, theatrical school and the École du Cinéma; she’s made her stage debut, worked as a radio hostess and had a few small film roles. And she’s adopted the surname Calvet because her father doesn’t want their aristocratic family name associated with acting.
Corinne goes to Hollywood
One day a friend from her student days, Martine Carol, asks Corinne to go with her to a party hosted by Paramount. Apparently they’re looking for a leading lady to play opposite Ray Milland. She’s introduced to him and when she comes to leave, she’s informed that Paramount want her to come to their office the next day. She’s presented with a form:
I started filling in the answers, but soon the questions began to probe into my private life, asking for details in personal taste, my thoughts on marriage and children, my sleeping habits. Did I wear pyjamas or a nightgown? What was my preference in men, short, tall, fat, skinny, hairy or bald? … It seemed more like the kind of questionnaire a madam might use in selecting girls to work in a brothel.
She tears up the form and flounces out. In spite of (or perhaps because of) which, Paramount decide to offer Corinne a seven-year contract. Jean-Pierre urges her to accept and put her career first.
On arrival in the New York in 1947, she’s surprised and not entirely delighted that the American press and studios seem to be interested in her almost entirely as a sex symbol.
I was already encountering the stereotyped notions American men had about French women. Their eyebrows would go up and they would leer sideways as they greeted me. American GIs, soldiers whose experience with French women was usually limited to girls of questionable repute, had been partly responsible for this reaction. But such impressions were entirely false. Most French women were raised with an emphasis on being good wives and mothers, and it was absurd to conclude that they were in any way promiscuous. Immediately I realised that in the minds of many American men, however, French women were decidedly over-sexed, and that I was a prime example of French womanhood.
As she departs on the train for Hollywood she’s warned warned to be on her guard against the wolves she will encounter.
Corinne Calvet and William Meiklejohn
One night soon after she’s arrived in Hollywood, after dinner at Romanoff’s, William Meiklejohn, Paramount’s head of talent and casting, suggests the party adjourns to the Mocambo. He ushers Corinne into the larger of the two waiting cars and lets the other five studio executives take the other.
15 minutes later, she realises the car is heading neither for Mocambo nor for the house she’s staying at. Meiklejohn tells her he thought they’d go and have a tête-à-tête on the beach. She asks him to have the car turn round and take her home. Instead, he puts his hand between her legs, forcing them apart. She grabs one of his fingers and twists it hard until he tells the driver to make for Mocambo.
Now she’s out of favour at Paramount and her career is on hold.
Corinne Calvet, Rory Calhoun and Harry Cohn
It’s around this time that she falls in love with actor Rory Calhoun and embarks on an affair with him. Then she gets a summons from Harry Cohn, boss at Columbia via his sidekick, Walter Kane. Cohn has plans for four movies in which Rita Hayworth was going to star. But now that she’s left the studio, he’s looking for a replacement. Join him this afternoon on his yacht for a trip to Catalina Island.
When she boards the boat, “Cohn’s snakelike eyes were piercing my clothes, examining each part of my body.” It turns out that Mrs Cohn will not be joining the jaunt. They reach Catalina Island, have dinner and then Kane goes ashore – he says he can’t get to sleep on a rocking boat. With Kane out of the way, Cohn makes to kiss Corinne and she flees to her cabin, only to discover there is no lock on the door. In due course, Cohn turns up in his pyjama bottoms, “his eyes narrowed with lust.” As he approaches her, she knees him in the groin, yells for help and the deckhands arrive.
“Call the shore boat and get this French bitch off my yacht,” Cohn said with vicious finality.
Our heroine takes the first flight home only to find Rory in the middle of trashing the place, having assumed she’s capitulated to Cohn’s advances. When she tells him what happened, he drives her straight out to the harbour, rents a boat and sails it to Catalina Island (though Corinne has to take the wheel when the conditions deteriorate and Rory gets seasick).
On arrival, Rory moors the boat next to Cohn’s, takes Corinne down to the cabin and undresses her, then takes her back on deck to make noisy love to her. At which point, the lights go on in Cohn’s yacht, the crew emerge and lean over the railing to see what’s going on. When Cohn himself appears, Rory shouts, “Take a good look, Mr Cohn. This is the closest you’ll ever get.”
A few days later, Rory instructs Corinne to buy a new dress and have her hair done. He’ll pick her up at 18:00, take her out for dinner and announce their engagement to the press. But he doesn’t turn up. She waits and she waits. And then she goes in search of him, finally tracking him down at Ciro’s, where he’s at a table with his agent, Henry Willson.
She persuades him to dance with her and asks him why he’s stood her up. Henry has told him that marrying Corinne would be bad for his career. Rory refuses to kiss her and, as the saying goes, Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. When the couple return to the table, she pours the open bottle of champagne over Rory’s head and flounces out to her car.
Up the road, she lays in wait for him to leave and then follows him back to Henry’s house. She rings the bell and demands a kiss. She’s parked her car across the drive and won’t move it until she gets satisfaction. Rory goes inside and comes back with a pistol. He fires a warning shot over the bonnet of Corinne’s car, then holds the gun to her head. Henry, meanwhile, is on his knees, holding onto Rory’s leg and pleading with him. Police sirens wail in the distance – the neighbours have heard the shot and called them. Corinne flees to her apartment.
Corinne Calvet and Hal Wallis
It’s 1948. When someone reports Corinne to the House Un-American Activities Committee for her association with the existentialist movement in France, the only way she can stick around is to get a US husband. In the teeth of his mother’s opposition, actor John Bromfield comes up trumps. The pair are married in Boulder City and spend their honeymoon night at Las Vegas’ Flamingo Hotel – a venue you’ll be familiar with if you read about Virginia Hill, a seriously bad good-time girl.
On their return from honeymoon to Los Angeles, John is sent off to do location shooting in Arizona. They both have contracts with Hal Wallis Productions and one evening while her husband’s away, Hal Wallis, best known now as the producer of Casablanca, drops by their apartment. After a bit of banter he makes a lunge for Corinne. When she locks herself in the bathroom and points out she’s a married woman, he tells her he told John to propose to her – it was a marriage of convenience to suit the studio. She’s devastated.
Wallis goes on to punish Corinne by cancelling John’s contract and putting her in My Friend Irma Goes West (1950), a comedy starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.
Rope of Sand [her previous film] had made me a valuable property. Doing this film would ruin my chances of rising higher as a dramatic star.
For his birthday, Corinne gives Wallis a picture she’s painted of him as a clown. In her memoir, she protests that it’s an innocent, well intentioned gift and she’s astonished to hear that he’s furious. Really???
So Wallis puts her into another Martin and Lewis comedy, Sailor Beware (1952). With John out of work, once again she can’t afford to say no to it.
On the set one morning as Dean and I were rehearsing our duet, Wallis stopped the routine. The playback had stopped. The set was silent.
“Corinne,” Wallis’ voice boomed. “I’ve told you, I don’t want my actresses to wear falsies.”
“I’m not wearing any.”
“Go and take them out,” he ordered.
“Mr. Wallis, are you calling me a liar?”
I spoke in a menacing tone as I approached him. I grabbed his hand, and in front of everyone, put it inside my dress and made sure he felt that I had nothing there but my own breasts.
“Are you finding anything there but my flesh? No? Then thank you.”
Dropping his hand, I returned to stand next to Dean Martin, who looked extremely amused.
After she completes Flight for Tangier (1953), Wallis reveals that Corinne is one of a number of stars whose contract he will not be renewing.
Two or three years later, she finds herself in a New York club having dinner at the same table as Wallis. When he starts to grope her under the table, she goes off to “powder her nose.” It’s at this point that she realises that she’s running a very high fever and decides it’s payback time. When she returns to the table, she leads Wallis to believe he has a chance with her. She gets him to take her for a romantic ride in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park, during which she does what it takes to pass her infection on to him. Three days later, she sends him four dozen red roses with an accompanying note: “Next time I’ll give you something worse. Best wishes for your recovery.”
Corinne Calvet and Darryl Zanuck
Back in 1950, Corinne’s agent manages to get her a contract shared between Hal Wallis and Darryl Zanuck, head honcho at 20th Century-Fox. The first movie in which they cast her is When Willie Comes Marching Home. Director John Ford was hoping to get Maureen O’Hara for Corinne’s part, so he’s a bit disappointed and hostile. To make matters worse, Corinne’s interpretation of her role is different from his. It turns out that Zanuck likes her take and tells her to persist with it, so she’s caught in the crossfire between two big egos.
One day, Zanuck summons her to his office.
Zanuck got up from behind his desk. I sat down, and he started to pace up and down in front of me, making small talk.
“Wasn’t the weather cold this week in Los Angeles,” he said, looking out the window. “The Palm Springs sun should be very pleasant.” Dramatically, he turned on his heels and stood a few feet away from me with his erect penis standing proudly out of his unzipped pants.
“How do you like that?” He was smiling proudly.
When Corinne fails to respond as expected, Zanuck implies that if she agrees to have sex with him, he will offer John a contract at 20th Century-Fox. She tells John about the meeting.
And when I finished saying that I was willing to do it with his consent he looked at me in total disgust.
“You bitch. You could have done it without telling me.”
Really, what’s a girl to do?
What to make of Corinne Calvet?
Of course, Corinne Calvet gives us only her side of the story. And reading between the lines and taking account of various contemporary articles and reports, she comes across as a pretty feisty and litigious individual, often well able and willing to give as good as she gets. Good for her!
Her writing style can be an obstacle to taking her seriously:
I looked up at Rory Calhoun as he introduced himself. I tumbled into the dazzling whirlpool of his eyes. It was as refreshing as the light green spring meadows when the leaves are still new. There was a fire in the depth of his glance that consumed my resistance. It was too strong, too intoxicating.
Nevertheless… Corinne Calvet’s story is one woman’s case study of the starlet’s dilemma and a reminder of just how exploitative the movie industry was back in the day (which is not to say that it’s exactly spotless today, witness the #MeToo movement). She suffered the same fate as many beautiful women prepared to exploit their physical attributes as part of their acting repertoire, eliciting from critics a kind of lecherous glee on the one hand and sneers of contempt on the other.
On IMDb she has 49 credits as an actress, including appearances in TV series as well as roles in feature films. But sadly, her dreams of a career as a serious dramatic actress went up in a puff of ooh la la, double entendre and mediocre movies. Ultimately, she became known to the public primarily for her combustible private life and a number of headline-grabbing legal battles.
As well as having various love affairs, she had three failed marriages and a son by her second husband. In an interview quoted in the 21 April 1960 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Corinne Calvet wryly observed:
American men make wonderful husbands if you don’t love them. But if you love them, don’t marry them. I don’t mean they are lousy lovers. I just think they are little boys who don’t know what they want. In America, you don’t have romances, you have affairs. And these affairs really lack class.
Want to know more about Corinne Calvet?
The main source of information about Corinne Calvet is her autobiography, Has Corinne Been a Good Girl? I made quite extensive notes as I read it. If you’d like a copy of them, please contact me.
The best factual overviews are at Wikipedia and Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen. You can find obituaries is, among others, The Guardian, New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Variety.