Obituary: Madeleine LeBeau, French film actress

Born: 10 June, 1923, in Paris, France. Died: 1 May 2016, in Estepona, Spain, aged 92.

Madeleine Le Beau, French film star played Bogarts one-night stand in Casablanca. Picture: Kobal Collection

That great love story Casablanca remains etched in film history, set amid Dooley Wilson’s jazz piano tones and the haze of cigarette smoke in Rick’s Café Americain, an escape route from the ravages of war to Lisbon through French-occupied Morocco, filled with memorable dialogue (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid”) and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman as the former lovers caught up in chaos and nostalgia.

The triple Oscar-winning 1942 picture was also given veracity by one of the supporting cast, Madeleine LeBeau, a French actress, pictured with Humphery Bogart, who played his spurned one-night stand Yvonne and herself fled the Nazis during the Second World War. With tear-filled eyes, she is seen among a group of French refugees responding with a defiant rendition of La Marseillaise to German soldiers singing the patriotic folk song Die Wacht am Rhein. She finishes this moving “duel of anthems” scene with a jab of her fist and the cry: “Vive la France! Vive la démocratie!”

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It was LeBeau’s finest hour in a film career that was unfulfilled, lasting only 26 years and ending with her early retirement to Rome in the mid-1960s. She had hoped Casablanca would be her route to stardom, but the Warner Brothers studio terminated her contract before its release and she played out her screen days in mostly supporting roles.

Last year, following the terrorist attacks on Paris, her most famous scene was shared on YouTube by thousands in a display of solidarity with the victims.

Marie Madeleine Berthe LeBeau was born in the southern Paris suburb of Antony, the daughter of a carpenter. In 1939, aged 16, she had a small role in a play starring Marcel Dalio. They married in the same year, when LeBeau also made her film debut with a bit part in the boarding-school drama Une Élève de la Pension (Young Girls in Trouble).

In 1940, with the Nazis on the verge of invading Paris, the couple fled. Dalio, 23 years LeBeau’s senior, was Jewish and a target for the Germans following his appearance in La Grande Illusion, director Jean Renoir’s 1937 anti-war film masterpiece showing common bonds between German and French officers, Jews and non-Jews, during the First World War.

He and LeBeau left the capital in a borrowed car, drove to Orleans, travelled on a freight train to Bordeaux and ended up in the Portuguese capital of Lisbon. With the United States as their planned ultimate destination, they obtained two visas for Chile, only to find on arriving in Mexico aboard the SS Quanza that they were forgeries. The couple were eventually granted temporary visas in Canada, then given help to get work in Hollywood by Dalio’s film-making friends, French exiles such as Jean Renoir and Charles Boyer.

LeBeau made her Hollywood debut in the film romance Hold Back the Dawn (1941), ironically starring Boyer as a Romanian-French gigolo heading for the United States but stopped in Mexico. A year later, she was alongside Errol Flynn in Gentleman Jim, a boxing drama in which she played a Polish-born stage star.

Warner Brothers then cast Casablanca, signing up LeBeau and Dalio, who played croupier Emil. In June 1942, during shooting, Dalio filed for divorce on the grounds of her desertion and the marriage was dissolved later that year.

That did not stop them appearing together in the 1943 war drama Paris After Dark, in which LeBeau acted a cafe owner secretly helping the French resistance – sharing one scene with Dalio, who played a collaborator. It also gave the actress a platform to show off her singing talents with a performance of My Paree.

She appeared in Music for Millions (1944), a musical comedy, and on the Broadway stage as Odette Renoux in The French Touch (Cort Theatre, 1945-6) before returning to France after the war.

LeBeau made a further dozen films, mostly French, and her roles included the hero’s fiancée in Le Secret de Monte-Cristo (1948), Émilie Pellapra, who claimed to be the French emperor’s daughter, in the biopic Napoleon (1955) and Brigitte Bardot’s love rival in the comedy La Parisienne (1957).

There was also an appearance as the mistress and nightclub singer in the 1950 British film Cage of Gold, starring Jean Simmons, as well as the part of her namesake Madeleine, a temperamental French actress, in 8½ (1963), Italian director Federico Fellini’s Oscar-winning classic about the tribulations of a director making a science-fiction movie. LeBeau finished her film career with the Spanish production La Vuelta (1965).

Despite retiring to Italy, she still had a thirst for acting and appeared in two small-screen French productions, the TV movie La Bouquetière des Innocents (1967) as Marie de Médicis, Queen of France and second wife of Henry IV, and three episodes of the television crime series Allô Police as Madame Lambert (1969-70), wife of the commissioner (played by Guy Tréjan).

In 1988, LeBeau married Tullio Pinelli, an Italian screenwriter who had scripted many Fellini films, including La Dolce Vita and 8½. He predeceased her, dying in 2009 at the age of 100. LeBeau was the last surviving Casablanca cast member.