“In Hollywood I went through the longest and most testing period of loneliness in my life,” wrote actor Michèle Morgan in her autobiography With Those Eyes. “Not to be able to speak your mother tongue with anyone means cutting off your roots. It’s hard to appreciate how much you can miss the intimacy of shared stories and songs from childhood and adolescence. It is a terrific bond to have in common your history, your countryside, your great men, your style of cooking and meals, and other features of everyday life.”1

The war forced the young French star to come to America, where she luckily nabbed a contract with RKO. Despite that, Morgan was stuck for over a year taking English lessons before anyone at the studio found a suitable part for her—and when she finally got on set, her experience was less than glamourous.

Likewise, Austrian star Paul von Hernried found himself fleeing the Nazis and coming to Hollywood, where he signed with RKO as well. In his autobiography Ladies Man, he recalled one day being approached by an executive, who told him, “We have a little problem with your name.”

“You mean Paul?” Hernried asked.

“No, no, Paul is fine. It’s the von Hernried that’s difficult.”

“Difficult in what way?”

“Well…for one thing, it’s rather long for a theater marquee. We like short names. And also, it sounds very…well, German.”

“Actually, it’s Austrian.”

“Austrian, German—it’s the same language, isn’t it?”2

The two stars soon met and worked on their first film for the studio, a war-themed Joan of Arc riff called Joan of Paris, where they were perhaps able to bond over being stripped of both their culture and dignity.

Make a Choice

German occupation of France began in June 1940 when the Nazis officially occupied the northern half of France, and let the southern half be run primarily by the Vichy regime. Neither area functioned the same as before occupation, but the south was considerably less harsh—and so for the biggest French movie stars, it was the place to be. By fall, the twenty-year-old Morgan had crossed the border to Cannes, where she was set to start work on a film with Marc Allégret (the French director who gave Morgan her big break with Heart of Paris in 1937). Beginning in 1938, she starred in several films—and fell in love—with major French star Jean Gabin. The first of their films together, Marcel Carné’s excellent Port of Shadows, even got a 1939 theatrical release in the United States, despite being in French.

Coming to Cannes for filming in 1940, Morgan was forced to leave her family behind in the occupied city of La Baule, but her planned return to them wouldn’t be as difficult as getting out. Then one morning her friend, film editor and producer Denise Tual, asked her, “Why don’t you go to Hollywood, Michèle?”3

Tual knew that the situation for filmmakers was only going to get more dire in France, as the Germans had begun to reopen French film studios and would soon force all the French stars to return and make films for them. Morgan was strongly opposed to becoming part of their propaganda machine, and figured there would still be a way to make real films in France.

“I’ll work in the free zone,” she told Tual. “Marc [Allégret] has an excellent project, and if he succeeds in setting it up…”

“There won’t be many films made on this side,” Tual replied. “Paris will be the centre more than ever. Labs, studios, equipment—everything’s there. You’re going to have to make a choice.”4

“I am an actor, not a propagandist!”

Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels visit the UFA studio in 1935
Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels visit the UFA studio in 1935

While Morgan waited until after the Third Reich actually occupied France to leave, Paul von Hernried left Austria long before it was taken over by the Nazis in 1938. He rose to prominence in the theater scene during the early thirties, and was eventually offered a contract with the massive Berlin film studio UFA. On a trip to see their studios and sign his contract, he met German star Paul Wegener.

“I take it you’re planning to sign up with UFA?” Wegener asked him.

“Yes, sir, it’s a great opportunity.”

“Opportunity for you? Ridiculous. It’s just another spoke in their Nazi propaganda wheel. If you sign, you’re a fool. Hitler and these Nazis are a curse. Be sensible, boy. Stay in Vienna and don’t come here!”5

Despite this warning, Hernried kept his meeting to review and sign his contract. However, on the final page, he noticed one interesting clause—he would have to to join the Nazi party. He was outraged. “I will not become a Nazi. I have nothing to do with politics. I am an actor, not a propagandist!”6

He returned home to Austria, trying to start his film career there, and shot a part in a film called Only a Comedian. Next, director Henry Kosterlitz approached him about another project. After many enthusiastic discussions about the film, Koster suddenly said Hernried would have to drop out.

“The German distributors have turned you down. If I insist on putting you in it, Berlin will refuse to distribute the film, and we’ll be dead. I’m heartsick about it, Paul, but that’s the way it is. You’re blacklisted in Germany.”7

It was too late to reshoot Only a Comedian, so the film was released in Germany without Hernried’s name on it. Even though he was still able to find success on the stage, he knew it was time to get out of Austria. When theater producer Henry Schereck offered him a play in London, he accepted—despite the fact that he didn’t know English. He married his longtime partner, Lisl Glück, hired an English coach, and left Austria.

A Year of English Lessons

“Leaving for Hollywood ought to have made me joyful, but I didn’t manage to be,” Morgan wrote. “I couldn’t stop finding this departure a sort of exile.”8

She had signed a contract with RKO, and a studio representative met her in Barcelona to accompany her all the way across the Atlantic. Arriving in Hollywood, RKO’s publicity department quickly went to work. One employee explained Morgan’s new personality to her: “For us Americans you are the typical French girl: emotional and amorous, shy but not prim. You like scent, intelligent men, Burgundy, cheese.”9

Michèle Morgan would appear with Humphrey Bogart in 1944 in "Passage to Marseille"
Michèle Morgan would appear with Humphrey Bogart in 1944 in “Passage to Marseille”

At her first Hollywood party, the actor met everyone from Mickey Rooney to Humphrey Bogart. Cary Grant charmed her, Ginger Rogers’ mother gave her a milkshake, and she fixed her makeup next to Joan Crawford in the bathroom. However, being starstruck only lasted so long. At RKO she was just given English lessons, without a film role in sight. “In this gigantic factory, I was just a tiny cog which had not yet found its place.”10

It’s not exactly clear when in 1940 Morgan did arrive to Hollywood, but it was at least a year between her arrival and her first work on a film. “If I isolate that year, 1940, from its context, it was fairly painful and can be summed up in two words: work and loneliness.”11

After months of lessons with a Dr. Michneck to remove her accent and improve her English, her break seemed to have arrived. RKO producer David Hempstead, whose most recent production Kitty Foyle would soon win Ginger Rogers an Oscar, approached Morgan in November 1940.

“Miss Morgan, some very good news for you: a screen test with Alfred Hitchcock. He’s planning a film called Suspicion with Cary Grant as the hero. We’d very much like to give you the female lead.” However, there was a catch. “Hitchcock wants a British actress for the part. Even so, you’ll be given a test. Dr. Michneck assures us he will make you talk with the most perfect of English accents. Here’s the script. You have a week to work on it.”12

Of course, she didn’t get the part. After the nerve-racking test, the verdict came back that, unsurprisingly, her English wasn’t convincing enough. Joan Fontaine would go on to get the part and win an Oscar for it. As the months went on, Morgan grew more bored and lonely. She didn’t really know anyone in California, and the rare celebrity interactions—a dinner with the dreamy Robert Taylor, New Year’s Eve at Jack Benny’s—only helped so much. “How far away my country was! The war occupied little space in the newspaper columns here, and the news they did offer me was disheartening in the extreme: Germany victorious, London bombed, Rommel master of the desert, the Balkans occupied, then Greece—everywhere the Nazi jackboots were crushing freedom.”13

Contract Negotiation

After finding success on the London stage, Hernried was in a few British films, the last of which was Carol Reed’s delightful thriller Night Train to Munich. Soon after Hernried came to New York to act on Broadway, with Night Train hitting the United States in December 1940, Hollywood came calling. Hernried recounts his first conversation with MCA talent agent Lew Wasserman in full in his autobiography.

“If you can get me the kind of Hollywood contract I want, I’ll sign up with you,” Hernried said.

“You tell me what you want, and I’ll get it,” Wasserman said.

“First of all, I want a check from your agency for two thousand dollars. I’ll give you two weeks to get the contract. If you do, I return the two thousand from my first Hollywood check. If not, I keep it. Okay?”

“What else?”

“I am, as you Americans say, hot now, so this is the best time to go after it. In this business I could be forgotten in another two weeks.”

“Fair enough. And the contract?”

“I want the male leading role in any film I do, the actor who gets the girl. I want to do one film a year at any major studio, and it must be shot between May thirteenth and September first. Because I must be available for the Broadway stage. That’s one film a year for the next seven years.”

“And salary?”

“I’ll leave that to you. Anything from twenty-five thousand [sic] a picture is okay.”

“I’ll get it for you.”

“The next day he brought me the check for two thousand dollars and we shook hands,” Hernried wrote. “I thought he was crazy and I was sure no studio would accept such terms. I was prepared to dicker if they made a lesser offer, or take it. But two days later Wasserman called.”

“You’re going to star opposite Ginger Rogers in a picture for RKO,” Wasserman said. “I bettered your price. You’ll get thirty-two thousand, and you’re expected out on the coast by May fifteenth.”14

The play in which Hernried was appearing, Flight of the West, closed in New York on May 5, after which he bought a car and headed out to California.

Joan of Paris

After months of no work, Morgan was finally handed a project by producer David Hempstead.

“Read this, it’s a fine vehicle for you, by a French author, Jacques Théry—know him?” Hempstead asked. “We’re sure you’ll like Joan of Paris a whole lot. It’s the story of a girl who goes into the Underground, I think you call it the Resistance. It’s a great story, very patriotic. And we’re giving you Robert Stevenson for director.”

“Bob Stevenson had just had a huge success with Back Street,” Morgan wrote. “And any actress would jump at the prospect of working with him.”15 Today, Stevensen is best known for his work for Disney in the 1960s—he directed Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and more. However, Morgan was less sold on the script.

Robert Stevenson (left) on the set of "Back Street" with star Margaret Sullivan (center)
Robert Stevenson (left) on the set of “Back Street” with star Margaret Sullivan (center)

“Were there the elements of a good ‘vehicle’ here ? It seemed unlikely. But rather innocently I thought that such a film, the first to speak of France’s struggle for freedom, would be shown in all the American cinemas. This idea encouraged me to accept; anyhow, I didn’t see how I could very well refuse.”16

With Morgan onboard, they needed a male lead. Enter Hernried. When he arrived in Los Angeles in May 1941, he was greeted by bad news. Ginger Rogers turned down the project intended for them both to star in, but as Hernried wrote, “RKO had a substitute picture for me, a movie called Joan of Paris. I was to star with Michelle Morgan, the sultry French sexpot. Robert Stevenson had agreed to direct, and would I come and meet Michelle? She had just arrived from Paris.”

Hernried was a big fan, and easily forgot all about Ginger Rogers. “When I left for the studio, I said to Lisl, ‘This may be the end of our marriage.’ Unimpressed, Lisl asked, ‘How come?’ ‘I’ve been madly in love with Michelle Morgan on the screen ever since I saw her in that film with Jean Gabin. If she’s anything like her film image, I may never come home.’ ‘Good luck,’ Lisl said dryly.”

“I entered Hempstead’s office, and he asked his secretary to show Miss Morgan in. I stood up as a very young, lovely girl, more like an American bobby-soxer than a French sexpot, came in. In fact, she actually blushed when we were introduced. This couldn’t, I told myself, bemused, be the same woman I’d seen on the screen. I had underestimated the illusion-making magic of the movie camera, and I had underestimated Michelle’s acting ability. Michelle turned out to be a splendid actress, and the rest of the cast—Thomas Mitchell, May Robeson—all the rest, or almost all the rest, were fine, competent performers.”17

Morgan seems to have been less impressed with him, barely mentioning him in her autobiography—aside from the fact that she had never heard his name before. The studio knew his name meant little outside of Austria, so saw no problem in changing it. Von Hernried, now simply Henreid, was less enthusiastic. “I have regretted it ever since. I liked my original name much better.”18

“Miss Morgan’s breasts aren’t big enough.”

With the problem of the lead man’s name fixed, production began mid-September. Both stars found Hollywood production methods far more difficult and strange than what they were used to.

Paul Henreid and the other pilot actors (including Alan Ladd) in "Joan of Paris"
Paul Henreid and the other pilot actors (including Alan Ladd) in “Joan of Paris”

Joan of Paris introduced me to one of the roughest methods of shooting motion pictures,” Henreid wrote. “Alexander Granach, who played the Gestapo agent who finds me, had an exciting chase scene with me through the streets of Paris at night. The scene was shot at the RKO ranch, where they had built the streets of Paris for the chase and rigged the whole set for rain. Since the chase took place at night, the filming was done at night. I didn’t realize that though the days were warm out in the valley where the ranch was, at four in the morning an ice-cold wind comes in—and four AM was when we shot!”19

Tough as night shooting might have been, the difficulties Morgan faced were significantly more degrading. David Hempstead took a particular interest in one aspect of Morgan’s US debut.

“After the first shots, he surveyed me from all sides and frowned: my figure did not correspond to his idea of the French girl, Parisian, and in the Resistance at that. I was not sexy enough; I didn’t have big enough breasts. In vain, I protested that heroism could not be measured by the size of the chest. He laughed heartily and summoned the dresser who immediately corrected the defect with a padded bra, explaining to me in charitable tones that I mustn’t get worked up about it—they did this in all productions, expanding the girls’ breasts; even big ones couldn’t be big enough.”

And yet, that was not enough. “The following evening, viewing the first rushes, Hempstead knitted his ginger eyebrows. Before I had time to worry about this, he announced what was wrong: ‘Miss Morgan’s breasts aren’t big enough.’ A new and more generous padding was required. That evening he made a new survey. ‘Still not enough.’ This criticism was repeated several times. Consequently, having started the film with slightly rounded breasts, I ended up with Jane Russell’s. There was nothing to be done but laugh about it.”20

Definite Assets

The opening titles of "Joan of Paris"
The opening titles of “Joan of Paris”

Despite any turmoil, Henreid ultimately looked back fondly on the film, writing that, “making the film, on the whole, however, was a pleasure, and it was done with great care.”21 Morgan was unsurprisingly less pleased with the experience, and of the movie itself wrote, “the film struck me as pretty mediocre, and I could not understand the success it achieved. As to the notices, they too were miraculously good.”22

In The New York Times Bosley Crowther called it “a rigidly exciting and tenderly moving film,” and of the two stars, said “Michèle Morgan, the talented French actress who is especially remembered for her performance in [Port of Shadows] gives deep poignance and real nobility to the character of the dreamy French girl. Paul Henreid, who was seen as the German agent in Night Train, is a fine combination of sensitivity and rugged determination as the flier.”

Variety criticized the script, calling it a “mild meller,” but said that “Miss Morgan and Henreid are definite assets to Hollywood feature player group, and both provide sincere and sensitive performances that will catch attention from paying customers and assist in buildups.”

The film, like many other war-themed films that went into production before America joined the fight, got a boost at the box office by opening less than two months after Pearl Harbor. It ended up  being the rare profitable film for RKO during a particularly tumultuous period, grossing just over $1.1 million.23

Henreid went on to sign with Warner Brothers, appearing in two of their biggest 1942 hits—Now, Voyager and Casablanca. Morgan tested for Casablanca but didn’t get it. She struggled throughout the war to find the right parts; she never did, and so returned home to France after the war ended. Henreid eventually found his American acting career destroyed when he was blacklisted, but found a second career in directing films and television. Were these two just not right for Hollywood? More likely Hollywood wasn’t right for them. Morgan, in particular, did plenty of great work later in her career—notable is Carol Reed’s phenomenal The Fallen Idol, from 1948—outside the America’s confines, while Henreid was a stage actor at heart, having only ever planned to work in Hollywood on the side. Their stories are just two of many who came to Hollywood looking for a refuge where they could still be artists during the war, but found themselves becoming small cogs in the machine of the film industry.

Where to Watch

Joan of Paris
Buy it on DVD

Port of Shadows
Buy it on DVD

Night Train to Munich
Buy it on Blu-ray / DVD

References   [ + ]

1. Michèle Morgan, With Those Eyes (London: W.H. Allen, 1978), 138.
2. Paul Henreid, Ladies Man (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984), 94-95.
3. Morgan 1978, 116.
4. Morgan 1978, 117.
5. Henreid 1984, 40.
6. Henreid 1984, 41.
7. Henreid 1984, 43.
8. Morgan 1978, 119.
9. Morgan 1978, 125.
10. Morgan 1978, 131.
11. Morgan 1978, 132.
12. Morgan 1978, 133.
13. Morgan 1978, 138.
14. Henreid 1984, 91.
15. Morgan 1978, 148.
16. Morgan 1978, 149.
17. Henreid 1984, 94.
18. Henreid 1984, 95.
19. Henreid 1984, 97.
20, 22. Morgan 1978, 150.
21. Henreid 1984, 98.
23. Richard B. Jewell, “RKO Film Grosses, 1929–1951: the C. J. Tevlin Ledger,” Historical Journal Of Film, Radio And Television 12, no. 2 (1992): 37-49.