Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Faces in the Crowd: Odette Myrtil

Around the Skeins there are no real small timers, just actors whose uniquely reliable presence in movies has led to their being overlooked, sometimes despite their years of experience and the verisimilitude they brought to their supporting roles. One of the performers who brought a wealth of experience to her many appearances in films of the studio era was Odette Myrtil (1898-1978).

Mme. Myrtil may not have been a star, but she showed up in over two dozen movies directed by such venerable talents as William Wyler, Preston Sturges, Alfred Hitchcock, Jules Dassin, and George Cukor. One reason that those filmmakers chose to use her was that she could lend a trace of her sophistication to American films, and provide an intriguing contrast to the heroines she so often helped, tempted, and guided through their personal dramas. Few classic movie fans probably know her name today, even if her intelligent, angular face is familiar. Based on what little I've learned about this industrious woman, she would probably have accepted her relative obscurity with equanimity. As she told a reporter in the '30s, using a once sprightly term that now seems fraught with socio-political meaning, "I have had my ups and downs, but my downs have always been so gay."

In her own time she was a favorite on stage, screen and cabaret stages on two continents for many decades. She often appeared in studio era films as the quintessential pragmatic Frenchwoman. Later an exasperated Odette explained to interviewers with a sigh that, contrary to American assumptions, she did not say "zis" or "zat" when speaking of "this" or "that," and she "had never heard a Frenchwoman say 'Oh, la, la' in [her] entire life," though it seemed to be news to screenwriters. Though her sometimes cliched roles in movies would often require her to sound like Pepe Le Pew's sister, Myrtil's English was actually very lightly accented, (and her English pronunciation was good enough to be heard on radio in Britain and the America for decades, beginning in the '20s).

On screen, she was a mature figure who usually clucked her approval or disapproval in acknowledgement of life's injustices, or when evaluating the suitability (or lack of it) of a particular hat--depending on the client--as she did when outfitting Claudette Colbert in The Palm Beach Story (1942). Myrtil often expressed a philosophical empathy with those she cared for, but could, when the part called for it, deliver a chilly professionalism to others. Her characters parlayed their innate sense of style and organizational talent into careers as shopkeepers, couturiers, boarding house landladies, sympathetic souls and chic, recherche ladies.

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