Fifi Dorsay — Fifi's Magic Touch (1930) 🇺🇸

Fifi Dorsay — Fifi's Magic Touch (1930) |

February 10, 2023

With the introduction of speech on the screen, all the foreigners threw up the sponge. They could not make themselves understood in broken English, so they fled back to Europe. It was rather silly in a way, when you come to think of it. Is it not said that one touch of nature makes the whole world kin?

by William H. McKegg

To get to the theme of my story — Fifi Dorsay — let us say that one touch of the wordless universal language, makes any foreigner at home in Hollywood and the talkies.

What is this wordless universal language, you inquire. Read on and discover it.

I take it for granted that you saw Will Rogers, in "They Had To See Paris." Need I ask if you saw that devastating French brunette, Fifi Dorsay? Why, every one saw her! Well, if you didn't, your brother did. And brother spent many restless nights recollecting Fifi's vamping ways.

She flashed onto the screen with a mop of black hair, rolling eyes, and shapely legs. From that moment every member of the audience — at least every male member — declared the Dorsay to be the real thing.

Though Fifi spoke her lines with a pronounced French accent, she managed to make every one fully understand what she was doing, or about to do. Her use of the universal language did the trick. I doubt if Fifi need ever perfect her English. A gesture from her is equal to a full phrase spoken by any one else. Hence her instantaneous success.

When she sang "I Could Do It For You," in the cabaret scene, she won her audience. The high point occurred when she came to vamp the embarrassed Mr. Rogers and rattled off,

"Oh, mon chéri!
Mon chou-chou,
mon lou-lou,
viens donc près de moi!
Serre-moi donc, embrasse-moi
donc, comme ça!"


And then Fifi made a noise like kisses.

Only a few understood the words, but Fifi was using the universal language and so cleared away all difficulties. In fact, the Dorsay has a way with her that will always make mere words seem superfluous

Is it therefore surprising that I went to see her?

A new apartment, the Chateau Marmont, was her temporary logis in Hollywood.

Fifi was not in at four thirty, the time set for our interview. A few minutes later the phone rang. It was the Dorsay herself. She begged Ida, her elderly maid, to beseech my pardon. She would be there right away. She had been kept at a theater, where she was making personal appearances, and had to spend more time than she had expected trying on new dresses.

Twenty minutes later Fifi rushed in, all panicky. She was full of commiseration and explanations galore. Indeed, she seemed genuinely distressed by her tardiness.

Recollecting how her compatriot, Monsieur Chevalier, had kept me waiting for two hours, without a word of excuse, I felt like apologizing for being on time on this occasion.

Right away we became friends. Fifi is the type that makes every one her pal.

"We shall have some tea," she suggested, pulling off her hat and coat, and running her hand" through her hair. Ida, the indispensable, presented tea and a plate of sandwiches, rounds of toast with caviar, and some jam tartlets of her own making.

"I don't like caviar, Miss Dorsay," I said with firm decision.

Fifi was stunned.

"You don't like caviar! Why, I love it! I gave some to Greta Garbo when she was here and she said 'I love caviar,' in that wonderful, deep voice of hers." And half a circle of toast-and-caviar disappeared between Fifi's white teeth. Before I knew it, I also ate mine. That's the effect Fifi has on you!

Many of her screen gestures are similar to ones she makes in real life. She rolls her eyes heavenward over any amusing comment. She raises her shoulders and touches her chin with the tip of one finger when declaiming on some new scheme in mind. Occasionally humor is too much for her, and she rocks backward in merry abandon, her knees almost touching her chin. And vice versa.

Though you might miss some of her words when she speaks English, you never fail to understand her meaning. Her constant use of the universal language gets the idea over every time.

Six years ago she came to the United States with her father, mother, brother, and sister. She comes from Asnieres, almost outside the fortifications of Paris.

"Here they call me The Pet of Paris," Fifi confessed, holding upturned palms on a level with the table at such réclame. "But I have never acted in Paris, ever. When I came to America, I took a course in stenography. Then I wanted to go on the stage. Always I have wished to dance and sing."

Fifi bounced up and down in her chair, her legs moving in imaginary terpsichorean steps and her arms waving, to let me see how strong this urge was in her.

"That's why I went to New York. You see, we were not wealthy people. In fact, it was necessary that I help." And real seriousness now flashed from Fifi's eyes as she leaned forward across her teacup, causing me to swallow all my hateful caviar.

"My father and mother disapproved of actresses. No nice girl, my father told me, ever went on the stage. When I said I intended to try my luck, my mother at last relented, but my father was still to be pacified."

Fifi wanted to see herself acting on Broadway. At the very mention of it, the Dorsay enthusiasm swept over my vis-a-vis. Clenched little fists were pressed against her chest and flung out as if she were doing Swedish exercises, or singing a mammy song.

Fifi's eyes rolled the universal language when speaking of her desires. Although she called herself "a poor, little Frenchy alone in New York," I knew before her tale ended that she got her chance.

Nikolas Muray, the well-known photographer, assisted Fifi to get a look-in when the casting was going on for a certain edition of the "Greenwich Village Follies."

Even that did not gain her immediate employment. She was put off from time to time. Finally she obtained a place in the chorus. Soon they gave her bits; then small parts. She sang in English and French.

Whether the audience understood what she sang seems beside the point. As I have said, one gesture from Fifi makes the whole world understand what she means.

Much to her chagrin, Fifi never reached Broadway.

"I was put in a road company of 'Mr. Gallagher and Mr. Shean,'" she said, a bit distressed.

In California she met Chaplin.

Charlie said, "I'm surprised an attractive girl like you doesn't try the movies. Wouldn't you like to?"

Just to appear indifferent, though she longed for the opportunity, Fifi said, "No, I wouldn't."

Chaplin surprised her by saying, "You're a wise girl. Never try the movies unless you have a contract."

Fifi's next job was in vaudeville. Her masculine partner made up an act with her. Berrens and Fifi was the name of this team, and "Ten Dollars a Lesson" the title of the act.

"My name is really Yvonne," the Dorsay explained. "Only every one called me Fifi from the first."

Just as her stage work seemed to be prospering, her sorrows began. First her father died. A year later her mother passed away. Fifi, the eldest, was left alone to support her younger brother and sister. Of thirteen children, they are the only three living.

Freddy Berrens, her partner's brother, is Fifi's sweetheart. According to her, Freddy is a wonderful chap. He is a splendid musician and is master of ceremonies at a picture house in Detroit.

After finishing an engagement in Pittsburgh, Fifi decided to join her sweetheart and get married. But her manager was against such a move. He desired her to return with him to New York and take a test for a certain Fox picture requiring a French girl. The outcome of a test is uncertain, so Fifi went to Detroit.

But it seemed that hymeneal bliss was not for her just then. Who should get to Detroit first but Fifi's manager. He had explained to Freddy how advantageous, this test might prove. Freddy saw the chance and urged Fifi to take it. Take it she did. And that's how she was sent out to Hollywood.

There is something indescribably attractive about Fifi Dorsay. She is not beautiful, but her personality is sparkling. She realizes this, too. Like most Europeans, she has a great love for family life. Pictures of her parents, of her brother and sister, and of Freddy with his violin, are on view in her apartment.

Her brother is now doing translations for a New York department store in which Fifi once worked as a model. She believes that he should learn the value of earning a living for himself. Her sister is an invalid, and is soon to join her in California. The whole of Fifi's career is one of laughing and crying. But I think the crying Fifi has been dispensed with.

"Troubles are good for one," she said philosophically. "How can we value the good if we have not known the bad?"

When I first arrived she called me "Monsieur." I called her "Miss Dorsay." After exchanging our intimate opinions we became friendlier. Fifi called me Chéri and I called her Chérie.

For Freddy's benefit I must declare that everything was quite comme il faut.

There is no sickly theatrical atmosphere in Fifi's apartment. Each room is neatly arranged. Of course she has what she calls "little feminine touches" here and there, such as a couple of fans hanging on the tapestry over her bed. You know the sort of fans I mean.

"Well, children, I've always been crazy about the French, and so I must say I like Fifi Dorsay. Yet even were she of any other nationality, I should have to pay homage. As I've remarked, Fifi makes use of the wordless language. And who can resist such devastating congeniality?

On my way out Fifi stood outside her door. We called farewells to each other until the elevator arrived. So confused was I that I almost went up, instead of down. So you can guess for yourself how I felt.

What's that? You still don't know what the wordless universal language is? Well, really you are —

Listen, I can't be bothered to go into long explanations now. Go and see "Hot For Paris," in which Fifi plays with Victor McLaglen and El Brendel. Just see it. One gesture from Fifi, and you don't need to understand any language!

Fifi's success in "They Had To See Paris" proves that there is a place for a becomingly-accented player.

Miss Dorsay's career has been one of laughing and crying, with laughing uppermost now.

Fifi Dorsay started out to be a stenographer — and now look at her.

Collection: Picture Play Magazine, March 1930