The Dark Beauty of Faith Domergue (Part One)

*contains spoilers

Faith Domergue’s dark beauty shone for a short time in the mid-1950s. She became a star when most women were thought to be past their prime. She survived being a plaything of Howard Hughes and although never a fully-fledged star, or a great actress, she still made her mark in the movies.

Faith at her peak

Faith was born in New Orleans in 1924 and adopted when she was six weeks old. It is said she is part Creole, which is where she got her dark looks. Her parents moved to California while she was still a young age and there at 16 she was discovered by the Zeppo Marx Inc Talent Agency.

She went by the name of Faith Dorn in the beginning when she was signed to Warner Bros. because she said: “Jack Warner was too stupid to pronounce Faith Domergue.”

Quentin Tarantino bastardised the name with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character Daisy Domergue (Dom-er-goo) in The Hateful Eight (2015), while it is pronounced nicely and properly in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), although she is only referenced in passing in that movie.

As a teenager picked up by Howard Hughes

Pronounce it how you like, it doesn’t matter to me – she’s still pretty. Let’s call her Faith as I raid Karina Longworth’s excellent book on Howard Hughes that in turn raided Faith’s unpublished autobiography.

Faith described herself as “pretty undisciplined” and “a little wild” in the beginning. She also had a slight lisp, which was corrected in studio speech classes.

One day, aged 16, Faith was taken to a boat party by tragic starlet Susan Peters (1921-52 kidney failure). Peter’s would end up a paraplegic in a shooting accident involving husband director Richard Quine (1920-89 suicide, gunshot to the head).

The Aviator (2004) only mentions Faith in passing but is an idea of the life of “creepy” Howard Hughes

The host at the boat party was Howard Hughes (1905-76 kidney failure) and Faith said he had “beautiful dark, but kind of twinkling eyes” which lit up when they rested on the “very, very pretty” Faith, who would be 17 in a month’s time. She was asked by Hughes, whether she would come with him for ride on a smaller vessel. She went and he didn’t say a word for the hour-long trip. But now she was marked as Hughes’ and she was asked to return the following day for a cruise to Catalina.

Faith said Hughes’ eyes twinkled

He remained aloof and Faith thought Hughes was “confusing and creepy” during the voyage and she longed to go home. Hughes was interested but Faith wasn’t awake to this fact.

A few months later they started dating again in Palm Springs where he let his guard down and they began “falling in love”. On 19 October 1941, Hughes slipped a diamond engagement ring on her finger. Hughes said, according to Faith: “I love you Faith, I want to marry you… You are the child I should have had.”

The “creepy” Hughes was 35 and old enough to be her father – barely – but in today’s world of “sugar daddies” it’s no real shocker except for the incestuous overtones. Wasn’t it reported that Clint Eastwood would insist Sondra Locke call him “daddy” during their relationship? She was fourteen years younger than Eastwood. So really even that isn’t so shocking!

Locke had a pet name for Eastwood

It was, however, a turning point in Hughes’ pursuit of women. Whereas he chased fully-fledged movie stars in the past – now he would go for the young, immature and unformed girls. He called Faith “little baby” while she called him “father lover”.

He also introduced Faith to his fear of germs as he “used to insist many times… I wash my hands over and over again.”

Shortly after the proposal, Faith made Louella Parsons’ column and as Faith said: “My professional and emotional destiny was completely in his hands.”

Hell’s Angels (1930) was Howard Hughes first epic followed by The Outlaw (1943) and then Vendetta (1950) starring Faith

She didn’t move in with him but he had her parents move into a house around the corner from his mansion. His mansion frightened Faith to death. Many of the rooms were locked, others sparsely furnished with drop cloths over the antiques. They would sit together in the den with its fireplace and comfy sofa.

Despite lessons of every sort, including the odd flying lesson, Faith was isolated by Hughes, and said: “I was suddenly alone. I had no friends anymore” as she was chauffeured everywhere and kept an eye on.

Jane Russell in The Outlaw

While Hughes had already worked on making Jean Harlow a star in his film Hell’s Angels (1930) and Jane Russell in The Outlaw was underway – any plans for Faith’s film career were sidelined when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941. Hughes would be immersed in his aviation business for some time to come.

Being nailed by Hughes wasn’t turning out to be very glamorous for Faith as she was not meeting any Hollywood elite or stars. Hughes would take her to quiet restaurants to avoid the press, when all she wanted was to be photographed looking glam at Ciro’s.

It took eight months for Hughes to tame teenager Faith through manipulation and their life together due to this was an emotional rollercoaster.

Faith was humiliated when Hughes would be seen on the town in the media with other actresses. Here with Ava Gardner.

Hughes didn’t just like one woman, however, he liked them by the dozen, keeping some of them busy with acting lessons while he got serious with a few. They were on the payroll, otherwise, while not called to work for sexual duties.

One of the other women was of course Jane Russell, whose film he was making The Outlaw was still unreleased.

Bored to death and kept under surveillance, Faith began to get depressed as workaholic Hughes kept her on ice while being seen on the town dating Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth. No wonder it was emotional for Faith.

Faith Dorn wasn’t being photographed in the restaurants and Louella Parsons used her columns to taunt her about this fact, referring to Hughes’ engagement to her as “a closed chapter”.

Another shot of a very young Faith

She tried to escape, driving off to Palm Springs, but her parents sold her out.

Hughes explained that during war, women had to do without their men. But it was too late… Faith wanted out.

Hughes changed tack and rented a bright house in Bel Air… the opposite to the mansion where they had “lived”.

He was seeing Ava Gardner around this time and, finally, partially released The Outlaw. He put up billboards with sexy visions of Russell, with taglines such as: “sex has not been rationed” about the shortages of items during WWII America. Despite derision by critics, the Legion of Decency told Catholics it was a moral crime to see it. Which only spurred interest! But it would still be years before the film would be fully released and watched today it is not a very good one.

Still before stardom

Meanwhile Faith’s father and grandfather worked in Hughes’ factory and she was still under contract to him, although she was yet to make a film.

“I felt trapped,” Faith wrote.

It led to the couple slapping one another when Faith rammed Hughes’ car when she saw him driving with Ava Gardner. She wanted out but Hughes wouldn’t let go – despite messages to other women in the wastebasket and cigarette butts with lipstick around the place.

Faith thought she would die.

Bandleader Stauffer

Hughes, however, seemed to propose to all the women he knew as a part of his courtship ritual. Then suddenly in 1945, Faith eloped with Swiss bandleader Teddy Stauffer (1909-91) for a marriage that would last for six months. She was finally out of Hughes’ romantic clutches and she made her first movie in a supporting role in the drama starring Jane Russell entitled Young Widow (1946).

Then a script Preston Sturges had been working on looked like it would start production – the film was Vendetta. Hughes would produce and after a long line of actresses such as Yvonne de Carlo and Linda Darnell – it was now Jean Peters he had settled upon as his steady.

Faith as she looked in her first film Vendetta (1950) which took years to make

But Faith would get her movie and Vendetta started filming in August 1946, the war now over, with San Fernando Valley as “the dirty jungles of Corsica.”

Vendetta poster

It was obvious, with the protracted production of Vendetta that Hughes wasn’t finished yet with toying with Faith. It was around this time that Hughes nearly died in a test flight and the movie was in jeopardy. During his recovery, Hughes took closer interest in the production directed by Max Ophuls (1902-57 rheumatic heart disease) and didn’t like what he saw. Austrian Ophuls was slow and Hughes was a xenophobe, firing him.

You have to wonder if Faith took great pleasure in running off with Swiss bandleader Stauffer! Sturges put on the hat and was also fired. Faith wrote they started from scratch with a third director Stuart Heisler (1896-1979). Then he was fired. After Hughes directed for a spell himself, two years later Mel Ferrer (1917-2008 heart failure) was brought in. This went on and on remembered Faith, who by this time had lost all interest in becoming a star. She divorced Stauffer, so she could marry Argentinian director Hugo Fregonese (1908-1987 heart attack) in 1947. Faith obviously still liked older men.

Faith with second husband Fregonese

Before starring in Vendetta, Faith appeared in the Jane Russell movie Young Widow (1946), where she is stuck between a man who must choose between marriage and a uniform.

“You’ve been all wrapped up in a big black cloud,” Russell says to Faith, perhaps talking about her real life depression. Faith’s performance in Young Widow is short but better than her later one in Vendetta.

Her first starring role unfinished, Faith said: “I wanted to bail out totally from the industry.” She went to Buenos Aires to give birth to her first child, returning to renew her contract with Hughes at his newly bought studio RKO.

In 1950, nearly a decade after Hughes got his hands on her, Faith had two films ready for release and there was a push to make her a star. Vendetta was finished and there was also a film Where Danger Lives. Faith went on a publicity tour, where a handy press article said the way to pronounce her name was “Dough-merg”. It really was “Daew-maeg-r” but you try it!

Faith in her first released film Where Danger Lives (1950)

“Tired, angry and pregnant” at the end of the tour in New York, she got a call from Hughes when she refused to do the NY junket. When she said she was with child, Hughes said: “Okay, goodbye Faith” and hung up. It would be the last time she would ever hear from Hughes.

Vendetta took four years and four million dollars of Hughes’ money. As a vehicle for stardom for Faith it backfired badly. Described as a cobbled together “incest fantasy” about Faith’s love for her brother – it is probably not surprising it should star the “child I never had” as it tells of Faith’s want for revenge over the murder of her father. The critics lambasted. Whereas The Outlaw was in colour Vendetta is in black and white. I have tried to watch Vendetta a few times but get easily distracted in what is not really an engaging movie at all. Faith’s acting is ordinary in this “extravaganza” which didn’t warrant the time or budget spent on it. It’s obvious that Faith’s acting improved markedly after this film. There are, however, a couple of lush moments of black and white photography. I’ll try watching it again but I don’t think it will improve.

The film opens with a shot of Faith’s beautiful brown eyes, something that has always attracted me. They really are black pools and I am also one who fell in.

Faith with Robert Mitchum

The House of Noir, as RKO was known would release director John Farrow’s (1904-63 heart attack) Where Danger Lives before Vendetta. This was chosen correctly as the film to launch Faith’s career because it is one of her best performances. Also shot in black and white, it also stars Robert Mitchum (1917-1997 lung cancer and emphysema), who is at his peak, on this occasion playing an upright guy for once, something he hadn’t done since his Oscar nominated role in The Story of G.I. Joe. Faith is the bad girl, wheeled in one evening  – as a failed suicide attempt – at the hospital where Mitchum is a doctor. Soon he will be obsessed with her. Just like Hughes was.

Macao (1952) is an RKO picture starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell

Faith’s heavy-lidded Margo awakes naked except for a sheet on the hospital gurney, her life saved by Mitchum. She squeezes his hand as she drifts back off to unconsciousness.

“I think she likes you doctor,” says a nurse, played by Maureen O’Sullivan.

“I hope she likes herself in the morning,” says Mitchum.

Faith skips hospital, leaving a false name and address, but sends Mitchum a telegram inviting him to her mansion which she shares with a somewhat older man, Claude Rains – her father.

The scene where Mitchum gets “sold” on Faith

“I know it sounds silly but I’m lonely,” says Faith in her magnificent trappings. She also admits to having no friends. Sound familiar?

Mitchum goes to report her suicide on her phone – it was a notifiable offence in those days – she panics and he grabs her arm hard to stop her hanging up.

“You’re hurting me,” she says looking at Mitchum with those eyes. He’s sold.

And, later,  like Hughes, he says “You’ve been waiting” to her as she admits she’s “suspended in mid-air” without him and that she’s in love.

You could read all sorts of things about aviation and Hughes’ propensity to keep women on ice while he did other things.

Claude Rains (right) plays a father figure betrayed like Hughes

The film seems to be about Faith’s betrayal of her father/Hughes, falling for and running off with a younger man. As it turns out, Rains is not her father but her husband who keeps Faith under his thumb. She lied.

“I concede the conspicuous difference in our ages,” slurs a drunk Rains – Hughes never drank though – “Margo married me for my money. I married her for her… youth. We both got what we wanted… after a fashion.”

The question that Faith may have never loved Hughes… except for the money is raised… it was certainly not love at first sight… and while Hughes may have liked to have ripped an ear-ring from Faith’s ear like Rains… Mitchum knocks Rains unconscious getting concussion himself and when he returns from getting something from the kitchen to rouse Rains, he finds him dead.

Did she kill him? Yes, definitely bad in RKO executive Hughes’ eyes!

Where Danger Lives (1950) trailer

It is not surprising that after that last call to Hughes on that press junket that Faith sat on her backside at the studio for two years before ending her contract without making another movie there.

Faith certainly gives a good performance as a woman disturbed as she spurs Mitchum on the run with her to Mexico. But Mitchum is suffering concussion, like Hughes after his near fatal plane crash – the period of the making of Vendetta.

“Trying to kill me, trying to suffocate me,” screams Faith and there is an ambiguity if she means the heat or if she was dreaming about Rains/Hughes.

Faith is a good actress but she will never be an award winner. It is obvious she never did any theatre, which she regretted. She is a film actress/star but not a great one of either. Faith WAS built for the screen though in more ways than one.

For the rest of Faith Domergue’s career in review read: PART TWO.

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