Faith Domergue was the subject of a huge buildup by Howard Hughes’ publicity machine, heavily promoted as a “smoldering siren”, and an exotic bombshell, but for all the hoopla she never quite achieved superstardom. She was disillusioned by her first major experience, rebelled against the image that all the expensive hype was meant to create, and walked away from Hollywood and fame a number of times.
However, despite unlucky timing, poor casting, and some missed chances, Faith still managed to earn a cult status through her science fiction movies, and deserves her spot in the noir pantheon, because of the one truly disturbed femme fatale she played.
Faith Domergue was the child of a New Orleans couple who moved to Beverly Hills when Faith was 2. She pursued her love of acting all through school, despite a lisp which was treated by a school speech therapist when Faith was 7. As Faith started high school, her mother got her involved with a little theater, where she earned the attention of a talent scout and was signed to a Warner Brothers contract. Faith, who at this time briefly went by the name Dorn, looked up to dark beauties such as Vivien Leigh, Merle Oberon, and Dolores Del Rio, but her aspirations suffered a major setback when she was hurled through the windshield in a serious car accident. For over a year and a half, she required several plastic surgeries (and was still having work done well into the mid-1950’s). During her recuperation, she was invited to a party where she met billionaire Howard Hughes.
Hughes took her on as a protégé when she was 15, and so rumors and details of their relationship and eventual engagement made for juicy Hollywood gossip. Hughes set out to groom Faith for stardom, bought out her Warner’s contract, had her complete her education, and for the next seven years put her through intensive training in speech, posture, walking, and acting, and gave her a small part in the film Young Widow. When he considered her ready for a major part, he chose the project Vendetta and formed a production company around her to make the film. Hughes also put into motion a massive hype machine which was revved up to full power to construct an image of a new mysterious starlet who was about to emerge into public view.
Unfortunately, all these plans went wrong practically from the beginning, and Vendetta was troubled to say the least; for Faith it was a nightmare that almost ruined her career before it got off the ground. Producer Preston Sturges and director Max Ophuls clashed over the film’s vision, and then Hughes hovered near death for weeks after a plane crash. His absence prompted more power struggles on set as the crew continued to shoot. Most of the footage from that time was later scrapped and re-shot by Stuart Heisler then Mel Ferrer, and even Hughes himself. Faith started to hate the enormous waste of time and money, but her problems weren’t limited to professional ones. During the shoot, reports said that she had briefly (for 6 months) married bandleader Ernest (Teddy) Stauffer; however, in interviews throughout her life, Faith maintained her first husband was the Italian-Argentinian director Hugo Fregonese, who had been working for MGM. She met Hugo at a party, when her knowledge of Spanish paid off, and she overheard a comment Hugo made about her to his friend. Faith also suffered a miscarriage as the seemingly interminable Vendetta wore on. All this turbulence was too much, and so disheartened Faith that “the fire went out”, she said, and almost put her off filmmaking for good.
The release of Vendetta was delayed for years, so that by 1950, when her next opportunity came up, Faith was a different woman in a new phase of life. She was now a mother, and had already walked away from her first contract. David O. Selznick now expressed interest in signing her, but when Howard Hughes took control of RKO, and asked her to come back, she declined Selznick’s offer out of a sense of loyalty to Hughes, and returned to start work on Where Danger Lives. So it was, that after all the publicity, gossip and speculation about Hughes’ mystery protégé appearing in the torrid Vendetta, it turned out to be her role as a murderous femme in her first and only noir, Where Danger Lives, that introduced her to audiences.
Originally titled A White Rose for Julie, Where Danger Lives was directed by John Farrow (his other great noirs were The Big Clock, Night Has a Thousand Eyes). In Danger, Robert Mitchum plays a sympathetic doctor who has a girl, Julie (Farrow’s wife Maureen O’Sullivan; their daughter, for those who don’t happen to know, is Mia Farrow) but falls for his vulnerable, suicidal patient Margo Lannington (Faith). Mitchum discovers she is neither what she seems, nor entirely all there to begin with, and then he literally almost loses his mind over her. Critics charge that Faith’s acting was severely lacking, and all the hype about her was for naught, but there is much in her performance to make her role and this noir memorable. Faith was not so badly suited for the part, since her look and her choices fit the character. She has the intent stare of a clingy, needy young woman, which later reveals an unhinged and calculating seductress.
She’s effective as the pouting, petulant, spoiled manipulative child who indulges in wild-eyed temper tantrums. She a troubled woman, who, we learn along with Mitchum, is desperate and trapped by her overbearing father (Claude Rains, and I refuse to spoil to a major plot point for you by saying any more about him, other than to say Rains’ best line in the movie probably by itself induces Mitchum’s brain cramp). Mitchum and Rains fight over Faith, leading to a poker blow on the head for Mitchum and death for Rains. Faith convinces Mitchum the accident will look like murder, and the couple run to Mexico, where Faith has a secret bank account waiting. As her lies unravel, she becomes increasingly unstable and irate at Mitchum, as his deteriorating head injury threatens to derail her plans. Farrow did a great job directing the film, especially in the final scenes in a Mexican border town, where Mitchum and Faith wait in a seedy hotel room for their last chance at escape. There are also a lot of good but weird Murphy’s Law obstacles that keep stalling the couple and symbolize the whole affair’s descent into madness. Two words: Whiskers week!
Faith enjoyed making the film, and had great experiences with Mitchum, whom she called a generous co-star who helped her at every opportunity. Faith discovered she liked playing villainesses like Margo Lannington, but as she looked forward to playing more varied roles, she was growing uncomfortable with the persona that was being created for her. She was on the cover of practically every magazine, and ended up promoting both Where Danger Lives and Vendetta on the same national press tours, but increasingly she fought against being pigeonholed as a Jane Russell or Jean Harlow “sex bomb” type. Pregnant with her second child, she refused to attend the premieres of these films, and balked at any further participation in the hype machine that had dominated and shaped the past several years of her life. Though Howard Hughes was extremely angry at her for this decision, Faith harbored no hard feelings for him personally, calling him an innovator, a genius, a nice man who made great contributions, and expressed disappointment at all the muckraking and smears leveled against Hughes over the years. (She wrote a book, My Life with Howard Hughes in 1972.)
After being loaned out for Duel at Silver Creek with Audie Murphy, Faith again was eager to walk away from films and managed to get out of her RKO contract by promising she would never work for anyone else. However, this promise only lasted a few months before she realized she was bored just being “the director’s wife” and signed a 2-year contract with Universal. After the disappointment of losing out to Jean Simmons for a role in The Egyptian, Faith was next seen in a number of sci-fi films which became cult classics, and for which she is surely best remembered—Cult of the Cobra, It Came From Beneath the Sea, and This Island Earth. Even though she never considered these films a “black spot on her career”, she knew they were “lesser” projects, and had done them mainly for the money. Had she only known they would become such popular, lasting and enjoyable B sci-fi classics, she said later, she’d have done many more of them. She also did a lot of television shows–practically every TV western there was– including Have Gun Will Travel, Tales Of Wells Fargo, Bonanza, plus many other popular series like Combat and Perry Mason.
By the 1960’s Faith had repeatedly separated from, and finally divorced Hugo Fregonese, then married former director Paolo Cossa in 1966. During their long marriage the couple divided their time between America and Europe, where she worked in many Italian films. In 1972 Cossa joined the Bulgari jewelry company, and opened their Swiss office, which gave Faith the enviable and highly glamorous position of dealing with expensive products and hobnobbing with the fancy jet set, while also perfecting her tennis. After Paolo died in the mid-1990’s, Faith returned to America to live with her daughter.
Only a few years before her death in 1999, Faith discovered she had been adopted, and was not of Spanish-French parentage as always thought, but instead came from an Irish background. When asked by interviewers to reflect on her life, Faith was satisfied with the personal side but expressed regrets about her career choices. “I was always seemingly fighting to get away from it because I was disappointed. I really owe Howard so much; he was so wonderful… he put so much trust in me and spent so much money on me trying to make me a star, but that wasn’t the kind of star I wanted to be or that I thought I could be.” She said that she probably hurt her career and “spoiled her chances” by leaving Hollywood so many times, and often wondered what direction her career would have taken had she signed with Selznick at that pivotal moment in 1950. When asked to sum it all up Faith said, “I could have done better.” Possibly, but she could also have done much worse than to set as her priorities family and personal happiness, and still star in a number of lasting, if minor, classics.
An afterthought: Far be it from me to tell Martin Scorsese what to do, but when he made the Howard Hughes bio-pic The Aviator, in 2004, how did he not cast Eliza Dushku as Faith Domergue?
a version of this article appeared in Dark Pages Magazine