House of Health

Work on our documentary about Bernard Natan, legendary French film producer, continues.

Our intrepid editor has turned the paper edit into an actual rough assembly in record time, so our next task is to look at it and try to clarify the story and trim it down — it’s currently well over two hours and consists solely of talking heads. We’re not making SHOAH here. Once we have a better grasp of the ordering of the material we can start thinking about the acres of more visually interesting stuff, including those few clips of Natan’s films we can afford, and all the footage we gathered of the relevant places in Paris where Natan’s life unfolded.

Raimu – Ces messieurs de la Santé by RioBravo

Today’s Pathe-Natan recommendation is one you probably can’t see — CES MESSIEURS DE LA SANTÉ is a comedy starring Raimu, who’s mostly known in the Anglophone world for the Pagnol trilogy. But this one is a lot less shouty, more suave. The title puns on the idea of health — santé — which is also the name used for prisons — les maisons de la santé. Raimu plays a crooked financier who escapes prison by drugging the warden and becomes night watchman at a tiny bra shop. Using his business acumen and nose for shady dealings, he makes himself indispensable there and eventually turns the establishment into a gigantic department store — explored by director Pierre Colombier in a wonderfully sinuous and apparently endless tracking shot.

The pleasures of the film are mainly verbal, however, and the ’30s French isn’t easy, even for our two benshi translators David Wingrove and Rolland Man. However, visual treats include Raimu’s dazzling streamline moderne office which he acquires when at the height of his powers, which comes complete with a rotating steel and glass desk and colossal bank vault door, which swings open to reveal — a fully-stocked bar.

The film is at once an amoral celebration of financial shenanigans, and a satiric tweaking of the bourgeoisie, since Raimu’s hosts are slowly seduced by his corrupt ways until their original scruples have disintegrated like so much nitrate stock, swept away by a flood of filthy lucre (among other things, he’s smuggling arms hidden among their support garments). The jocular attitude to high finance and fraud did not go unremarked in the press a few years later when Bernard Natan was arrested for defrauding his own company. In fact, the following poster seems to indicate that the movie, made in 1933, was re-released in ’34 to take advantage of the publicity surrounding the Stavisky affair, which had just broken in the papers –

Our film may not have the heavyweight research to clear Natan’s name on this charge (he confessed to part of it, though we can’t know under what circumstances) but we can certainly show the bias and prejudice which surrounded his trial, and the way a relatively small embezzlement was absurdly inflated in the press to try to top Stavisky’s scandalous schemes.

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5 Responses to “House of Health”

  1. Lawrence Chadbourne Says:

    I enjoyed this film at New York,s Museum Of Modern Art in 1980
    Good luck with the Natan project!

  2. Thanks! We looked at the assembly today, and although it was rather unendurable at over three hours (!), a compelling story was discernible and it was fairly obvious what had to be done to shape it. The plan is to shave off eighty minutes by Friday, which will leave is in very good shape to start making a real movie out of it next week.

  3. I’ve noticed too that ’30s French is a heck of a lot harder to understand than even ’50s French, let alone later. My erratic (as I call it) “tourist French” ability could not keep up with many of those films. Of all, I found Rene Clair films the easiest. Most of them were like trying to keep up with the slang in Britannia Of Billingsgate, just coming across the plate too fast for me to get.

  4. I think Rene Clair had a love of correct French, and was more in line with the Comedie Francaise and classical humour, whereas the rowdier films use very idiomatic French, full of argot and catchphrases. I think even in the 1940s things get easier to understand. Jouvet in Un Carnet du Bal speaks almost entirely in slang!

  5. It’s always refreshing to be reminded of how subtle an actor Raimu could be — as you say, his image is so coloured by some of his broader, southern roles that you almost don’t realize its him when he tones it down several notches. I’d love to see the whole thing; looks fascinating!

    Raimu’s not bad in Un Carnet de bal, either, with one of the better episodes in that rather uneven affair. I love the way that Jouvet refers very precisely to the various parts of the criminal code in his segment, too.

    The biggest challenge I’ve found so far is Fric-Frac, with Fernandel, Michel Simon and Arletty speaking in javanais, though it helps that Fernandel’s character is an outsider to that world so they keep having to let him in on the secret!

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