Marcel Wave

Marcel L’Herbier, having shot L’ARGENT at Bernard Natan’s studio, returned to work for Pathe-Natan on three features.* ENFANT DE L’AMOUR has the reputation of being a dud, but L’AVENTURIER is rather good and LE BONHEUR might just be a masterpiece. A strange one, to be sure, but still…

In L’AVENTURIER, Victor Francen is the black sheep of a bourgeois family who returns from a wild life abroad as drug dealer, arms trader and slave trafficker, to shepherd the family business through a problematic bit of industrial relations. The middle-class emerge as weak and corrupt, whereas Francen’s character is portrayed as strong, masculine, effective — and an amoral fascist. But he’s true to his own ideas and we’re meant to find him fascinating and alluring. Politically, it’s quite worrying, but L’Herbier’s filmmaking is assured and elegant.

LE BONHEUR is more twisted still, but fascinatingly so. Charles Boyer plays some kind of ill-defined nihilist, an “anti-social,” who shoots a beloved singing star (Gaby Morlay) as a purely gestural act of defiance to society. When Morlay survives, she becomes enamoured of her would-be assassin and waits for him upon his release from prison. Their subsequent love affair understandably shocks everybody, but the film is on their side.

“Charles Boyer didn’t get to play anarchistic assassins when he was in Hollywood,” remarked David Wingrove, my benshi translator for the occasion.

The film also sports, like L’AVENTURIER, a walk-on for a young Jean Marais, a very sweet performance by Paulette Dubost, and uniquely, a camp turn by Michel Simon as Morlay’s swishy agent. It’s a rather affectionate caricature, it seems to me, Pangbornian in the best sense, and quite a surprising thing for the burly Simon to attempt, let alone pull off. It’s also interesting since Marcel L’Herbier was France’s most openly gay director. More people knew about him than about Cocteau, it seems. Whether his wife was in on the secret, I don’t know.

LE BONHEUR might be my favourite L’Herbier yet, which is interesting since conventional wisdom regards him as a spent force by the dawn of talkies. It’s a meditation on the power of cinema, brought home when the lovers part but he tells her that he’ll see her on the screen. It’s also a fascinating melodrama because, despite much discussion and self-analysis by the characters, essentially all the major events take place for no explicable reason —

Boyer’s shooting of Morlay —

His subsequent love for her —

Her love for him —

His leaving her —

All happen as if plot requirements were puppeteering the characters. And yet the characters never cease to feel real, rational to a degree, and human. It’s quite a strange take on the melodramatic form, and I can’t wait to see if it’s carried on in L’Herbier’s subsequent films.

Paulette Dubost, who cheated us out of an interview by dying a year too soon. She’s wonderful in this, as a wide-eyed working girl. Testifying at Boyer’s trial, she hangs her handbag on the witness stand. Touching and funny.

*L’Herbier wrote to Natan after shooting L’AVENTURIER, fulsomely praising working conditions at the studio. Then he was injured on set making LE BONHEUR, and sued the company for negligence (he seems to have been a pioneer in industrial accident litigation, in fact). By the time of Natan’s arrest for fraud, L’Herbier was writing to the press demanding that foreign filmmakers in France, “these people with names ending in ‘isky’,” should be prevented by law from changing their names to sound French. All very unfortunate.


19 Responses to “Marcel Wave”

  1. L’Herbier is one of my ongoing “Subjects for Further Research”, ever since I saw “La Nuit fantastique” which is truly “étonnant”.

    Charles Boyer has always been a favorite actor of mine and incredibly underrated, hopefully discovering 30s French cinema(its peak) would bring to light how diverse he really is. And Michel Simon is always fun to watch.

  2. Boyer’s early thirties work, especially Liliom and this, allow him to stretch in a way that Hollywood arguably couldn’t. Not that it matters too much — Boyer in relaxed mode in some piece of fluff is still a supreme pleasure to watch.

  3. The climactic musical number (where the title song is sung) in “Le Boheur” is one of the most weirdly romantic in all of cinema. But then so is the rest of the film.

  4. Accordig to the Wiki: “An early romance with the future dancer Marcelle Rahna ended in sensational publicity when she fired a revolver at him and then at herself. Both survived, but L’Herbier lost the use of a finger.”

  5. I suspect that sensational publicity may have been concocted to cover up even more sensational and unwanted publicity. In other words — how did L’Herbier REALLY lose the use of a finger? Answers on a postcard.

    There are three renditions of the title song, each with modified lyrics affirming or denying that happiness is but a dream. As you say, the final one, sung from the cinema screen while Boyer watches from the audience, is the topper.

  6. Have only seen L’Herbier’s EL DORADO from 1921, nothing else from him. Very handsome film, visually lush, and technically innovative for its time. Having seen Lang’s LILIOM a number of times I concur, Boyer’s early work is a revelation, his later work here in the States appears to pale in comparison, for the most part if not all.

  7. Oh, he’s still a supercool customer in Tales of Manhattan, History is Made at Night, Gaslight and especially Cluny Brown. And Hollywood afforded him the chance to be funny, which France rarely did.

    COnfession: I can’t get into Algiers, it’s too much a shot-for-shot remake of Pepe le Moko. But notable for that quality (Boyer even stumbles in front of the same rear-projected backgrounds) as a precursor to the Van Sant Psycho, if you like that sort of thing.

  8. Don’t forget Boyer’s favorite Love Affair and also The Cobweb and definitely Stavisky…

  9. I had the supreme bad luck of seeing Algiers first.

  10. I’m sure a lot of people have had that problem.

    CB is adorable in Stavisky.

  11. La Faustin Says:

    I love the story of CB’s annoying Billy Wilder during the filming of HOLD BACK THE DAWN by insisting, with Gallic logic, that it didn’t make SENSE for him to address dialogue to a cockroach. Wilder (and Brackett) retaliated by writing superior dialogue for … co-star Olivia de Havilland, of course, but I always wished it had been for the cockroach.

  12. Yeah, they supposedly wrote him out of his own ending. “The son of a bitch doesn’t want to talk to a cockroach, he doesn’t talk to ANYBODY!” The film is still excellent.

  13. France may not have allowed Boyer to be funny, but Lang surely did. CB is just that as Liliom, and this may be (hell, this IS) the most humor to be found in any Lang film. Correct me if I’m mistaken, but I don’t think I am.

  14. I was forgetting all that Molnar whimsy in there.

    Slim Summerville’s sadsack schtick in Western UnIon is enough to make me glad Lang didn’t pursue humour more regularly, but in Liliom he has a weird enough take on it so it doesn’t have to be too funny. But Boyer’s hard-ass attitude to the fiery furnace did crack me up.

  15. Liliom is plenty amusing, but there’s some great (macabre, of course) Langian humor to be found in films like Scarlet Street (“Patch-Eye Higgins”!) and House By the River (the courtroom stuff)

  16. Louis Hayward’s entire perf in House is pitched on the border between intense and ludicrous. I recall some fairly broad goofing in While the City Sleeps, also. Impossible not to with that cast.

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