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.
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.