Archive for Marcel L’Herbier

The Late Show — Slight Return

Posted in FILM, literature, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 19, 2015 by dcairns

Unusually, I’ve gathered a bunch of writings by friends this week, so my duties are limited to hosting and introducing. This is not due to laziness or disinterest, I assure you: it’s just that I have some talented friends…

First up, Phoebe Green offers a late entry for The Late Movies Blogathon, casting a sympathetic eye over the final movie of Marcelle Chantal ~


Pierre Billon’s Chéri (1950), based on Colette’s novels Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, was the last film of Marcelle Chantal.


Most biographical references claim Marcelle Chantal (1901-1960) was the sheltered child of a banking family; however Christine Leteux—film historian, Natan researcher, and archivist extraordinaire—was kind enough to provide me with a copy of the official record registering Chantal’s birth to an artiste lyrique, father unnamed. She did marry an American banker, whose open-handed indulgence (in 1934 he rented the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and made her general manager) raised her profile and a few hackles. Her first screen appearance was as a teenager in Marcel L’Herbier’s Le carnaval des vérités; her apogee was the 1930s, when she queened it at Les Studios Paramount and Pathé Natan, directed by Cavalcanti, Tourneur, Ozep. She was tall, elegant, strong-featured, a wow in draped satin or riding habit, but a trifle chill and starchy—Kay Francis as cold potato.

Marcelle Chantal had a history, onscreen and off, with Colette. In 1935, Gertrude Stein (as “Baby Woojums”) wrote Carl Van Vechten (“Papa Woojums”) in New York to alert him to Colette’s arrival on the Normandie[1] with her third husband, adding that Marcelle Chantal would be traveling with them and staying, as they would, at the Waldorf. Honi soit qui mal y pense. Chantal played the eponymous heroine in La Vagabonde,[2] was miscast as the rich wife (supposed to be young and orientally luscious) of Julie de Carneilhan’s ex-husband—perhaps star Edwige Feuillère had a hand in that—and, a sumptuous farewell, Léa in Chéri.

The Chéri novels, although gay with Belle Époque décor and mores, are poignantly valedictory. Lovers part forever, time-crossed. These books mark a moment—not the first, but perhaps the most important—when Colette’s art turned and looked backward.

Colette, in her life and her writing, seems Janus-faced between modernity and nostalgia. She leaps forward in order to look back. One thinks of her marriage and the ensuing ghostwriter’s mind-meld that produced the Claudine novels, assuming the viewpoint of her husband/impresario Willy—who himself adopted the lofty yet wistful salaciousness of a roué twice his age.

She loved but feared being trapped in the enchanted garden of her childhood, her mother’s realm—until distance, family deaths, and time reduced it to the safely englobed magic of one of her cherished glass paperweights.

Her Chéri and La Fin de Chéri, although apparently and chronologically sequential, are in fact two different perspectives on the same doomed couples: Léa de Lonval, a Parisian grande horizontale nearing the mellow end of a long and remunerative career, and Fred Peloux, “Chéri,” the son of Charlotte, Léa’s friend and fellow courtesan: a beautiful boy half her age.

In the first novel, Chéri leaves Léa for a marriage of reason (settlements scrupulously negotiated) with Edmée, a girl his own age. Both he and Léa are more shaken than they dreamed possible. Chéri bolts back to Léa, and for a moment it seems they will elope together—then both acknowledge that if he stays with her, he will never grow up. He leaves her house, escaping the maternal/erotic spell, towards manhood and the future.

The second novel, set shortly after the Great War, finds Chéri back from the trenches, disconnected from the times and his marriage, from everything but his memory of Léa. He tries to return to her once again, and, in a masterpiece of a scene, finds only a sturdy, unsexed old woman with his beloved’s eyes and voice. He is briefly soothed by a meeting with the “Old Pal,” a hanger-on of his mother’s generation, who lets him look at her collection of photographs of Léa, listen to her reminiscences of Léa. Realizing this last consolation will inevitably lose its savor, he shoots himself. In this version, he does not break free, but is reabsorbed into the past.

Billon’s scenarist Pierre Laroche (Les Visiteurs du Soir and Lumière d’Été, among others—most pertinently the Colette adaptations Gigi, Minne, and Mitsou, directed by his wife Jacqueline Audry and starring Danièle Delorme) solves the construction problem that hobbled the recent Frears adaptation by presenting the events of Chéri as a flashback within the closing episode of La Fin de Chéri. The film begins with Chéri running into the Old Pal, immediately after the terrible final visit to Léa (only referred to, not shown). The Old Pal brings him back to her place, where a photograph of Charlotte’s circle naturally dissolves back to the moment it was taken …


Billon’s Chéri is solidly satisfying on first viewing, though perhaps weakest at its center. The aging grotesques of Charlotte’s circle are flawless:

Yvonne de Bray as the Old Pal:


Jane Marken as Charlotte:


Maïa Poncet as the Baroness:


and Marcelle Derrien as the deceptively resilient young girl:


But at first viewing, the leads are physically disappointing. One longs for stars with the immediate erotic power of Simone Signoret for Léa (who came to Paris from Normandy as farm-fresh Léonie Vallon) and perhaps Rudolf Valentino as the dark-haired beauty who paralyses shop girls as he passes (“Let’s touch him and see if he’s real!”).

Nevertheless, Jean Desailly assumes Chéri’s nervy, hopeless boyishness, the misery of a sleepy child who will not go to bed without a promised kiss:


And finally, Marcelle Chantal captures both the corseted impeccability Léa wears in public


and the voluptuousness she reveals to Chéri.


Our last glimpse of Léa is as she watches Chéri leave her for Edmée and, he hopes, manhood (the last episode of Chéri).




Although she haunts the film and its protagonist, she is not seen again, even in photographs. Billon avoids the foreseeable irony of raising the camera from the suicide on the divan to the portrait above.

Marcelle Chantal, similarly discreet, retired to Switzerland and died there ten years later.


[1] Also on board, though not one of the party: Bertrand de Jouvenel, Colette’s stepson from her second marriage and, from his sixteenth to twentieth year, her lover.

[2] This film maudit, directed by twenty-four-year-old Solange Bussi with the assistance of Colette’s daughter Colette de Jouvenel, was repudiated by Colette, scathingly reviewed, and ended up playing the provinces (at least once on a double bill with Tom Mix). Marcelle Chantal subsequently took up residence in a townhouse near the Bois de Boulogne with the dashingly Arzneresque director.

The Sunday Intertitle: Our Own Movie Queen

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2013 by dcairns


Something different this week. The title above has been freely adapted from one in Marcel L’Herbier’s L’HOMME DU LARGE (a movie with many gloriously decorated and tinted titles) to accompany a film that never was, nor ever was meant to be.

Bits of Paradise is a collection of posthumously published Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald stories, and the tale Our Own Movie Queen deals with cinema — at the climax, Grace Axelrod, voted “movie queen” by the big store she works in, gets revenge for the way her role in the store’s promotional film has been reduced to almost nothing. Re-editing and re-titling the film with the aid of a disgruntled assistant director, she leaves her hated rival, the store-owner’s daughter, on the cutting-room floor, except for shots where she’s not facing the camera, like the one referred to above. The film’s premiere proves an embarrassment to the Blue Ribbon Store but a personal triumph for Miss Axelrod.

The stories in Bits of Paradise are strictly trunk items, but this one has a certain wan charm. I do think the best of the Pat Hobby tales are greatly superior, though, giving a jaundiced view of the studio system from one who was very much part of it.

One aspect of Our Own Movie Queen might give satisfaction to Baz Luhrmann, however. The forthcoming adaptation of THE GREAT GATSBY drew some scorn when it was noted that a neon sign in the movie’s CGI New York was advertising something called “The Zeigfeld Follies.” Mr Ziegfeld (I before E except after C) would not have appreciated his name being spelled wrong, but Scott and Zelda, or their Penguin editor, make the same blunder. The price of immortality is perpetual distortion, I guess.

Perhaps Luhrmann can take comfort in the fact that at least his spelling mistake, embarrassingly brandished in the movie trailer, doesn’t appear in the opening titles. Guy Ritchie still holds the record there.

Much more distorted is the MGM hagiography THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, but it has William Powell, Frank Morgan, Luise Reiner, and all too briefly, Myrna Loy. A three-hour prestige extravaganza (with overture and intermission), it has enough plot to make it through the first ninety minutes, but then Mr Ziegfeld seems to run out of life story, and we get a succession of musical numbers, none of which top the extraordinary biggie in which one or other of the five cameramen (probably either George Folsey or Karl Freund) wind their way up a vast spiral staircase littered with girls. It’s quite a show-stopper, and in fact the show should have stopped there, halfway through.

Oh the Inhumanity

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , on March 14, 2013 by dcairns


Concluding our brief series of pieces on great production designers of the twenties, we turn our attention, over at The Forgotten, to Marcel L’Herbier’s delirious L’INHUMAINE, aka THE INHUMAN WOMAN, aka FUTURISMO.

These guys look all set to play jazz for Dr Phibes, don’t they?

It begins with cocktails and ends with electrogalvanism: a typical night out, these days.


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