Discussion:
The Marseilles Trilogy (1931-1936)
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Bill Anderson
2020-04-07 19:49:31 UTC
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It’s been maybe 20 years since I first became aware of the works of the
great French novelist Marcel Pagnol. Actually, to call him just a
novelist is to sell him short, as even in his early years he was a true
wunderkind, writing hugely popular plays in the 1920s and, being among
the first in France to take advantage of the new medium of talking
pictures in the 1930s. Basically he was the French predecessor of Orson
Welles.

Several of Pagnol’s works have been made into films, including JEAN DE
FLORETTE (1986) and MANON OF THE SPRING (1986), both terrific movies. I
encountered Pagnol because somebody recommended the film MY MOTHER’S
CASTLE (1990), which, along with its predecessor MY FATHER’S GLORY
(1990) will always remain high on my ever-changing list of favorite
films. They’re both based on his autobiographical works and depict young
Marcel’s coming of age in pre-WWI France. It’s such a treat to follow
along on the arduous treks his family would make each summer weekend
from their home in the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles to their
idyllic little retreat in the hills of Provence. They are wonderful
films and I won’t spoil them beyond saying MY MOTHER’S CASTLE includes a
coda that depicts a now-grown Marcel who’s become a successful
filmmaker. After seeing the movie I’d always wondered what his earliest
films might have been like, and now I’m pleased to report I have at last
binge-watched all three: MARIUS (1931), FANNY (1932) and CÉSAR (1936),
collectively known as “The Marseilles Trilogy.”

I have a little trouble accepting that these films could be successful
standing alone, as Pagnol’s powerful and universal themes of family,
duty, love, betrayal, redemption and others surely need the tapestry of
all three films to play out in full. And yet MARIUS, with its clearly
unfinished story, opened on stage in Paris in 1929 to huge success and
it was followed by the equally successful sequel, FANNY. (I think the
concluding story of CÉSAR was never staged – as best I can tell it was
developed solely for the cinema.)

The true charm of the trilogy is found not in the plot, which is simple
enough: In MARIUS, the young title character, stuck in a dead-end job in
his father’s dockside bar, is torn between his longing for a life at sea
and his love for the beautiful Fanny. At the end of the movie he’s
sailing away and Fanny is bereft.

Turns out that’s not the only thing she is, because in FANNY the lovely
title character discovers Marius has left a little something behind.
Desperate to save her honor she marries the sailmaker Panisse who is
aware of her condition but doesn’t care because he desperately wants the
son his deceased wife could never give him. So what if he’s 30 years
older than Fanny? A year later Marius returns, discovers he’s a papa,
demands Fanny leave Panisse, she almost succumbs to his pleas, but stays
with Panisse out of duty, and in an echo of the first movie, Marius
leaves again.

So 20 years pass and in CÉSAR little baby is about to graduate from
military school when his “father” finds himself on his deathbed. The
local priest drops by and in an amusing scene takes Panisse’s final
confession. He also makes Panisse persuade Fanny to tell the boy who his
real father is – after Panisse dies, of course. So in a powerful scene
she spills the whole story to her devastated son. Naturally, after
thinking things over, the boy tracks down Marius and if you want to know
how all that plays out you’ll just have to watch the movies yourself,
which really isn’t a bad idea.

Still, you don’t watch these movies for the almost outrageously
melodramatic story. (Listen, if the thought of an intelligent soap opera
turns you off, don’t even think about getting started with these
movies.) You watch the Marseilles Trilogy for the interplay between all
the characters, major and minor, whose dialogue by Marcel Pagnol is
written so perfectly the movies still seem fresh in many ways after
almost 90 years. You watch for the little things that make up the daily
life of the people of Marseilles, the games of boules which can stop a
trolley in its tracks, the games of cards in which cheating is part of
the fun, the vigorous and often humorous arguments (screaming matches)
that never break the bonds of friendship, the underplayed affection
between father and son, the enjoyment of life evident in every single
character.

And you watch for something else that’s important: views of a Marseilles
you can’t see anymore because the Nazis destroyed it. The narrow
streets are gone – it’s all different now. Talking pictures were still
in their infancy when MARIUS was produced in 1931, and while the film
does include some scenes filmed outdoors on the docks, it takes place
more on the stage sets which reflect its origin. A year later though,
with the production of FANNY, and especially five years later with the
production of CÉSAR, the cameras and the microphones moved outdoors and
if the cinematography seems crude by today’s standards, it is also
undeniably full of life – so genuinely delightful you may be prompted as
I was to back up and watch that Marseilles street scene again just to
take it all in without missing anything.

The acting in all three movies is uniformly outstanding, but one actor
is maybe more outstanding than the others: Jules Auguste Cesar Muraire
(1883–1946), better known simply as Raimu. He plays the part of the
father of Marius, a gruff, uneducated character with a loving heart.
Raimu owns every scene he is in, and plays the part so well I think
Pagnol and all the others who worked with him should have been overjoyed
to put up with his difficult personality for the good of the
productions. If he was the true PITA everybody says, it doesn’t matter:
his contribution to these movies is incalculable. The Marseilles Trilogy
would not be the masterpiece it is without Raimu.

I put off watching my DVDs of these movies for a long time because I
knew I’d want to do it all at once and as they aren’t exactly short
films, they represent a considerable investment of time. But hey, what
else have I got to do these days but catch up on movies I’ve been
intending to watch? I just hope the next movie on my “gotta watch that
someday” list gives me as much enjoyment as these did.
--
Bill Anderson

I am the Mighty Favog
Manfred Polak
2020-04-07 20:38:36 UTC
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Post by Bill Anderson
The acting in all three movies is uniformly outstanding, but one actor
is maybe more outstanding than the others: Jules Auguste Cesar Muraire
(1883–1946), better known simply as Raimu.
He is also great in Pagnol's "La femme de boulanger" (The Baker's Wife).
Look out for it if you haven't seen it yet.


Manfred
Bill Anderson
2020-04-08 15:37:01 UTC
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Thanks for the recommendation. I have looked for it, but the only thing I’ve been able to turn up is a VHS transfer available on Amazon. I think I will pass on that based on some comments about the VHS transfer of FANNY that good old Calvin Rice made a few years back. He reported that the VHS subtitles for FANNY were illegible because they were so often white on white. If anybody knows where I can find a good transfer of The Baker’s Wife, please let me know.

In the coda to MY MOTHERS CASTLE there’s a brief glimpse of an early Marcel Pagnol movie, and it appears to show Raimu but not in any of the Marseille Trilogy movies. I wonder if it is The Baker’s Wife? Maybe Topaze.


Bill Anderson

I am the Mighty Favog

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