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Carnival in Flanders

In the '30s, films like the 1936 comedy Carnival in Flanders established the image for U.S. audiences of French films as sophisticated, witty and more than a little naughty. The best known and most popular film from Flemish director Jacques Feyder, Carnival in Flanders, more than fit the stereotype with its tale of a group of 17th-century Dutch middle-class wives who entertain Spanish conquerors so effectively that far from razing the town, as their husband's had feared, the invaders not only leave it standing but also give them a year off without taxes. How far the "entertainment" went is only hinted at, but the women allow their men to think their own tactics carried the day even though the men ran away and the mayor played dead.

At the time, Feyder was best known for more serious work. Many historians have hailed his silent version of Emile Zola's working-class tragedy Therese Raquin (1928) as his best work. His silent films brought him to MGM, where he directed Greta Garbo's last silent film, The Kiss (1929); the German-language version of her first talking film, Anna Christie (1931), and one of Ramon Novarro's best talking films, Daybreak (1931). The biggest benefit of his Hollywood years, however, was the chance to learn how to work with the new technology for talking pictures. He brought that knowledge back to France, where he could work with some of his most important collaborators, the Flemish writer Charles Spaak, the Russian designer Lazare Meerson, American cinematographer Harry Stradling and Feyder's wife, actress Francoise Rosay.

After an impressive series of dramatic films, Feyder decided he needed to relax with lighter fare. Ten years earlier, Spaak had written the short story "Kermesse Heroique" ("Heroic Carnival"). At the time, Feyder had tried to secure backing for a production, but director and writer were not yet established as hit-makers, which made investment in a costly period comedy questionable. By the mid-'30s, however, they had two major hits under their belts, the Foreign Legion drama Le Grand Jeu (1934) and the psychological drama Pension Mimosas (1935). The German production company Tobis, which had made a lot of money from the latter film, was only too happy to back them. They also had another version, Die Klugen Frauen ("The Clever Wives"), shot simultaneously for German-language markets.

Long an admirer of the Flemish Renaissance painters, Feyder had Meerson design sets based on their work and worked with Stradling to copy their compositions; he also named a painter in the film Breughel. Working with a crew that included the legendary Austrian art director Alexandre Trauner, Meerson built an entire 17th century village in the suburbs of Paris.

For leading lady, Feyder stuck close to home, giving Rosay a delightful comic showcase as the mayor's wife. For the sinister Spanish priest, he cast stage veteran Louis Jouvet, whose Parisian theatre worked closely with acclaimed playwrights Jean Giraudoux and Jean Anouilh. Carnival in Flanders was only his third film, after bringing his stage hits Topaze (1933) and Dr. Knock, ou le triomphe de la medecine (1933) to the screen.

The result was a huge hit internationally, with special success in the U.S. It opened the Filmarte Theater, one of New York City's major outlets for foreign films, and received glowing reviews. Originally, the New York State Board of Censors had banned it, but when it won the Grand Prix du Cinema Francais, they reconsidered. Carnival in Flanders would go on to capture the New York Film Critics' first award for Best Foreign Language Film and the National Board of Reviews' Best Foreign Film award. It also brought Feyder the Best Director Award from the Venice Film Festival.

There were also rumblings in Feyder's native Belgium, where the suggestion that good Flemish women had collaborated and possibly had sex with the enemy was considered offensive. Despite a public outcry, the Chamber of Deputies declined to ban the film, though it was banned in the city of Bruges. Aggravating matters was the fact that this tale of collaboration had been produced by a German film studio. In fact, the Third Reich's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, had attended the Berlin premiere. Surprisingly, when World War II began in 1939, the film was banned in Germany. During the Occupation of Paris, Feyder and Rosay were forced to flee to Switzerland.

Later generations have continued to find Carnival in Flanders a delight. In 1953, Bing Crosby backed the Broadway run of a musical version with a script by comic filmmaker Preston Sturges and songs by Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. Most critics hated the show, though they praised the sets and costumes, which, as in the film, had been inspired by the work of Breughel. They also liked Dolores Gray's performance as the mayor's wife, as did her peers, who voted her a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical. Thanks to the show's six-performance run, she holds a place in the record books for the shortest run of any actress ever to win the stage award. One song from the score, "Here Comes That Rainy Day," became a standard, still popular among jazz singers, with notable recordings by Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee and Astrud Gilberto.

A year later, Carnival in Flanders suffered a worse blow when it was singled out by future director, then a young film critic, Francois Truffaut in Une Certaine Tendance du Cinema Francais, his controversial condemnation of the classical approach to French filmmaking. For him, the film was emblematic of a cinematic tradition that eschewed artistic boldness by making everything "pleasant and perfect." Yet, that pleasantness and perfection is exactly what has kept the film a popular offering in revival houses for over 70 years, making it the best loved of Feyder's films.

Director: Jacques Feyder
Screenplay: Bernard Zimmer; Charles Spaak (story); Jacques Feyder, Robert A. Stemmle (both uncredited)
Cinematography: Harry Stradling
Art Direction:
Music: Louis Beydts
Cast: Francoise Rosay (Cornelia de Witte, Madame la Bourgmestre/Madame Burgomaster), Alerme (Korbus de Witte, le bourgmestre/The Burgomaster), Jean Murat (Le duc d'Olivares/The Duke), Louis Jouvet (Le chapelain/The Priest), Lynne Clevers (La poissonniere/The Fish-Wife), Micheline Cheirel (Siska), Maryse Wendling (La boulangere/The Baker's Wife), Ginette Gaubert (L'aubergiste/The Inn-Keeper's Wife), Marguerite Ducouret (La femme du brasseur/The Brewer's Wife), Bernard Lancret (Julien Breughel), Alfred Adam (Josef Van Meulen, le boucher), Pierre Labry (L'aubergiste/The Inn-Keeper), Arthur Devere (Le poissonnier/The Fishmonger), Marcel Carpentier (Le boulanger/The Baker), Alexandre Darcy (Le capitaine/The Captain), Claude Saint Val (Le lieutenant/The Lieutenant), Delphin (Le nain/The Dwarf).

by Frank Miller



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