Through a bizarre misunderstanding with a policeman who has asked Crainquebille (Maurice de Féraudy) to move his cart and misunderstands the old man's reply as "Kill the cops," Crainquebille is unjustly hauled away to jail. What ensues is a dramatic examination of a corrupt, bureaucratic legal system. Crainquebille's lawyer seems more distracted by the racing pages of the newspaper than attending to his case. Crainquebille eventually winds up in prison for two weeks.
With radical visual style, director Jacques Feyder emphasizes the powerlessness of Crainquebille, dwarfed and neutered by the looming, oppressive court system which is dismissive of this humble man. But it is upon release from prison that Crainquebille experiences his most extreme misery when he finds his business destroyed and his customers dismissive of a man they now view as a criminal though he was once a familiar face for decades. Crainquebille begins to quench his sorrows with liquor. The comfort, heat and good food at the prison now seems like a blessing, and Crainquebille attempts to get himself arrested again, with no luck. While gazing at the Seine and contemplating suicide, Crainquebille reunites with a young boy introduced in the film's opening, an orphan nicknamed "Mouse" (Jean Forest) even worse off than he. "Shake out of it, Papa. You have to live," Mouse tells him in an ending that privileges tenderness between ordinary people over the cruel machinations of institutions.
Feyder is unflinching in his portrait of the chaos and grime of Paris for its lowliest workers, like the prostitutes swept up in police raids and also the bustling energy of the Central Market where orphans mix with middle-class schoolboys. The film was adapted from a 1902 novel by Anatole France, winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize for Literature and openly aligned with the Communist Party. The Roman Catholic Church categorized his books as forbidden.
Born in Belgium, Feyder came to France in 1911 as a stage and film actor though his father forbid him to use the family name on stage. The product of a bourgeois family, Feyder was expected to become a soldier but failed the entrance exams at officers' school. His career as a director began when he assisted director Gaston Ravel. But with the escalation of World War I many were called to serve and so Feyder was able to direct.
Feyder was eventually inducted into the Belgian army and was unable to return to directing until 1919. But in 1920 Feyder achieved his first success when he directed L'Atlantide the most expensive French film until that time and notable for using real locations in the Sahara desert. The film was a great critical success, although many have said that Crainquebille was Feyder's first artistic success.
After his satire The New Gentlemen (1929) was banned for its political stance, he traveled to Hollywood where he directed Garbo in The Kiss (1929) and Anna Christie (1931). He also directed Marlene Dietrich in Knight without Armour (1937). Eventually Feyder returned to France but when the Nazis invaded, Feyder fled again, this time for Switzerland.
D.W. Griffith praised Crainquebille calling it "a fine work, beautiful, compelling, bold!" and The New York Times named it one of the best films of the year. Comedie Française member Maurice de Féraudy was widely noted and admired for his remarkable performance as the vegetable merchant who sees his simple life overturned and his hopefulness eroded.
The young boy who changes Crainquebille's course, Jean Forest made his screen debut in the film and appeared in Feyder's follow-up films Visage d'Enfants (1925), about the effects of his mother's death on a boy and Gribiche (1926). He was reputedly discovered on the streets of Montmartre by Feyder.
Director: Jacques Feyder Producer: Legrand Films Screenplay: Jacques Feyder based on a novel by Anatole France, L'affaire Crainquebille Cinematography: Léonce-Henri Burel, Maurice Forster Production Design: Manuel Orazy Music: Antonio Coppola Cast: Maurice de Féraudy (Crainquebille), Félix Oudart (Agent 64), Jean Forest (La Souris), Marguerite Carre (Mme Laure), René Worms (Me Lemerle), Jeanne Cheirel (Mme Bayard).
by Felicia Feaster