Marius has left, signed up for a five year hitch on a ship bound for the Indian Ocean. In his few letters to his father César, he hardly mentions Fanny. When she finds she is pregnant, she considers her options: suicide, to raise the child on her own, to wait for Marius, or to marry Honoré Panisse, the older merchant who seeks her hand. These choices are emotional: to raise a bastard, to trust in Marius' eventual return, to believe he'll want to marry her, to save her mother from shame, to fool Panisse, to give her child a name. In scenes dramatizing Fanny's honesty, she talks to her mother, then Panisse, César, and later Marius, and she makes her choices.
Marius and Fanny originated as plays. Cesar was written directly for the screen. All three are populated by the same little community in Marseille's old port. Each takes its name from the character making each installment's pivotal decision. Marius (Pierre Fresnay) is a restless Marseillais who puts the stability of the intertwined families and characters at risk by deciding to go to sea (it's impossible to not see in him the young Pagnol, straining to break out of Marseille). In the trilogy's second panel, it's Orane Demazis's shellfish vendor, Fanny, who makes the decision not to tell Marius he impregnated her because she doesn't want him to stick around feeling shackled and resentful. Again, acting on her own, she opts to avoid disgrace and give the baby a name by accepting a long-standing offer of marriage to a much older well-to-do widower sailmaker, Fernand Charpin's Panisse. Knowing the facts (Fanny, a woman of integrity, makes sure he does), Panisse large-heartedly embraces mother and child. Having always wanted his own offspring, he touchingly adds "& FILS" to the sign above his door. During a brief stop home, Marius visits Fanny. But as their passion briefly reignites, Marius's father, Cesar, intervenes, and the point is made that the baby's real father is the one who loves the child, not the one who sired it.
Soap opera, perhaps, but not in the hands of Pagnol, Allegret and the leads who originated the roles on stage, especially the great character actor, Raimu, whose performance as the blustery but soft-hearted Cesar was the big reason, Pagnol was to write, that Parisian audiences fell in love with both plays. In the concluding segment, which takes place years later, Cesar's decision to pass the waterfront bar he had hoped to leave Marius to his now-grown grandson brings the trilogy full circle. Raimu's Cesar puts up a gruff front, dispensing stentorian banter from behind the bar to the play's Greek chorus of regulars, including Panisse. Cesar won't acknowledge his emotions to them. But he opens up to Fanny about his suffering at the long wait between letters from his son, and doesn't bother to hide from her his pathetic eagerness for the tiniest scrap of news of him. So vividly does he loom over the others, so deep was his imprint on the French national consciousness, that France named its equivalent of the Oscar® after Cesar.
Fanny is brimful of the qualities that distinguish Pagnol's best work and make it enduringly beloved. It's a simple story of simple people driven by primal emotions, upfront about them, but expressing them with great delicacy as the film's little family unit about to be configured one way is broken up and reconfigured along new, more complicated lines. Totally absent is the usual contempt of opera bouffe and farce for the old fogey with his eye on a young wife. Charpin plays Panisse's benevolence with becoming modesty and is rewarded by having it acknowledged with a warm salute. Far from being cuckolded, the usual fate awaiting older husbands of much younger wives, he's treated with respect and even affection.
In fact, the trilogy's appeal is bookended by the two old men Cesar and the soft, balding, unprepossessing Panisse. He's treated much better now than when they all were boys growing up together. He recalls what a bully the bigger Cesar could be. Humor is never long absent. In Marius, Fanny finally sleeps with Marius, but not before a long tirade about him going off to sea. Yet Fanny, like the entire trilogy, is about reconciliation, not destruction. The characters keenly want things, but aren't out to break society's rules, or even break with convention. Although Pagnol caused a bit of eyebrow-raising with his elastic views on sex and parentage, audiences, like the neighborhood the characters live in, were practical and worldly, with their values and sensibilities genuflected to. Pagnol turns decency into a simpatico thing, never prissy, sanctimonious, cloying, or an abject surrender to morality. Everyone improvises as best they can to arrive at an outcome all can live with. They behave well under the circumstances, often with impressive politeness.
Although Pagnol (1895-1974) jumped into heated debates about the esthetics of film versus stage, he wisely left the shooting of Fanny to Allegret. Never straining to conceal its stage origins, Fanny nevertheless opens up in a quite unforced manner, with moments of unexpected visual modernity. If most of it consists of people in rooms talking, Allegret's smart cutting between them and his maximum use of outdoor sequences make the film quite fluid and cinematic. In the opening moments, when Marius leaves, the camera catches the power and allure of the romance of sea and sail with a shot up the mast of a big, powerful schooner. When Fanny walks anxiously through the streets of Marseille to the gynecologist to confirm what her body already has told her, she moves with quick precision through the crowded streets of a big, bustling and (for 1932) modern city, photographed from a story or two above. When Panisse, astute enough to foresee the decline of sail, takes an overnight trip to Paris, it's to secure a new car dealership! And yet the quaint byways and slower tempos of its outlying hills are preserved in a scene when an overloaded tram stops so a cluster of locals can wrap up a game of boules. The unarticulated but quite palpable sense of community is even reflected by the people-packed poster for the film.
Not only do lovers, parents, grandparents and cronies want to do the right thing. They want to do it for the right reasons. Panisse doesn't want a baby as a possession, or to keep his family name alive. He really loves it -- and Fanny. Fresnay's Marius is impetuous. Demazis's Fanny is a figure of febrile integrity. Charpin's pudgy little Panisse is a giant of generosity. And there's a rightness about Raimu's Cesar, forced to eat his gruff words, to grow up a bit himself by accepting the role of moral arbiter, bringing them full circle. There's much to savor in Fanny heart, language, and, after all these years, emotional immediacy. Pagnol likes his characters, loves his birthplace, and feeds us platter after platter of felt knowledge no less life-sustaining than the Southern sun.
Producers: Marcel Pagnol, Roger Richebe
Director: Marc Allegret
Screenplay: Marcel Pagnol (screenplay and play)
Cinematography: Georges Benoit, Coutelier, Andre Dantan, Roger Hubert , Nikolai Toporkoff
Art Direction: Dominique Drouin, Roland Tual
Music: Vincent Scotto
Film Editing: Raymond Lamy, Jean Mamy
Cast: Raimu (Cesar), Pierre Fresnay (Marius), Orane Demazis (Fanny), Fernand Charpin (Honore Panisse), Mouries (Felix Escartefigue), Robert Vattier (Albert Brun), Marcel Maupi (Innocent Mangiapan chauffeur du ferry-boat), Alida Rouffe (Honorine Cabanis).
by Jay Carr
The Fanny Trilogy on DVD
The multitalented Pagnol (1895-1974) began his a career as a playwright and turned to film directing only in 1934; a member of the Academie Francaise, he was also noted for his novels and memoirs. His best work tends to be set in the south of France, particularly around Marseilles where he was born and grew up. Marius premiered as a play in 1929 and Fanny in 1931; Caesar, in contrast, originated as the film. Together with Pagnol's satire Topaze, which opened less than a year earlier, Marius was one of the greatest box-office successes of the French stage. In particular, the card game scene in Marius has become an indelible part of French popular culture. Part of the immense appeal of the original plays comes from Pagnol's engaging and authentic use of the Marseilles dialect and southern character types, which was a novelty on the Parisian stage of that era.
At the same time, The Fanny Trilogy transcends local color to present full-blooded characters and dramatic situations that arise organically from the characters' basic traits and values, giving the stories universal appeal. It is deeply touching to see, for example, how Panisse pretends not to know that Fanny's child is not his, both in order to preserve his dignity and to keep questions from arising about the child's legitimacy. Here there are no outright villains, and we come to appreciate all the major characters' motives for their actions even if we don't necessarily approve of them. Moreover, even the seemingly throwaway moments in the scripts serve to build up a real sense of rapport both among the characters and with the audience. Pagnol's humanist vision, very much on display in these films, has rightly earned the admiration of directors such as Jean Renoir, Orson Welles and the Italian Neorealists.
In Marius (dir. Alexander Korda, 1931), the first installment of the trilogy, Pagnol introduces us to a close-knit group of characters in the Old Port of Marseilles: Cesar, the strong-headed bar owner; Marius, his restless son; Fanny, the fish-peddler with whom Marius falls in love; Honorine, Fanny's mother; Panisse, the pompous but kind-hearted owner of a sail shop; Escartefigue, the genial ferryboat captain and cuckold; and Mr. Brun, the Lyonnais. The basic conflict arises when both Panisse and Marius express romantic interest in Fanny. While Fanny is in love with Marius, the future of their relationship remains in doubt because of Marius' lifelong fascination with the sea and his ambition to become a sailor.
In Fanny (dir. Marc Allegret, 1932), Marius is already at sea when Fanny learns that she is pregnant. Although Panisse offers to marry her, she is torn because of her pregnancy out of wedlock. The widower Panisse, who has been longing for a child of his own, nonetheless agrees to marry her on the condition that the child be recognized solely as his. Cesar, on the other hand, wants the child to be recognized as the offspring of Marius. Matters are complicated when, several months later, Marius returns.
In Cesar (dir. Marcel Pagnol, 1936), we meet up again with the characters twenty years later. When Panisse dies, the son Cesariot--now a young man--discovers the truth about his real father, Marius, and decides seek him out. Fanny, in turn, must face up to her long-suppressed feelings for Marius and decide whether to resume their relationship. By the time Pagnol himself directed the last film in the trilogy, he had already made several films and had formulated his basic stylistic approach as a filmmaker. While Cesar is the loosest of the three both in terms of directorial style and dramatic structure, it remains a striking example of Pagnol's keenness for authenticity of setting. Not only was most of the film shot on location, giving us lovely views of Marseilles and its surroundings, but Pagnol's insistence on live sound--even if it means considerable background noise--is remarkably forward-looking. The organic relationship between the use of natural locations and the film's style should put to rest any notion that as a film director Pagnol was overly dependent on theatrical models.
In terms of the video transfer, Marius looks very good for a French film of the era, displaying strong detail and contrast. The print of Fanny has more flaws than Marius, including some out-of-focus shots, but they appear to be inherent to the surviving materials or the original photography. On the whole, the sharpness and contrast still look solid. At the same time, the shot compositions in the first two films sometimes seem a little tight around the edges. It is possible that, as early sound films, they originally had the square-ish aspect ratio of 1.19:1 and thus should look more like the Criterion Collection's edition The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (1933); here they are presented in the standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The print used for Cesar has weaker contrast and looks washed out compared to the first two films, with especially thin black levels, though the image is still workable. Certainly, these transfers look far better than any versions I've seen on home video before.
The films' soundtracks appear to have been cleaned up digitally to remove excess noise; in principle, this is not a bad idea considering the quality of sound reproduction during the early Thirties and in France in particular. However, one of my friends pointed out that some of the sound effects in Marius appear to have been re-recorded, since they are too "clean" and have more presence than the dialogue and music. When I compared the DVD of Fanny to the older Interama version on videocassette, the beginning of the DVD soundtrack had seagull sounds that were not audible at all on the videocassette soundtrack. If sound effects were in fact added or re-recorded, it is not indicated anywhere on the packaging. While I am mostly in favor of applying digital restoration technology to older film soundtracks, there is a danger that remixed or re-recorded soundtracks can give a misleading picture of film history, for the artistic identity of a film is intimately tied with the technology of the era in which it was made. While the aforementioned possible changes are relatively minor and don't detract from the films' overall dramatic impact, if the soundtracks were in fact changed then the persons responsible should have been more forthcoming about it. Incidentally, one should keep in mind that Kino licensed the titles from Compagnie Mediterraneenne des Films in France and that it is they who may have supplied Kino with the transfers ready-made rather than Kino doing the transfers in-house. At any rate, it is unlikely that Kino, a relatively small distribution label, would have engaged in extensive audio restoration on its own because of the cost involved.
The special features include an essay insert by Bertrand Tavernier, theatrical trailers, and galleries of stills, posters and other promotional materials. A fourth disc contains a 75-minute documentary called "About the Trilogy" (actually, several shorter segments stitched together), consisting mainly of observations by various Pagnol experts. While their basic approach is scholarly, their insights are genuinely interesting. For me, the most welcome extra was the subtitled audio essay by Pagnol, spread out over the first three discs. In it he talks about the genesis of the project, his friendship with Raimu and conflicts among the cast and producer. Pagnol is a great storyteller, and it's a pleasure just to hear him speak. The DVD case, which incorporates original poster artwork, is attractively designed. All three installments of Marcel Pagnol's "Fanny Trilogy" are wonderfully written and acted films that hold up to repeat viewings. Despite reservations about the authenticity of the soundtracks, this set is very much recommended. Now let's hope that we get to see DVDs of Pagnol's Angele (1934), Harvest (1937), The Baker's Wife (1938), and the original 1952 version of Manon des Sources. This director's work deserves a much wider audience.
For more information about The Fanny Trilogy, visit Kino International. To order The Fanny Trilogy, go to TCM Shopping.
by James Steffen