The unforgettable Marcel Pagnol
In his memories, Albert Cohen remembers a student who liked to be noticed and suspected him of tearing his school blouse himself to look picturesque and mime dribbling with an imaginary ball when entering the classroom. It was in this school that he shot one of his first films, Merlusse, the name given to the Thiers high school in the film, described as the worst school in Marseille and smelling of cod.
At the age of 18, he convinces his high school friends to start a literary magazine called Fortunio to satisfy his passion for poetry and theater, but once he obtains his baccalaureate, he is obliged to study to become a teacher like his father.
This magazine allows him to begin to make known his talents as a writer but very quickly, Fortunio, whose name is too easily associated with the spirit of young people, is renamed the Cahiers de Sud which will last for fifty years. When he was 19, he started to have a secret affair with a pianist, Simone Collin, 18, as his father did not accept this relationship and monitored Marcel Pagnol’s correspondence.
When he discovered the relationship between the two young people, Marcel Pagnol’s father imagined the worst, i.e. a shattered career, arrest by gendarmes and presentation before a court of law for statutory rape. On February 21st, 1916, Marcel Pagnol turned 21, came of age and married Simone Collin without his father’s consent. Marcel Pagnol, who was also a talented inventor, was considering this direction if he had not managed to become an author.
He filed dozens of patents such as the one for a car brake, which Raymond Castans, the writer’s biographer, remembers and describes as a brake consisting of a huge foot that appeared under the car when pressing a button on the dashboard and made the vehicle lift up in the air, so that the wheels kept on turning in the void but the car was stopped. On a cinematographic level, Marcel Pagnol had a great admiration for the actor Raimu, who would star in many of the films he directed, and would play César, Marius’ father, in the Marius, Fanny, César trilogy.
Although he was an acknowledged author, Marcel Pagnol was often subjected to bad reviews, especially when he started working in talking movies. In particular, he recalls an article published in the newspaper d’Artagnan, the beginning of which he knows by heart and which starts with “of shabby meat and low appearance, this scoundrel has never interested anyone but advertising brokers. He looks like an anemic anteater that red ants have sucked to the bone”.
In 1930, Marcel Pagnol attended his first talking film in London, perceived the potential of this new technique and already imagined the film adaptation of the play Marius. Back in France, Marius was adapted by Paramount Studios, which then adapted the play Topaze, but refused to adapt Marius’ sequel, Fanny, as a sequel was deemed not profitable enough. Marcel Pagnol then decided to create his own production structure, which he named Films Marcel Pagnol, to shoot Fanny, but he was not yet in charge of directing the film.
Marcel Pagnol also sometimes encountered difficulties as a director, as during the film César, because Raimu had become a big star and multiplied his whims during the shooting. Raymond Castans recounts that Raimu boasted that the writer could not shoot the film without him, and he wanted to take advantage of his fame to claim a very generous salary.
Another actor, Fernandel, had trouble following Marcel Pagnol’s methods and experienced confusing and painful situations during some shoots, especially the way the cast operated, the endless meals with the film crew or the improvisation in the long working days without any specific schedule.
Fernandel specifies for example that he occasionally only spent days eating, chatting and playing boules with the members of the film crew. During World War II, the Germans controlled French cinema and forced Marcel Pagnol, among others, to give up the film La prière aux étoiles (Prayer to the Stars), but the writer refused and preferred to destroy his film with an axe rather than see it distributed by the occupying forces. He had the destruction of the film certified before a bailiff and hoped to finish it once the war was over. It was a trilogy of which only the first part had been completed, but Marcel Pagnol never followed up.
His friendship with Albert Cohen will last until his death, and Albert Cohen will say to the widow of Marcel Cohen,
“You know that I often, very often, think of him, my childhood friend, as a lost brother, a brother that I did not see enough when it was time, and for that, I will never console myself…”
Since 1933, the entire ecosystem of production, direction and distribution of a film is under the responsibility of the writer, apart from the studios. In order to free himself from Parisian studios, he created studios in Marseille in two stages. In 1935, Marcel Pagnol added a set to the laboratories he had created in the 8th district of Marseille where the interiors of César, in particular, were shot.
In 1937, he bought huge sheds, still in the 8ᵉ arrondissement, and notably set up two film sets, a set construction workshop, dressing rooms, a make-up room, a props store, a room for extras, a canteen, administrative premises and all the technical equipment required for filming.
The studios were rented for other productions when Marcel Pagnol was not shooting his films. The Second World War stopped this dynamic, and the ambition to create a kind of Hollywood in the South of France never materialized. As shooting in studios went out of fashion, Marcel Pagnol’s studios were then less and less used, until they were destroyed by fire in 1962.
Marcel Pagnol directed one of the most beautiful French films, “The Baker’s Wife”. The film, The Baker’s Wife, was shown in New York for three years and above all won the Oscar for the best foreign film in 1941.