Sunday 9 August 2009

Marius (1931)

Director: Alexander Korda
Stars: Raimu, Pierre Fresnay and Orane Demazis

Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Korda made it as a refugee to England in the thirties, where he established himself as a pillar of the British film industry in 1933 with his production company London Films, became a naturalised British subject in 1936 and in 1942 became the first film professional to be knighted by the crown. In England he directed such classics as The Private Life of Henry VIII and Rembrandt, both powerful vehicles for Charles Laughton. He was hardly new to the industry though. He'd made films in Hungary as far back as 1914, skipped over to Germany, Austria and the States for a set of silents throughout the late twenties and finding his way to France for a few there too in the early thirties. He certainly got around.

We're in Marseille where the town is coming alive, both literally and figuratively. The whole town seems to be populated with real characters, making our story a joy to watch, and at heart it's a romance. The lovebirds are Marius Olivier and Fanny Cabanis but neither of them will admit it to the other, because it's a rare occasion when anyone in this film says what they think. It's all gesturing and posturing and lies and exaggeration, so much so that when the characters are honest and forthright it's so out of place that it appears like the actors can't act. It's like watching a bunch of bantam cocks strutting around pecking at each other and that includes the women too.

Marius works at the Bar de la Marine, which is run by his father, César Olivier, and Fanny sells shellfish on the street outside. They've known each other for years, so long that it's embarrassing to admit to each other what they really feel. Soon they'll have to come clean though because outside forces are in play that threaten to tear them apart. Marius dreams of shipping out to see the world and may finally have got his chance. Fanny is being courted by recent local widower and dirty old man Honoré Panisse, fifty to her twenty.

And around them the townsfolk weave their webs in their joyously characterful way. There's a local nutjob called Piquoiseau who apparently sleeps in the street and carries a bullhorn everywhere with him. There's a prim and proper man from Lyons (everyone refers to people by their birthplace here) called Albert Brun who has been to Paris but nobody will believe him when he tells them how big it is. There's the local ferryman, Félix Escartefigue, who gets seasick on his own boat even though it's only a 675 foot trip over the river.

Everyone is utterly alive here and the actors involved throw themselves into their role with the passion of the French. They're hardly minor names either, though Orane Demazis was new to the business in this her debut film. She was successful enough to reprise her role as Fanny in the two sequels, 1932's Fanny and 1936's César. The other two names on the title screen also reprised their roles but had more experience before finding the parts to begin with. They're also recipients of some of the greatest praise that could ever be offered to actors, and no, I don't mean Academy Awards.

According to Alec Guinness's biography his favourite actor was Pierre Fresnay, and as Marius here he certainly provides the subtlety in this company. It's easy to see Guinness modelling himself on him, providing the depth around which everyone else rages around in hyperbole. Top billed as César as he was already experienced in the part, having played it on stage in Marcel Pagnol's original play, is Raimu. Raimu, born Jules Muraire, was described by no less a film luminary than Orson Welles as 'the greatest actor who ever lived.' Just as it's easy to see the young Guinness as Marius, it's easy to see the old Welles as César.

This is marvellous filmmaking all around and it's impossible not to get caught up in the lives and loves of these characters. There's a card game that runs for five full minutes with only a single card being played but it's as rivetting as anything I've seen on film. I'll definitely have to find the sequels, which for some bizarre reason I didn't record when TCM showed them in the weeks following this one. It's gloriously melodramatic and could easily be remade with puppets, everyone being pulled this way and that as if they were tied to strings. We can't help but see the destiny at play but still worry about how these characters will actually get there.

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