Posted in: DVD, Essays

Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy and its Screen Incarnations

Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite tearjerker, I answer Marcel Pagnol’s Marseilles Trilogy – and its mostly faithful offspring. In all of its screen incarnations, it’s an epic tale of thwarted romance that unfolds over a period of several years.

If the original six-hour French-language trilogy—Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and Cesar (1936)—sounds unfamiliar, you might remember it in the form of Joshua Logan’s condensed American remake, Fanny, which played for many weeks in the summer of 1961 and earned Oscar nominations for best picture, actor (Charles Boyer), cinematography and music. In this most famous version, Leslie Caron and Horst Buchholz play the frustrated lovers whose lives are irrevocably altered by one crucial decision that drives the narrative and accounts for most of the heartbreak.

The 1932 "Fanny
The 1932 “Fanny”

The films tell essentially the same story of a would-be sailor, Marius, and his childhood sweetheart, Fanny, who have grown up on the Marseilles waterfront and are clearly meant for each other. But he’s driven by the desire to find adventure at sea, and after one night of passion she helps him escape on a ship that’s not likely to return soon. When she becomes pregnant, she is married off to a wealthy merchant, Panisse, who has never been able to have children and is happy to have a “seven-month baby.” After the child is born, Marius returns and nearly restarts their affair. But Marius’ father, Cesar, stops them, and the story’s real heartache kicks in.

Although the Pagnol films have been available for some time on DVD, the 1961 Fanny only recently made its disc debut. The extras include the first CD release of the original soundtrack album, based on the melodies of Harold Rome, who captures the unrequitable longing of the central characters.

The first American adaptation of Pagnol’s films, MGM’s underrated Port of Seven Seas (1938), was an all-star event behind and in front of the cameras. Written by Preston Sturges, it was directed by James Whale, scored by Franz Waxman and photographed by Karl Freund; the actors included Wallace Beery as Cesar, Maureen O’Sullivan as Fanny (renamed Madelon) and Frank Morgan as Panisse. Although it’s in legal limbo and won’t likely turn up soon anywhere, it was revived several years ago at the Seattle International Film Festival. Sometimes dismissed as overly sentimental and unnecessarily swift (it runs only 81 minutes), it’s a more-than-reasonable adaptation, with an especially poignant turn by Morgan, just before he transformed himself into the wizard of Oz.

There’s also a mid-1950s musical stage version, called Fanny, which is the source of the Rome music. The songs, which were turned into background music in the 1961 film, include Marius’ hymn to impatience, “Restless Heart,” and Panisse’s late-bloomer anthem, “Never Too Late for Love.”

Leslie Caron in the 1961 "Fanny"
Leslie Caron in the 1961 “Fanny”

The stage origins of the early-1930s films are clearly visible in all versions, especially Marius, which Pagnol had created as a self-contained 1928 play (a Broadway stage version, Marseilles, flopped in 1930). Pagnol never planned for sequels to the first film/play, which ends unhappily with Marius apparently leaving Fanny for good, but he was persuaded to write a second play that was quickly filmed. The 1932 Fanny was a success and immediately led to remakes in Italy (in 1933) and Germany (1934). The final episode, Cesar, which was not written for the stage, reunited Pagnol with his original cast: Pierre Fresnay as Marius, Orane Demazis as Fanny, Raimu as Cesar and Fernand Charpin as the dying Panisse.

The original trilogy may stand as the best version of Pagnol’s tribute to the waterfront community where he grew up, although the American remakes have their strong points. Whale’s film demonstrates what a capable studio could do with a talented cast and crew in the late 1930s, though Beery seems miscast. Logan’s 1961 treatment has its hammy moments (the close-ups are sometimes hard to take), but he makes the most of Rome’s lush score and Jack Cardiff’s location shooting, which emphasizes the natural beauty of a port city. And Caron is a most compelling presence, superior to Demazis and O’Sullivan in her grasp of the heroine’s ambiguities.

What drives every version of Pagnol’s tale is a question that is posed early and eventually seeps into each scene. Did Fanny do the right thing by helping Marius chase his dream? Knowing how driven he is, was she being selfless or selfish — or a little bit of both?

We make so many crucial, life-altering decisions when we’re young. Pagnol leaves us with the feeling that there is no “correct” answer to Fanny’s dilemma. Marius is so caught up in his romanticized vision of exploring “the isles beneath the winds,” yet in the end he finds only “volcanic ash.” How could she deny him that discovery?

© 2009 John Hartl

Raimu and Pierre Fresnay in "Fanny"
Raimu and Pierre Fresnay in the 1932 “Fanny”