Gentle, humane, embracing a full range from slapstick to tragedy, Marcel Pagnol’s trilogy about the people of the Marseille waterfront has bewitched audiences for decades. Multiple remakes, including a Broadway musical, Hollywood condensations by James Whale in 1938 and Joshua Logan in 1961 and a recent “reboot” from French actor Daniel Auteuil, have never come close to eclipsing the reputation of the originals. While Pagnol’s films — Marius (1931), Fanny (1932) and César (1936) — have been out of print for years on American home video, Janus Films has undertaken a 4K restoration.
Pagnol was a schoolteacher until, after a few flops, a hit stage comedy called Topaze turned him into a highly successful playwright. His follow-up, Marius, began its run in 1929 as talking pictures were crossing the Atlantic. At the time, many in the French film industry were dismayed by the upending of silent-movie traditions; Pagnol, on the contrary, saw splendid opportunity. Marius was filmed at Paramount’s French studio, with Alexander Korda as director and with the original cast uttering virtually the exact dialogue they had onstage.
“Canned theater” was a French term of derision that Pagnol himself embraced. “Film,” he said, “is the art of imprinting, fixing and diffusing theater.” Certainly the Marseille trilogy doesn’t have much in the way of flashy film technique, but that doesn’t mean these three films are uncinematic. Numerous scenes are filmed outdoors, to take advantage of the uniquely beautiful light in southern France. (Pagnol eventually opened his own small studio in Marseille.) To fill bit parts, Pagnol often utilized locals pulled right off the street.
That sense of place is essential. Set in the Old Port section of Marseille, Marius’ action roams around the waterfront bar owned by César (played by the incomparable Raimu) and frequented by his friend Panisse (Fernand Charpin), a prosperous sailmaker. Outside the bar, Honorine (Alida Rouffe) and her daughter Fanny (Orane Demazis, who was married to Pagnol) work selling mussels. César’s son Marius (Pierre Fresnay of Grand Illusion) and Fanny fall in love, but the young man has an incurable case of sea fever, and in the end he boards a boat that may not return for years, leaving Fanny alone and pregnant.
The movie was an enormous worldwide hit, and it was followed almost immediately by an adaptation of the play’s sequel. Filmed in somewhat more subdued fashion by Marc Allégret, this chapter finds Fanny marrying Panisse, who dearly wants a son — only to have Marius return when the child is a toddler. The final film, César (directed by Pagnol, and the only installment written directly for the screen), jumps ahead to find Fanny and Marius entangled once more over their now-adult son.
Each entry runs more than two hours, taking its time with the characters — their sacrifices and selfishness, their blustering arguments both verbal and physical, the lies they tell one another and also the truths. Of this garrulous, prank-playing, passionate group, it is Raimu who offers the keenest delight. A former music-hall performer in Marseille, he acts with the whole of his lumbering, slouching body, whether the whole is in frame or not. His César is hot-tempered, mule-headed and consistently hilarious, as when, in Marius, he tells his son how to mix a favorite local drink: one-third curaçao, one-third lemon, one-third picon — and one-third water. When Marius objects that this is not “arithmetical,” César responds aggrievedly that “it all depends on the size of the thirds.”
Charpin is a worthy comic foil to Raimu: dignified, even pompous, but intensely lovable for all that. (It was this performance that so impressed Alice Waters that she christened her restaurant Chez Panisse; one imagines Panisse himself would consider that tribute only just.) Panisse is playing opposite César, not Fanny; their bumpy friendship is the most romantic aspect of the trilogy. During a protracted argument in Fanny, Panisse takes a gun from a drawer to intimidate César: “All you need is two wheels and you’d have a cannon” is his friend’s unimpressed response. An enraged Panisse slams down the gun and winds up accidentally shooting a diving suit. “Let it be a lesson to you,” says Panisse, with fervent intensity, “because I’ll kill you like I killed him.”
The movies aren’t truly naturalistic; for example, Raimu is said to have disliked filming dialogue outdoors, and consequently some scenes in cafés switch disconcertingly between sidewalk and studio. Rather, Pagnol gives the illusion of naturalism through the vivid energy and affection of his characters. “If Pagnol is not the greatest auteur of the sound film,” wrote André Bazin, “he is in any case something akin to its genius.”