Master’s thesis of Miss Marie Blétry

'Marius', Marcel Pagnol's first film in cinema. Here, Pierre Fresnay and Orane Demazis.
'Marius', Marcel Pagnol's first film in cinema. Here, Pierre Fresnay and Orane Demazis.

Marie Blétry Applied modern literature

Master’s thesis 1

Under the direction of Mr. Denis Guénoun
September 2007 U.F.R. de Littérature française et comparée


I -From theater to cinema: Marcel Pagnol’s apprenticeship…………………….4
A – First contacts……………………………………………………..4
B – Pagnol’s apprenticeship……………………………………………7
C – Outline of a theory………………………………………………10
II -Theoretical controversy: Towards a definition of talking movies…………15
A – Terms of the quarrel……………………………………………15
B – Towards a theoretical quest……………………………………………19
C – An artistic compromise……………………………………………23
III – Pagnol’s role in the artistic legitimization of talking movies………26
A – From attraction to cinematographic work………………………26
B – An exemplary artistic independence……………………………29
C – Pagnol’s artistic posterity…………………………………….32





In 1928, the first talking films appeared in France at a time when silent cinema had finally achieved the artistic legitimacy that had long been denied to it. The great names of silent film then witnessed with horror the success among the French public of what were then called “talkies” in the United States, but they still did not resign themselves to adopting this innovation. They saw in talking cinema an “attraction” for which popular enthusiasm was only a passing fad. In fact, the very first talking productions demonstrated more of a desire to showcase this technical advance than a desire to serve oral expression. They were still only sound films, and people in the silent film industry were reassured by the vulgarity that sound seemed to bring to works. For there was cause for concern: such an advance could only revolutionize the film industry. With dialogue, production costs increased considerably, films were no longer immediately accessible to an international market, and image professionals were no longer the sole masters of film creation. So in the first place, they set about denigrating the new means of expression. In the face of such a trial, some personalities made use of a certain intuition by positioning themselves from the beginning as defenders of this technical feat destined to oust the silent film – despite the quality of the works it had produced. Among these advocates, the role of a playwright as renowned as Marcel Pagnol seems to be predominant. He discovered talking cinema in 1930 in an English cinema. He left with the conviction that he was witnessing the birth of the “new means of expression of dramatic art,” to which he decided to devote himself, not hesitating to defend his own theory of cinema in parallel. He undertook all this even as the world of silent film, that is, the entire French film industry and its host of critics, still did not recognize sound as a new tool of film expression. The audacity of the playwright was all the more destabilizing and obtained a lively echo, which accelerated critical positions until the definitive reception of sound. It therefore seems legitimate to measure the role played by Marcel Pagnol in the accession of talking cinema to the rank of art. The transition was not easy: it was a matter for an art to move from visual expression to audiovisual expression, which considerably modified the aesthetic perspective. Marcel Pagnol was both judge and party to this cultural problem, since he was able to bring his experience as a playwright to film direction in his own films, and defend his positions as early as 1930 in the critical press, then in the magazine he founded in 1933: Les Cahiers du film. The critics of the time reacted acerbically, accusing the former playwright of deserting the world of theater to defend a “filmed theater”. Even today, some historians and critics content themselves with these two terms to summarize Pagnol’s vision of talking cinema. In reality, his analysis was much more complete and audacious, and the controversy it provided was an opportunity to gradually bring cinema professionals to welcome the text as a fundamental element of the Seventh Art.

Starting in 1934, Marcel Pagnol and René Clair engaged in a long and sometimes constructive debate, which will serve as support for this study, as it is revealing of the cinematographic evolution and Pagnol’s aesthetic contribution to the beginnings of talking cinema.

I – From theater to cinema: Marcel Pagnol’s learning A – First contacts

In 1928, the irruption of technical processes authorizing the use of sound in cinema constituted a real revolution for the film industry: industrialists, directors, and critics. The silent film, which appeared at the beginning of the century, had to establish an artistic identity after being long considered a popular attraction. It took a few years and a certain determination from the pioneers of this means of expression for genius directors such as Eisenstein, René Clair, etc., to take hold of it and make it reach the rank of art, up to the avant-garde cinema of the 1920s. If the adaptation of dramatic works and novels was already a common practice, many filmmakers then rose up against this “prostitution” of a plastic art with literature. Like René Clair, they advocated a purely plastic cinema, addressing the visual language prior to writing and inherent in human nature, a cinema that addresses the “look of the savage, of the child who is less interested in the story of Guignol than in the rain of blows of a stick”. The ideal would have been, in fact, a silent cinema purified of the intertitles interrupting the harmony of visual poetry to illuminate its meaning. In such a context, one can easily conceive how the advent of sound could have destabilized the film industry.

From a financial point of view, first of all, distribution was limited by the language barrier. The international stars of the silent film were mostly evicted: voices, national or foreign accents did not pass the stage of the still-fragile sound apparatus, and the acting of such actors, marked by the gestural expression they were used to, seemed redundant when accompanied by words. For filmmakers, the dismay was great. For a time, it was hoped that the silent film would continue its career alongside talking films, or, sound was seen as a means of simply emphasizing the image.

In this regard, it is extremely interesting to consult the various points of view of artists and industrialists in the film magazines of the 1930s: most of them agree that talking cinema has no artistic value in itself, if there is one, it is only an improvement of the silent cinema, whose visual qualities, pure plastic qualities, it highlights. However, the success of talkies was immediate in France, and already, silent productions were interrupted to go shoot sound films in British studios, until Paramount installed in 1930 the first studios equipped with the processes allowing sound recording.

At the heart of this aesthetic upheaval, from 1928, two main types of film productions, close to a simple attraction cinema, will be remembered. The first trend, which Marcel Pagnol called a “ridiculous monster” or a “resistant film,” resulted from a vain attempt to preserve all the achievements of silent cinema, on which sounds would have been grafted, allowing in particular to overcome the stage of the intertitle. Most silent filmmakers were then behind such a practice, still unaware of the artistic novelty that talking cinema represented.

Although it seemed logical, the second trend, that of filmed theater, was not any more legitimate. After the first wave of popular enthusiasm for the technological feat, it was necessary to produce works precisely justifying the name “talking film” in order to relaunch its success, and a multitude of plays were awkwardly adapted, using the only repertoire that then involved dialogue. In the absence of more cinematic productions.

In 1930, the author is 35 years old and his reputation in the theater is already established. His first four plays – Les Marchands de gloire, Jazz, Topaze, and Marius – received unanimous praise from critics, and Topaze and Marius managed to win over a large audience. Buoyed by the success of his latest play, which for the first time incorporated Marseille accents, the author prepared to stage its sequel, Fanny. It was then, around May, that his friend Pierre Blanchar told him about an event he had witnessed in London: the screening of a talking film. Intrigued, Marcel Pagnol immediately left for the British capital, where he attended four showings of the film Broadway Melody, more interested in the technological feat than the film itself. This is how he returned to Paris “with his head full of theories and projects”. The author had become convinced that cinema would be “the new means of expression for dramatic art”. Armed with this conviction, he shared his views with the theatrical community by publishing an article on May 17 in Le Journal, which caused a stir among those in the know. With hindsight, and considering the severity of the film industry towards talking pictures since 1928, one is struck by the intuition and lucidity that animated this article, in which Pagnol, without yet speaking about the future of theater, developed a real theory of talking cinema that “offered writers different resources, and in many cases, wonderfully new ones.” This article is of paramount importance because it presented an innovative vision before its author had even ventured into cinema, and a certain determination to draw from this art the dramatic and literary resources that he would actually employ. To the author’s great surprise, the article was very poorly received: most theater people – except for Pagnol’s loyal supporters – revolted against the playwright’s statements, considering his defense of cinema as an act of betrayal towards a milieu that had contributed so much to his literary development. From a critical standpoint, film people were even more severe. But Pagnol’s conviction was firmly anchored, and the criticisms he received did not deter him. He would defend it throughout his career. For now, since neither the world of cinema nor that of theater tolerated his point of view, the author decided, against all odds, to join the ranks of this medium of expression: he firmly believed in its artistic value and future success. His texts would serve cinema, and cinema would serve his texts.

Paradoxically, Pagnol’s advantage in understanding this new medium came from his experience as a playwright and his complete lack of experience in cinema. Therefore, he did not get bogged down in the dead end of experienced filmmakers who sought to use all the advances of silent cinema and make sound only an adjunct to the image. So in 1930, Marcel Pagnol, using his exceptional connections – there is no testimony that disputes this – was granted wide access to Paramount by Robert T. Kane, its director in the newly equipped Saint Maurice studios in France. Initially, in accordance with his plans, the playwright began a meticulous observation of the workings of the film industry. This period was decisive, as in just a few months, Pagnol discovered, through the technicians, the material dimension of the filmmaker’s profession and simultaneously acquired the necessary lucidity in the face of Paramount’s control over the artist and his work. This realization led him to refuse Robert T. Kane’s first offer to buy the rights to Marius and Fanny: such a contract would have been totally foreign to Pagnol’s plans since the production excluded any involvement on his part, even in the choice of actors, which Paramount intended to replace with its own stars. But the success of filmed theater was confirmed.

The masterful stroke achieved by Pagnol, which prevented Marius from falling into the filmed theatre of the “camera in the prompter’s box” type, was due to a very balanced collaboration between two talents: that of Korda, a professional in film imagery, and that of a specialist in dialogue who truly imposed his presence on the set. In addition, there was mutual trust in their respective talents, which led them to choose together the cuts made in the dialogues, so that the text never, or almost never, duplicates the image. In this way, the film speaks, and the words are of quality. 1 These were the terms used at the time by detractors of filmed theatre. For reasons that seem surprising to us today – Hollywood did not believe in the success of sequels – Paramount returned the rights to Marcel Pagnol for Fanny, a notorious event that marked a decisive turning point in Pagnol’s film career. The author took advantage of this to gain his independence and invest in his own production and distribution company: Les Films Marcel Pagnol, in 1932, which produced Fanny in collaboration with the Roger Richebé establishments. Directed by Marc Allégret, this second opus was made on the condition of keeping once again the actors from the original troupe, but also, in a new development, of preserving the play’s dialogues entirely, with barely any modification by Pagnol. This is undoubtedly the explanation for the lesser cinematic quality of the film – on which we will return, because this is also and for essential reasons, cinema – which had a success comparable to that of Marius. This second success strengthened Marcel Pagnol’s illusory idea that films adapted from dramatic works owed their strength to the complete preservation of the dialogues. This is evident in the first productions of his production company, as well as his first films, which fell into obscurity. In 1933 and 1934, Pagnol embarked on the production and adaptation of two theatrical successes which he directed (who remembers?): Le Gendre de Monsieur Poirier, based on Emile Augier and Jules Sandeau (released in January 34) and L’Article 330 (released in February 34), based on Courteline, whose text he did not modify, or only minimally1. At the same time, and following the same policy of preserving the original dialogues, Les Films Marcel Pagnol produced L’Agonie des aigles (released in November 33), based on the novel by Georges d’Esparbès, whose screenplay and dialogues were elaborated by Pagnol, in a production directed by René Richebé. In addition to these productions, Pagnol provided the screenplay and dialogues for a Pathé Natan production (directed by Raymond Bernard, released in November 34) of Tartarin de Tarascon, based on Daudet. Finally, he made his first work adapted from Jean Giono: Jofroi, a medium-length film of fifty-two minutes made during the editing of Le Gendre de Monsieur Poirier, and released as a complement to the same film. Except for Jofroi, these few films, fallen into disuse, enjoyed a considerable popularity that can undoubtedly be attributed to the conjunctural success of filmed theatre. It was only with the production of Angèle in 1934, also based on a novel by Giono, and entirely shot, unusually, in natural settings1, that Marcel Pagnol revealed his true talent as a filmmaker. It was also at this time that the author abandoned the adaptation of plays to devote himself exclusively to works for which he would.

Even a critic as talented as André Bazin, who contributed so much to the rehabilitation of Pagnol’s work from 1950 onwards, always excluded the possibility of an essential link between Pagnol’s theory and his works: according to Bazin, these ideas were defended by their author out of pure provocation, under the erratic banner of filmed theater. There are two main reasons for this. The first, historical, originates in the sound film debate, during which experienced filmmakers and critics, among whom was René Clair, perpetuated the illusion that Pagnol, like many others, exclusively defended filmed theater. In fact, his activities as a playwright and the production, for a time, of a few films that precisely employed this practice helped perpetuate this label. Subsequently, his statements were often caricatured, with many considering that he intended the talking film only to produce theater. This observation leads to the second reason for this misunderstanding of his theory: Pagnol himself often defended his ideas poorly, by forcing them into the filmed theater debate, which questioned the essence of cinema, whereas Marcel Pagnol primarily considered the interest of this means of expression for his creation. Let us therefore first analyze the genesis of his theory, independently of the cinematographic context, only in the light of his past as a playwright and his early screenplays. This theory will be briefly discussed: a comprehensive study is necessary to understand its evolution. Marcel Pagnol, in all his endeavors, has never sought anything other than the status of a literary author. This unprecedented desire to be recognized in cinema as a writer alone justifies his desire for independence, both from the industry and in the very material of his cinematographic creation. If Marcel Pagnol turned to cinema, it is also because he essentially saw the benefits of this medium for his writing. In his article of May 17, the author sought nothing more than to explain this: the writer, and especially the playwright, found in the talking film a new means of highlighting their text, thus freeing it from theatrical constraints. According to Pagnol, cinema is only a new means of expression, even a new means of impression, of dramatic art. Not an end in itself, but a means. Text and plot were the catalysts of his artistic endeavor, and his films would not be sound, they would be speaking. It is important never to lose sight of this, as it resolves many critical confusions on the part of the author and his detractors. Later, Pagnol defined his cinema in relation to theater, a process justified insofar as he questioned not its essence, but only the benefits that this new medium could bring to his creations. His first recognized literary experience, he owed to his talents as a playwright, which immediately earned him recognition in the theater world. It was only natural that he drew his vocation as a filmmaker from his activity as a playwright, both in theory and in practice. As we will see, a truly cinematographic definition of the talking film emerged from his comparative study, albeit indirectly. For Pagnol, as in the theater, the text was the driving force. His screenplays attest to this from the beginning. That of Marius thus gave the director free rein for the image, with text cuts made in collaboration. With Korda, Pagnol perceived very concretely this difference in cinematic speech that he had foreseen: freed from scenic constraints, it is no longer necessary to replace the unity of time and place with descriptive action. This is therefore systematically replaced by a dialogue in situ, embellished with stage directions. Pagnol’s screenplays thus long resembled plays that were materially unplayable on stage, but whose text, like in the theater, was sufficient to convey the priority given to the text, the plot, and the characters.

He also keeps the best advocates of dialogue: the actors, his actors, and more broadly his troupe. This dimension is not negligible, it highlights several decisive assets: the essential aptitude for teamwork, the science of selecting speaking actors, including Raimu, an undeniable force in his films, who from the beginning showed an instinctive understanding of cinematic interpretation. Marcel Pagnol was able to assist Korda in directing the actors, a decisive quality since, as the article in the newspaper shows, the author understood that their performance in front of the camera had to stand out from theatrical emphasis. This stage experience also taught him to adapt his text to the practical requirements of filmmaking and performance, an exercise to which he intelligently submitted in the adaptations of his plays. Finally, Pagnol knew the audience “by heart,” and undoubtedly mastered the use of the right lines, the ones to keep in the script when cinema exists to speak. But this possibility of revising his texts, Marcel Pagnol could only apply it if he directed the scenarios he originated. When we list his productions, one observation stands out: Pagnol’s films only achieve cinematic success to the extent that he is the author and director – or supervisor, in the cases of Marius and Fanny. Without this, either the author falls into filmed theater, as is the case with all his directorial or production ventures of other texts (Le Gendre de M. Poirier, L’Article 330…); or the author writes a fixed text that someone else is forced to keep, producing a hybrid film where dialogue dominates, without regard for cinematic materiality. The definitive material of Pagnol’s good scenarios only really existed at the end of the shoots he attended. In fact, it is precisely in his early mistakes that his theory surpasses him. Because for it to be valid, that is, for cinema to serve the text, it is essential that its author is there to modify it. In other words, Pagnol can only apply this vision by being present during the production of his work. More generally, cinema can only benefit from the dramatist’s experience when he understands this means of expression and apprehends it in its materiality during filming. According to Pagnol, no one but him can modify his text: as a man of letters, he refuses to defile texts over which he has no recognized copyright. Thus, far from justifying his theory, he has instead moved away from it by adapting the plays of others. This is how in 1934, with Fanny, he gave up this experience, stating, indirectly confessing his error: “I (…) started with the most difficult; it is, indeed, easier to shoot a novel than a play… To make a film based on a novel is to create; to make a film based on a play is to redo. A novel is not crystallized. I can write a scene to translate a page of a novel to the screen. If it’s a play, the scene is already made. Since it can never be shot entirely, the text must be adapted, lightened: I dare not, I do not recognize myself the right to cut someone else’s lines. After filming plays, I’m now tackling novels. There is, I repeat, material for creation; we change plans: from literary to dramatic.” By including cinema in the dramatic arts, Pagnol could not defend filmed theater since he wanted to free himself from theatrical constraints. The mistake he made was, therefore, to confuse his approach with that of cinema – filmed theater – which claimed the same origin but whose methods were essentially different. Pagnol did not question this and, for a time, reproduced the mistakes of those he thought that they shared the same conviction, even in his productions and claims.

He will come to realize his mistakes, not in spite of his theory, as has always been believed, but guided by this fundamental theory which could only lead him to the realization of the failure of filmed theater productions. As early as 1930, Pagnol’s views so well defined his film works that it seemed legitimate to rehabilitate them. Before applying them more generally to cinema, we must place them in the context of the debate on sound film, as Pagnol’s opinion was then exceptional in understanding this new art. We will study this period within the framework of the famous controversy between the author and René Clair, particularly revealing of the quest for the identity of the talking film.

II – The theoretical controversy: towards a definition of sound cinema. A – The terms of the controversy

If the controversy between Marcel Pagnol and René Clair remains famous in the history of sound cinema, it is because it is an excellent symbol of the artistic conflict generated by the advent of sound cinema. This exchange occurred in the careers of filmmakers who, coming from radically different aesthetic schools, both achieved a true cinematographic development with sound. Pagnol’s mistakes are still too often remembered without considering how important his aesthetic contribution was at that time. However, we are convinced that this contribution does not contradict his theories. It therefore seems necessary to analyze the stages of the controversy carefully to understand more precisely the logic and common sense of Pagnol’s cinematographic doctrine. By exploring these ideas, we will understand how two artists whose seemingly opposed conceptions could succeed in the same art. The first exchanges between the author and René Clair clearly symbolize a confrontation between two worlds. Raised in the school of visual aesthetics, René Clair had established himself from the outset as a figure of avant-garde cinema. In 1928, the filmmaker was therefore just as destabilized as the industry by the arrival of sound films. Where the industry had found its account in the purely visual character of silent films, a means of internationally distributing each of its productions, René Clair was enchanted by the universal character of visual poetry and had therefore sought nothing else but a new language totally purified of literature. His genius had made him an accomplished artist, and his films had thoroughly explored the resources of a means of expression, always seeking, in particular, to use the cards as little as possible, whose verbal essence broke the aesthetic of the images. However, this silent film director did not immediately understand the novelty that sound film represented. The assimilation between these two means of expression is quite logical, and Pagnol explains it very well in his latest version of the Cinematurgie de Paris. It comes, among other things, from the fact that the technical processes used required, in part, the same know-how and therefore the same equipment. This advancement was thus obviously associated with an improvement in silent film and this assimilation led to confusion in terms. By keeping the word “cinema” to describe two means that are very different in their essence, the debates intended to understand the phenomenon of sound film were a priori obscured. This is how René Clair remained blinded by his past, whose artistic and theoretical achievement fully justifies his regrets at the time. From the first experiments with sound cinema, René Clair was worried, and rightly so, about the dangers that this practice could represent for his art. Upon realizing its success, the author quickly adapted to this novelty, partly because the industry could only constrain him to do so, and partly because the author, as a pioneer, had acquired the necessary openness to follow the public in the direction of revolution. However, he did not yet grasp the full extent of it, and endeavored to use sound only to perfect the aesthetic conviction.

And so, on the occasion of the release of his first sound work, Sous les toits de Paris, in August 1930, Pagnol declared in Germany: “The European talking film can save itself if, thanks to its images, it retains enough interest to be grasped, if need be, by an audience that does not even understand the text (which partially saves the heritage of the silent film), and uses speech only briefly, while prohibiting long dialogues, scenes in which the text is everything, effects of eloquence or literary words, in short, everything that comes from the theater and threatens to kill the cinema.” There seems to be no more opposite point of view to Pagnol’s than this. In fact, the dispute between the two men was already well underway. In July 1930, René Clair had seized on Pagnol’s article in the Journal as a pretext to respond to him and to all the supporters of the then-new practice of filmed theater. However, the first mistake of the filmmaker was to assimilate Pagnol to the latter, without giving due consideration to the playwright’s reasoning. This assimilation involved a biased reading of Pagnol’s words, where Clair continued to confuse means and essence. Let us return to the criticisms he addressed to him then, which contained almost all the criticisms that Pagnol’s detractors would continue to make of him. They stigmatize several phenomena. Regardless of the response, the author expressed first and foremost a clear bitterness in the face of men of letters investing in an art whose silent filmmakers did not yet conceive of change and which they had, in fact, appropriated. The builders of the silent era felt wounded in their pride, as some playwrights, without calling on them, showed a new interest in their art, seeming to relegate all previous endeavors of the Seventh Art to the background by suddenly proclaiming themselves prophets of the talking film. However, if this condescending attitude may have characterized some playwrights who were proponents of the talking film, it would not be fair to attribute it to Marcel Pagnol. In fact, as we shall see in his Cinématurgie, Pagnol showed great respect for what talented filmmakers had produced up to that point. Later, he would praise the merits of Chaplin and those of René Clair. Pagnol, in reality, goes beyond these considerations; he does not yet really pose the question of who, among established filmmakers or playwrights, will know how to use the talking film. What he believes, purely and simply, is that henceforth cinema must carve out a place among the dramatic arts, and that the talking film is a new means at the service of the text, dialogue, and therefore the writer. He thinks this theoretically – and honestly, with a certain perspective. In his Journal article, he also apprehended the role that the image could play in this regard. Where he differed from the filmmakers of the time was in putting sound on the same level as image, assigning them both, not the same effects, but the same functions, subject to the will of the dramatic art. Another classic criticism, this time directly aimed at Pagnol, attacked his undeniable business sense, which he has often been reproached for confusing with his artistic enterprises. Thus, René Clair saw in Pagnol’s film ambitions a purely profit-oriented interest. The author never responded to these allegations, but it seems to us that this is a false debate, and we will say with Yvan Audouard: “In fact, he was ‘also’ gifted in business. There is no shame in that[…]. But I find it hard to believe that the same qualities that served him in writing Marius helped him to

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