In association with Blackhawk Films, Flicker Alley has issued a Blu-ray double feature of fun French talkies related to Billy Wilder. From 1934, Mauvaise graine (or Bad Seed) is Wilder’s directorial debut. He made it in France after he departed from Germany’s Nazi-fied UFA Studios in 1933. From 1935, Richard Pottier’s Fanfare d’amour (or Fanfare of Love) is the source for Wilder’s 1959 classic Some Like It Hot.
Mauvaise graine (1934)
Directors: Billy Wilder, Alexander Esway
The bad seed of the title is young playboy Henri Pasquier (Pierre Mingand), and he feels a need: the need for speed. The first images after the credits are presented from Henri’s subjective POV, speeding in a car through the streets. The effect is deliriously cinematic, and the rest of Mauvaise graine maintains this obsession with speed, cars, and the outdoors. Driving a fast car is associated with sexual thrills, as we learn from Henri’s suggestion to a young woman that if she meets him for a date, he can show her how fast he goes.
Before he can go on that date, poor Henri’s Buick roadster is sold from under him by his distraught father, Dr. Pasquier (Paul Escoffier), who advises Henri to get a job if he wants to keep spending so much money. This puts Henri into a snit if not a huff, and he sneers at the idea of a nine-to-five job. Stalking the sidewalks in his natty attire and fretting about his upcoming date, Henri is tempted by a Studebaker with its door wide open and keys in the ignition, as though Fate has placed it in his path.
He makes his impulsive decision and drives to pick up the young woman. He doesn’t know that a gang of car thieves witnessed his action. After a chase, they catch up with him and take him to their garage. He’s persuaded to join the gang by young Jean-la-Cravatte (Raymond Galle), so-called because of his fetish for collecting ties. He has 315 ties that he fondles in his wardrobe. He seems instantly smitten with Henri. They trade ties and declare themselves best friends.
Conveniently, Jean’s saucy sister Jeannette (Danielle Darrieux) lives in the next room. She and Henri first meet each other in their sleeping clothes. The audience first saw Jeannette checking her face in a mirror and walking towards the camera, ready for her close-up. Her job in the gang is to sashay around town, get picked up by men in fancy cars, telephone the gang with particulars, and then look astonished when she and the chump emerge from a cafe or cinema to discover the car’s been stolen.
While Mauvaise graine is described in various sources as a drama or a crime drama, it’s mostly a light, lanky, anecdotal comedy expressing the spirit of youth amid convivial criminality and budding romance on the city streets. Therefore, it has much in common with an earlier film to which Wilder contributed, Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer’s People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag, 1930). Mauvaise graine feels a bit like a Parisian equivalent to that Berlin story.
It’s true that Mauvaise graine builds to an exciting climax with a bit of tragic violence and a valuable lesson, but most of the story is like off-the-cuff larking. Many scenes have little purpose beyond showing how to steal cars and the camaraderie of the little band of outsiders who reject society’s rules. No wonder it appealed to the later generation of the French New Wave. They liked its attitude, flashy exuberance amid real-life locations, and its sense of apparent freedom, although it was hardly made in a period of freedom.
The most gorgeous and idyllic sequence finds Henri and Jeannette riding on the back of a hay wagon on a hillside road by a breathtaking sea view. The camera is up there with them, keeping them in focus along with the vast background. Paul Cotteret and Maurice Delattre are the photographers.
The visual creativity was the filmmakers’ response to having to work independently, even illegally, on a very low budget. They couldn’t film in a studio, so everything was shot outside, often silent with post-dubbed sound and music, or within makeshift rooms of the real-life garage that’s the main setting. They couldn’t afford rear projection, so the camera had to be in or on the cars, or else on a nearby vehicle or from a high angle observing traffic. The chase scenes had to be shot in this dangerous manner, and the results look exciting and natural today.
As historian Jan-Christopher Horak explains in an informative commentary, most of the creators were Jewish refugees from Germany who had no legal permission to work in France. Therefore, he postulates that they identified with the characters who lived in the space between the free air and the law. These refugees were Wilder, his co-writers Jan Lustig and Max Colpet, and composer Franz Waxman, who wrote most of the perky score. The other writer, Claude-André Puget, was a local boy who provided French polish.
Wilder’s credited co-director, the Hungarian Alexander Esway, had several German films under his belt and seems to have been involved for credibility, though Wilder really handled the directing. The forgotten Esway’s career in several countries makes him a subject for further research.
The technical crew and cast were French. Ironically, the most experienced actor was 16-year-old Darrieux, who’d already starred in several films. They all made Mauvaise graine fast and cheap for a French producer. Wilder and Waxman had headed for Hollywood by the time Mauvaise graine opened in Paris. Esway went to England. Lustig and Colpet wrote for the French industry until they had to leave again. At certain times, they were all in Hollywood.
Mauvaise graine was remade twice, in England as The First Offence (Herbert Mason, 1936) and in postwar France as Jean Stelli’s The Unexpected Voyager (La voyageuse inattendue, 1950). Surely, those two films make an intriguing double feature for comparison.
Even more rewarding to unearth might be a two-part epic directed by Esway in the year he died. Le Bataillon du Ciel (1947), written by major French novelist Joseph Kessel from his experience as an aviator in the Free French Forces, was by far the most popular French film of its year. Where is it now?
Fanfare d’amour (1935) Director: Richard Pottier
It’s a special treat to get a look at Richard Pottier’s cross-dressing comedy Fanfare d’amour because this film was indirectly remade in Hollywood as Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. Don’t get overly excited, for Pottier’s film isn’t the comic masterpiece of Wilder’s. With that in mind, we can compare and see differences in time and temperament.
Fanfare d’amour is solidly rooted in the Depression as it follows two desperate musicians, the tall and lanky Jean (Fernand Gravey) and his dumpier pal Pierre (Julien Carrette). A montage shows us how they get gigs by pretending to be qualified for whatever band is fashionable: a “Tzigane” (“gypsy”) band where Jean uncertainly plays a cimbalom, a Cuban band licensed by famous composer Ernesto Lecuona, and an African-American jazz band run by Willie Lewis. In all of them, Jean and Pierre are out of their depth. Let’s take a moment to discuss these bands.
In his commentary, author/filmmaker August Ventura states that he doesn’t know whether the Tzigane band, run by one Horvath, is real. It’s possible because the other two bands are real. Willie Lewis was a Texan making a living in Europe, and he appears in at least one other French film, a 1937 Cinderella directed by Pierre Caron. His band looks great in its brief appearance in Fanfare d’amour, and it makes us wish we could see more of them without the alleged comedy of Jean and Pierre in minstrel blackface.
What did Lewis and his band think of this routine in which they participated? Did they shrug it off, or did it bother them? It will probably bother most of today’s viewers, both for the obvious reason and because the joke doesn’t even make sense in its own context. If white guys are trying to “pass” to make a living, why adopt a makeup style that proclaims their true hues a mile away? Clearly, the filmmakers only thought there was a traditional style for such things, and adopting it must be “funny”. That is, they didn’t think deeply.
Anyway, Jean and Pierre’s poverty and desperation are the sole reason they dress up as women to join a woman’s orchestra. Both Pottier’s film and Wilder’s tap into the era’s genuine vogue for “all-girl bands”, but Wilder and his co-writer, I.A.L. Diamond, injected the brilliant additional motive of fleeing Chicago gangsters after the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, thus adding a continual sense of danger to the sexual frisson. That’s one detail separating an amusing light throwaway (Pottier’s version) from a work of comic genius (Wilder’s film).
Both incarnations have scenes of learning how to walk like a woman. Both have scenes on a train. Both have the males in competition for a pretty star. In Fanfare d’amour, the object of desire is Gaby (Betty Stockfeld). To court her, Jean and Pierre materialize in their true forms, and Poupette (Gaby Basset) thinks Pierre is cute. Meanwhile, Jean’s female alter ego, “Jeannette”, must put up with advances from the hotel manager (Jacques Louvigny).
Aside from Gravey’s elastic physical performance, the best element in Fanfare d’amour is Pottier’s penchant for cleverly staged long takes. Some are static, as when Jean and Gaby compose a melody as we watch them through a window. Some begin in stasis and then move, as when Jean, Pierre, and a makeup man peer into a mirror (played by the camera, so they’re looking at the audience) and then cross the room to practice feminine walking.
One of the best moving shots is when the camera pans leftward outside several train compartments, more or less like comic strip panels, as the disguised Jean and Pierre meet the band members. This is scored by jaunty music and train sounds since we can’t hear the characters. Another lavish shot introduces us to a nightclub, pulls down and backward among the dancing patrons, and closes on a stylized silhouette of a flashily dressed black man with a straw hat in a phone booth. The point of this visual punctuation seems to be to establish the existence of the booth, which Jean will shortly use.
The nearly two-hour shenanigans of Fanfare d’amour take a bit too long and then end rather abruptly. Still, as an example of ’30s-era light entertainment based on playing with gender roles, it maintains interest, and it’s even more interesting in light of the fact that this property, as they say in show biz, had legs. There have been multiple remakes in various media, including television and stage.
In fact, Wilder didn’t see the French original. He saw the German remake, Kurt Hoffman’s Fanfaren der Liebe (1951), which was even popular enough to warrant a sequel, Fanfaren der Ehe (Fanfares of Marriage, 1953). Confusing, isn’t it? That suggests another double feature in the offing for those of us who want the full history.
Robert Thoeren is primarily responsible for the story of Fanfare d’amour. Yet another refugee from German cinema, Thoeren developed the script from an idea he’d had in Germany. He also went to France and landed in Hollywood for a while. He returned to Germany after the War and worked on the 1951 remake, which he then showed to Wilder.
Richard Pottier’s career in French cinema includes thrillers, musicals, and international co-production epics. He appears to have been one of those reliable studio workhorses who could turn his hand to anything. His Inspector Maigret mystery, Picpus (1943), is available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber. An intriguing title in his filmography is The World Will Tremble (Le Monde tremblera), a 1939 science fiction film with Erich von Stroheim from a script by Henri-Georges Clouzot! There’s one to look out for.
As restored by Lobster Films in 2022, Fanfare d’amour looks clean and shiny. The print of Mauvaise graine warns us that its source had deterioration, but don’t let that trouble you. After brief damage in the opening reel, it looks fantastic. Overall, Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray double-feature offers value for Wilder fans, those interested in the works of exiled German artists in France, and those who enjoy watching men dress as women. One film has minor damage, and the other isn’t as good as Wilder’s remake, but, as Joe E. Brown declares in Some Like It Hot, nobody’s perfect.