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​Classic French romantic trilogy and American remake

by Christopher P. Jacobs | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Cinema | October 4th, 2017

This June the Criterion Collection released a restored edition of noted French playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol’s famous Marseilles trilogy to Blu-ray, “Marius” (1931), “Fanny” (1932), and “César” (1936).

A year ago the Shout Factory label released the 1961 American remake “Fanny,” which condenses all three into one film and was nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture, Actor, and Color Cinematography.

When movie sound technology finally arrived, Pagnol recognize the advantages of cinema over live theatre and adapted his plays “Marius” and “Fanny” for the screen, shot on location in Marseilles, and directed by Alexander Korda and Marc Allégret, respectively.

The first film sets up the romance between Marius (Pierre Fresnay), who is torn between his love for Fanny (Orane Demazis), the daughter of a dockside fishmonger he’s known since childhood, and his frustrating desire to leave the dull, small-town bar owned by his father César (Raimu) for an adventurous life at sea.

The second film picks up exactly where the first one ends, with Marius sailing off and Fanny later discovering she is pregnant, much to the chagrin of her own family and César, although childless middle-aged local sailmaker Panisse (Fernand Charpin) finds it the ideal opportunity to marry the young Fanny, whom he’s always loved, as well as to gain the heir he has always wanted to carry on his name and business.

The third film, which Pagnol wrote directly for the screen and directed himself, takes place about 20 years later, with Fanny’s son grown up, Marius finally returning to France, and Panisse realizing he will die soon. The first two installments of this epic romantic character drama run 127 minutes each, with the third at 141 minutes.

As a set they anticipate and play very much like a nearly seven-hour TV miniseries, focusing on the troubled romance from the 1920s through the 1930s, but vividly exploring the lives, philosophies, and physical environment of the numerous characters, with Marseilles itself being essentially a character in the film. All three films spend lots of time with dialogue, but the acting is so effective that it does not seem overbearing most of the time.

Picture and sound quality on Criterion’s restored set is outstanding, especially for European early talkies. The first two are transferred at the nearly-square 1.18 aspect ratio and the third is at the standard 1.37 ratio.

As usual there is a fine selection of supplements. While there are no audio commentaries, the set includes a paperback book with essays and interviews, and the disc itself has a variety of interviews, video essays, and documentaries.

THE MARSEILLE TRILOGY on Blu-ray -- Movies: A- / Video: A / Audio: B+ / Extras: A-

Joshua Logan had adapted the “Fanny” trilogy into a Broadway musical in 1954 that ran for two years, and in 1960 re-adapted the script into a romantic drama that cut the songs but incorporated the music into the Oscar-nominated score.

Logan’s film version, also set in the 1920s, captures the essence of the romance, obviously considered the primary attraction of the story. However, it manages to include a surprising amount of the basic characters and key lines of dialogue from the original films, with a decent but reduced inclusion of the town ambience. Despite being rather diluted dramatically it’s an involving and often moving romantic drama with an outstanding cast.

Leslie Caron of course is luminous throughout as the title character who carries the film. Maurice Chevalier as Panisse is much older than the Panisse in the original but gives one of the best performances of his entire career with few of his annoying trademark mannerisms. Charles Boyer is also excellent as César. Horst Bucholz makes a good Marius but too often is a bit stereotypical and almost a secondary character to the others. Salvatore Baccaloni, Lionel Jeffries, and Georgette Anys are also very effective in key roles.

Many actors seem to have been cast to resemble the actors in the original three films. However, the Logan film eliminates almost all the character diversions (though not all of them), numerous characters, and pretty much all the philosophical/religious discussions that the producers obviously felt would bore American audiences to death.

A large part of the impact and appeal of Logan’s version of “Fanny” is the strikingly beautiful Technicolor cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff, which like the original trilogy was shot mostly on location in Marseilles.

To those who have never seen the original three films, Logan’s film may seem long at 134 minutes, but it really flies by for those who have. The original trilogy is very dense, talky, and novelistic (especially the first two films, based directly on stage plays), but the brilliant performances and strong cinematic techniques help make up for the over-reliance on dialogue and several seemingly meaningless episodes that enrich the overall atmosphere without advancing the plot.

The first hour of Logan’s “Fanny” effectively abridges the 127-minute “Marius” (1931) and the second hour covers the 127-minute “Fanny” (1932). The weak spot is the final 15 minutes, which drastically condenses and rewrites the 147-minute “César” so it’s more suitable for American tastes, with a more sentimental and far less bittersweet ending, like the stage musical. It also jumps ahead only about 10 years instead of 20.

The picture quality on Shout Factory’s Blu-ray of “Fanny” looks truly outstanding on a big screen, although there is some print wear evident, especially at the beginning, and optical effects are naturally grainier. The opening credits are pillarboxed at 1.66:1 but the main film is transferred at 1.78:1, which suits the image well and does not look as cramped as a 1.85 image might.

Colors are lush and production design/cinematography details are gorgeous. The mono audio is fine. The only bonus features are a brief montage of advertising art (SD) and optional English subtitles.

FANNY (1961) on Blu-ray -- Movie: A- / Video: A+ / Audio: A- / Extras: D

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