Article condensed from the notes accompanying Flicker Alley’s release of French Masterworks: Russian Émigrés in Paris (1923–1929).
Belgian-born director Jacques Feyder became an overnight sensation with L’Atlantide, his film of Pierre Benoit’s postwar escapist bestseller about the mythical kingdom of Atlantis, shot on location in the Sahara. Lauded for his daring yet shunned for his prodigality, he had to go where the work was—and it was rarely in France. The films trickled in, for better or for worse, with their changing landscapes: Belleville and Les Halles in Crainquebille (1922), the Swiss Alps in Visages d’enfants (1923), the Hungarian plains in the Austrian production L’Image (1924). Back in Paris, Feyder saw the hope of regular work with Alexandre Kamenka’s Films Albatros, the Montreuil-based studio begun by Russian émigrés fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution.
Gribiche is the first of three films Jacques Feyder made for Kamenka. For both it was a serendipitous encounter—Kamenka had been unable to stop the talent drain of Albatros’s Russian talent to a new studio at Billancourt and was now banking on a new generation of French directors like Jean Epstein (though Warsaw-born, he and his sister Marie settled in France permanently) and (soon to come) René Clair. Never a highly commercial director, Feyder’s career had not been going well and his expectations were recently dashed by the failure of his Swiss-produced Visages d’enfants, which belatedly opened in January 1925. Kamenka, who always considered Feyder “the greatest French filmmaker,” invited him to work at Albatros, though with a tight budget imposed on what was a “try-out.”
The two men agreed on an original story entitled “Gribiche” by Frédéric Boutet, a quirky if somewhat sentimental novella about a working-class youth who, after committing a “good deed,” agrees to be adopted by a wealthy American socialite. Feyder conceived the project as a vehicle for Jean Forest, the Montmartre boy he had discovered and cast in Crainquebille in 1922 and again in Visages d’enfants—three films of varying ambition, all illuminated by one of the silent screen’s most moving child players.
Gribiche is usually regarded as a minor work. Yet despite its implausibilities and longueurs it has aged graciously to become one of Feyder’s most engaging films, full of wry observation and ironic humor. The film’s lovely midsummer visuals are the work of Albatros lighting regulars Maurice Desfassiaux and Roger Forster. Albatros’s new production designer Lazare Meerson conceived the studio interiors, which wittily juxtapose the extremes of urban habitat—Art Deco luxury-versus-tenement functionalism. It was Meerson’s first of seven collaborations with Feyder.
Though Jean Forest dominates Gribiche, there is a star-making performance by Feyder’s wife, Françoise Rosay, in her official screen debut as the American socialite. Until then she had been glimpsed in cameos in her husband’s films since his directing debut in 1915—and she had contributed to the scenario of 1923’s Visages d’enfants. From Gribiche on, she remained his principal muse and advisor, as well as the mother of his three sons. Jean Forest never again found the roles and sensitive direction he received from Feyder, although he continued in supporting parts for some of the most important French directors until 1935, after which he abandoned cinema for a distinguished career in radio.
The success of Gribiche nearly led to yet another film by Feyder about a lonely child, but this one had a literary pedigree, Jules Renard’s Poil de Carotte (1894). Julien Duvivier eventually made the film in 1925, but discarded Feyder’s script. Instead, Feyder accepted Kamenka’s offer to direct Spanish-born international stage star Raquel Meller in a lavish production of Carmen, which became Kamenka’s, and Feyder’s, costliest folly. The failure of Carmen again left Feyder unemployed. The collapse of a personal, long-nurtured Indo-Chinese project, Le Roi lépreux, left him in despair. Then came the providential reprieve of a Franco-German production of Thérèse Raquin (1927). Based on the Émile Zola novel about an adulterous couple who plot murder, the film, which stars France’s Gina Manès, restored Feyder’s critical status. In April 1928, he came home to France, now granting him citizenship, to make one last French film before embarking on a new adventure: Hollywood.
Given his eclecticism and hard-earned technical fluency, it was no surprise that Hollywood came knocking. Irving Thalberg had seen Thérèse Raquin and was impressed. Feyder, disgusted with the unstable economics of the French and European film industries, accepted an invitation from MGM. But he had agreed to do one last picture for Kamenka, whose Albatros company was in an artistic and economic bind. Promised total artistic freedom, Feyder returned to a genre he had not practiced since his journeyman days during the war.
The New Gentlemen, adapted from a 1925 boulevard comedy about two politicians (one right-wing, the other left) competing for the attentions of the same young woman, remains one of the wittiest, most sophisticated comedies ever to come out of France. Like fellow Albatros director René Clair’s An Italian Straw Hat (1927), it was also based on a play, starred Albert Préjean, and was designed by Lazare Meerson. While Clair’s film is better known, both films solved the problems of adaptation with sheer visual imagination. Feyder wrote the script with his former secretary and fellow Belgian, Charles Spaak, soon to become one of France’s greatest scriptwriters. Most memorably, they invented an enchanting tour de force during a session at the Chamber of Deputies, where a bored MP falls asleep at his bench and dreams that his fellow deputies have all been turned into nubile young ballerinas who dance up and down the aisles with ballot urns. After the film’s first trade screening, however, the parliamentary world was up in arms and the film was banned. A number of MPs claimed to recognize themselves in some of the more unflattering portraits, and the scandal swelled ludicrously, only to subside months later. When The New Gentlemen finally opened in April 1929, after some unkind cuts, its potential had been seriously diminished by the imminent arrival of sound.
As for Feyder, he had already sailed for America, in December 1928. Dismayed by the reactions to his film, he was soon to discover greater disillusionment in Hollywood, during what was to be another period of missed opportunities, directing MGM’s most prestigious star Greta Garbo in her last silent, The Kiss, and the German version of her first talkie, Anna Christie. Feyder also directed the French version of Unholy Night and two English-language sound features, Daybreak and Olympia. He then returned to France for a period of relative stability, which produced a final handful of wonderful films, most famously La Kermesse héroïque (Carnival in Flanders, 1935), his last contribution to great film comedy.
Presented at SFSFF 2013 with live music by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra