The Way It Was Meant To Be Seen! This was allegedly Logan’s proposed marketing tag line for his 1961 film adaptation of Marcel Pagnol’s famous trilogy which included Marius, Fanny and César. More grounded in urban myth than reality, this silly anecdote does call into question how audiences responded to movie marquees displaying the title Fanny. The expensive Warner Bros. production turned out to be a boxoffice hit but it might have sold even more tickets if Logan had called it Leslie Caron’s Fanny. At least in France there was nothing funny about the name. It was in their cultural DNA and was a name with a beloved literary pedigree that went all the way back to 1929 when Pagnol first premiered his play Marius which introduced his colorful cast of characters from the Marseilles waterfront.
I once attempted to watch the entire Pagnol trilogy (The Criterion Collection offers the entire trilogy on Blu-Ray) but couldn’t make it past Marius. While the film had a naturalistic quality that was rare for an early thirties studio film, it was still too theatrical for my taste and so immersed in the cultural and social detail of Marseilles life – something I knew nothing about – that my appreciation of it was limited to say the least. Naturally, I had little interest in seeing an American director’s condensed version of the trilogy in an English language adaptation. I also was not that fond of Leslie Caron’s earlier work. My idea of hell is to have my eyes pinned open like Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange and forced to watch Gigi or Lili repeatedly. Despite this, I decided to watch Fanny on DVD in a double-disc edition from Image Entertainment because I was curious to see why TCM host Robert Osborne had selected it for inclusion in a current season of The Essentials on TCM. The other reason was because my wife had seen it as a teenager, which led to a lifelong crush on Horst Buchholz. I figured I’d bale after the first ten minutes but instead I was drawn into the film almost immediately. First, there is the stunningly beautiful Marseilles on-location cinematography by Jack Cardiff, which was nominated for an Oscar. That alone doesn’t always justify a viewing but in this instance the setting is crucial to the story – it is a major supporting character – and Cardiff vividly brings it to life.
I also had preconceptions about the performances, imagining the worst from Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer. Chevalier, who always seemed to be playing some caricatured image of a Parisian bon vivant in his American films, drops the artifice here and gives a surprisingly unaffected and moving performance…and so does Boyer. Then there’s Leslie Caron who is no longer the gamine with the pixie cut but a sensuous and vibrant female lead. Even Horst Buchholz, who had a tendency to overplay his German James Dean image, makes Marius a mostly sympathetic character despite some occasional actor tics.
My biggest obstacle to enjoying the film was what I knew of the plot, which sounded like a sentimental Gallic soap opera. Yet once you start watching Fanny you realize it is a tale that goes beyond cliché. It’s almost primeval in the way it evokes strong emotional responses from the viewer because it is about a wide array of human bonds – the ones that exist between a daughter and mother, between a father and son, between young lovers who have the same passion but not the same dream, between lifelong friends who have shared each other’s joys and tragedies. The Marseilles waterfront becomes a microcosm of human experience from the cradle to the grave and it rings true in those moments when the main characters have to face the consequences of decisions they have made. The 1961 film version of Fanny was actually based on the stage musical which was adapted from Pagnol’s trilogy by Logan, S.N. Behrman and Harold Rome (who wrote the music and lyrics) and condensed the three stories into one, taking some liberties with the story arc and the sequencing of events. Logan’s film version strayed even further from the stage musical because all the songs were eventually dropped from the film.
Part of this decision was due to the casting of Charles Boyer who refused to sing or be lip-synched with someone else’s voice. Logan felt he was crucial to the film’s success and wouldn’t replace him. Another reason was the film’s running time. Initially planned as a roadshow attraction with an intermission, Warner executives panicked and forced Logan to reduce Fanny from a more than three hour feature to one that was 134 minutes. Their fear was based on the fact that movie musicals were no longer a popular genre and were losing money at the box office.
In the end, Logan’s screen version of Fanny became a streamlined version of Pagnol’s trilogy: Marius longs to leave his waterfront home that has become a prison for him. His father César expects him to take over the family café and has no idea of the intensity of his son’s wanderlust. Fanny, the daughter of Honorine, a lifelong friend of César’s, is in love with Marius but realizes his urge for going is unstoppable. On the eve of his departure from Marseilles, Marius and Fanny spend the night together. She later discovers she is pregnant and her mother, at first scandalized, encourages her to be more receptive to Panisse, César’s closest friend and a wealthy shopkeeper who has always adored Fanny. Resigned to her fate, Fanny marries Panisse and has her child, a son, Cesario. Even though Panisse is aware that Marius is the real father, he raises Cesario as his own child. Then Marius returns from the sea, filled with regret for the past and the life he could have had. The resolution of Fanny copied the ending of the stage musical but was a departure from the original Pagnol trilogy. While it is a happy ending in the best tradition of Hollywood movies, what you’ll remember most is everything that transpires before – real lives in flux with all the attendant disappointments, dashed dreams and compromises. It is this sense of underling sadness and romantic longing mixed with a type of madcap bohemian humor (the scenes with Panisse’s friends featuring an unexpectantly hilarious Lionel Jeffries) that makes Fanny a richer viewing experience than I’d ever imagined. Also, Harold Rome’s evocative music, scored by Morris Stoloff and Harry Sukman, adds immeasurably to the mood of the film. It was also nominated for an Oscar. Fanny garnered 5 nominations in all including Best Picture, Best Actor (Charles Boyer) and Best Editing (William Reynolds) but lost in every category. The big winner that year was West Side Story, which garnered 10 Academy Awards.
According to research compiled by the American Film Institute, other casting possibilities were initially considered for Fanny before the official lineup was in place. Audrey Hepburn, Pier Angeli and Brigitte Bardot were all suggested for the role of Fanny with Alain Delon a possibility as Marius and maybe even Fredric March in one of the supporting roles. It’s fascinating to think about an alternate cast for the film featuring some of these actors but I’m fine with what Logan eventually brought to the screen.
The universal appeal of Fanny makes me believe that the storyline could easily be adapted to other cultures and locales. I can imagine a version set in another port city – New Orleans, post-Katrina, for example – in which the background is not the shipping industry but the music scene. Or maybe Hong Kong where the major characters work in the film business and the Marius character sets out for Hollywood with dreams of becoming an international star.
For years Fanny was only available in a less than satisfying VHS transfer from Warner Bros. Image Entertainment released a fine digital upgrade on DVD in June 2007. In September 2016, Shout Factory released Fanny on Blu-Ray and this is the best viewing option yet even though the disc comes with no extras. Other websites of interest: