Fernandel

(1903-1971)
   Actor and director. Fernandel was born Fernand Joseph Contandin in Marseille. His father was a performer (the stage name was Sined) in the café-concerts, and Fernandel and his younger brother frequently joined him onstage as children. The father's mobilization for war in 1915 put an end to this, but the desire to become an entertainer was instilled early in Fernandel. Obliged to work to help support his mother, Fernandel found jobs at a bank and soap factory and elsewhere. He continued to pursue the stage in his spare time. During this period, Fernandel met Jean Manse. The two became close friends. Manse would go on to work on nearly all the screenplays for Fernandel's films, and Fernandel married Jean's sister, Henriette, in 1925. The stage name, Fernandel, is reputed to have come from Jean's mother, Mme. Manse, who referred to Fernand as "Henriette's Fernand" or "her Fernand," that is, "le Fernand d'elle."
   Fernandel's first big career break came in 1926, when he was hired on as a feature act at the Odéon theater in Marseille. From there, Fernandel traveled from theater to theater. At about the same time, the cinema began to take note. In 1929, Paramount Europe hired Fernandel to do minifilms of his act as entertainment between films in their movie theaters. And in 1930, Marc Allégret, who had seen Fernandel onstage, cast him in Le Blanc et le noir, an adaptation of a play by Sacha Guitry. Fernandel was an enormous success, and he went on to make 150 or so films.
   There is no mistaking the fact that Fernandel was a popular actor and primarily a comic actor. He is probably the best-known comic actor in French film history. Most of his films are not critical master-pieces, but they were nearly all popular successes. That he is an icon of French cinema is attested to by the fact that more than thirty years after his death, you could stop any one of nearly any age in France and ask who Fernandel was and they could tell you.
   Some of his best-known films from the first half of his career include Dominique Bernard-Deschamps's Le Rosier de Madame Husson (1931); Marcel Pagnol's Angèle (1934), Regain (1937), Le Schpountz (1938), and La Fille du puisatier (1941); Christian-Jacque's Josette (1936), François Ier (1937), Raphaël le tatoué (1939); and Claude Autant-Lara and Maurice Lehmann's Fric-Frac (1939). In these, as in most of his films, and certainly most of those made up to World War II, Fernandel is cast in predictably warm and amusing roles, as the type of characters that cannot help but inspire warm-hearted laughter.
   During the war, Fernandel remained in France. He worked for the Nazi-owned production company Continental Films, and not only acted, but also tried his hand at directing, perhaps at the request of the management of Continental, who may have sought to exploit his popularity and his good-natured image. He directed two films with Continental, Simplet (1942) and Adrien (1943). He would make only one other attempt at directing and that much later, in 1951, with Adhemar ou le jouet de la fatalité.
   After the war, Fernandel continued to make films at a steady pace. Although comedy remained his mainstay, there is a bit more diversity to the films' roles in the postwar period, as Fernandel also began to perform in melodrama and crime films. The best-known films from the latter half of his career include Richard Pottier'sMeurtres (1950); Autant-Lara's L'Auberge rouge (1951); Julien Duvivier's Le Petit monde de Don Camillo (1951), Le Retour de Don Camillo (1953), L'Homme à l'imperméable (1956), and Le Diable et le dix commandements (1962); Jean Boyer's Coiffeur pour dames (1952), Le Couturier de ces dames (1956), and Sénéchal le magnifique (1958); Henri Verneuil's Le Fruit défendu (1952); Yves Allégret's Mam'zelle Nitouche (1954); Clément Duhour's La Vie à deux (1957); Christian-Jacque's La Loi c'est la loi (1958); and Gilles Grangier's La Cuisine au beurre (1963), L'Age ingrat (1964), and L'Homme à la Buick (1966).
   Without a doubt, the Don Camillo films, particularly the two directed by Duvivier, Le Petit monde de Don Camillo and Le Retour de Don Camillo, are Fernandel's best-known films. In them, he plays a country priest in a village in postwar Italy. The film gives Fernandel a format for his comedy, but also for the warmth with which he is often associated. Duvivier's realist eye also explores, in a warm and funny way, the tensions in Italian life between Communism and Catholicism, between the forces of tradition and those of change, forces that France also had to grapple with. The films, which were French-Italian coproductions, remain classics in both countries. Fernandel, a devout Catholic, once said of the films that they were the proof he was, despite what anyone might say, a great actor, since his costar in the films was God himself (Don Camillo dialogues with God in the films, and God sometimes answers). Though he made many other films, it is these that have left the most vivid imprint in the cultural memory.
   Historical Dictionary of French Cinema by Dayna Oscherwitz & Mary Ellen Higgins

Guide to cinema. . 2011.

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