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Festival Year Festival Section
2008 CLOSING EVENT - The French Touch (1915-1929)

Alternative Title 1
Alternative Title 2
Alternative Title 3
Country France
Release Date 4 May 1929
Production Co. Films Albatros/Sequana Films
Director Jacques Feyder

Format   Speed (fps)
35mm   20
Footage   Time
2805 m.   123'

Archive Source Cinémathèque Française, Paris
Print Notes Didascalie in francese / French intertitles

: Albert Préjean (Jacques Gaillac), Gaby Morlay (Suzanne Verrier), Henry Roussell (Comte de Montoire-Grandpré), Guy Ferrant (giornalista/journalist), Henry Valbel (Morin, un deputato/a deputy), Charles Barrois (direttore dell'Opéra/Director of the Opéra), Andrée Canti (Julie), Raymond Narlay (capo di gabinetto/Cabinet director), A. Duchange (prefetto/prefect)
Other Credits
scen: Jacques Feyder, Charles Spaak, dalla pièce di/from the play by Robert de Flers & Francis de Croisset (1926); f./ph: Georges Périnal, Maurice Desfassiaux; scg./des: Lazare Meerson; prod: Alexandre Kamenka, Simon Schiffrin; riprese/filmed: 27.6-28.9.1928 (Brie-Comte-Robert; Créteil; Brunoy; Château de Bisy; Studios Billancourt)
Other Information
Accompagnamento musicale composto e diretto da / Musical score composed and conducted by Antonio Coppola, eseguito da/performed by l'Octuor de France.
Program Notes
Eighty years on, Jacques Feyder's Les Nouveaux Messieurs remains one of the wittiest, most sophisticated comedies ever to come out of France. Perhaps only second to that gold standard of screen mirth, René Clair's An Italian Straw Hat, with which some have associated it as a new form of French comic cinema. Though different in style and temperament, the two films had several things in common: both were produced by the famous independent production house, Films Albatros; both starred Clair's emblematic leading man, Albert Préjean; and both were designed by the ingenious Lazare Meerson, with whom Clair and Feyder would again collaborate in the early sound period. In addition, both films were adapted from plays, Clair's from a classic Labiche farce, Feyder's from a recent Boulevard comedy, but each film solved the problems of adaptation with sheer visual imagination.
That there was a touch of Clair in Les Nouveaux Messieurs was not surprising, given the deep admiration between the two men, who in the summer of 1928 were working for the same producer and at the same studio. When Feyder set sail for America months later to work in Hollywood, hadn't Clair lambasted the French film industry in a famous editorial for letting one of its major talents go into professional exile, yet again: “What have you done for Jacques Feyder?”
Feyder may have returned Clair's friendship by indulging in a filmmaking practice that would really only be invented three decades later by the Young Turks of the New Wave: homaging. When Feyder has one of the two male protagonists of Les Nouveaux Messieurs politely try to draw attention to the presence of a tell-tale smudge of lipstick on his rival's face, isn't that a clin d'oeil to Clair and the famous “tie” gag in An Italian Straw Hat? And weren't there other references to Clair's Entr'acte (1924) - such as the inspired use of accelerated motion which turns the top-hat-and-tails inauguration of a new workers' housing quarter into a footrace?
While Clair had the satisfaction of seeing An Italian Straw Hat declared an instant classic in 1927, Les Nouveaux Messieurs suffered from that bad luck that had become the travelling partner of the Belgian-born Feyder. If never a bankable commercial director, Feyder enjoyed a critical status which had been fortified by the success of his most recent film, Thérèse Raquin (1927), a masterly (and now lost!) adaptation of Zola's naturalistic novel, which he had made for a German producer. Now, in April 1928, he had come home (to France, which was now granting him citizenship) to make one last French film before embarking on a new adventure: Hollywood.
Feyder's long road to Les Nouveaux Messieurs had been a zigzagging obstacle course. Launched to fame with his self-financed desert saga, L'Atlantide (1921), Feyder was lauded for his daring yet shunned for his prodigality - a reputation that would dog him for the rest of his life. So he had to go where the work was - and it was rarely in France. Still, 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 Russian émigré studio Films Albatros, where he made Gribiche (1925), but its follow-up, the ill-fated Carmen, again left him unemployed. The collapse of a personal, long-nurtured Indo-Chinese project, Le Roi lépreux, left him in despair. Then came the providential reprieve of Thérèse Raquin. Feyder was up and running again.
Given his eclecticism and his hard-earned technical fluency, it was no surprise that Hollywood would come knocking (Irving Thalberg had reportedly seen Thérèse Requin, and was impressed). Feyder, disgusted with the unstable economics of the French and European film industries, accepted an invitation from M-G-M. But before setting sail in late 1928, 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 thus returned to a genre he had not practiced since his journeyman days during the war: comedy.
Les Nouveaux Messieurs, by Francis de Croisset and Robert de Flers, had been the hit of the 1925-26 Boulevard season, enjoying a run of 400 performances. It was a romantic and satiric comedy that described a tug-of-war waged over a pretty young actress by two men: her aging aristocratic protector and a young left-wing electrician and union organizer. The aristocrat uses his wealth and connections to protect his protégée, but the worker wins her over with his casual charm and dynamic self-confidence. The electrician is appointed labor minister in a new left-wing government, only to lose his position (and lover) when the government is toppled.
To write the structurally complex script, Feyder worked for the first time with his former secretary and fellow Belgian, Charles Spaak, soon to become one of France's greatest scriptwriters. They opened up the play to introduce a social scope they deemed essential to the emotional impact of the story. There was a humorously descriptive opening sequence at the Paris Opera Ballet where the future lovers first meet; and, later - in an anticipation of the Poetic Realism of the 1930s - a shimmering early morning swim scene on the Seine. Most memorably, there was 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.
Feyder filmed during the summer of 1928 at the Billancourt studios, where Clair would shortly share studio space for his last silent feature, Les Deux timides, also produced by Kamenka and designed by Meerson. Feyder's chief cameraman was another genius, Georges Périnal, with whom both he and Clair (and Meerson) would work again in the 30s. (Périnal's camera assistant, by the way, was a frenetic, 19-year-old film buff named Marcel Carné.)
The cast was a class act: Gaby Morlay, Albert Préjean, and Henry Roussell. Morlay had starred in the play, and repeated her performance with a girlish freshness and emotional range that would make her one of French cinema's most beloved sound stars. Préjean, not yet the proletariat warbler of Clair's first sound film, was persuasive as the street-smart electrician trying to balance his new ministerial responsibilities with a complicated love affair. Finest of the three was perhaps Roussell, a former actor turned director, who gave a nuanced portrait of pride, class, and corrupt distinction as the aristocrat.
With everything going for it, nobody was ready for the shock awaiting the finished film after a first trade screening in late November 1928: it was refused a distribution visa and subsequently banned! The parliamentary world was up in arms: the film was declared an act of lèse-government, and a number of MPs, among them the president of the Chamber of Deputies, claimed to recognize themselves in some of the more unflattering portraits. Both Left and Right felt they were on the receiving end of Feyder's satiric darts.
The scandal swelled ludicrously, only to subside months later. The distribution visa was finally delivered - pending cuts (the unkindest being the now-lost ironic epilogue at the train station, where the aristocrat sees his ex-rival off to a safely distant post in Geneva: “Vive la République!” yells the worker; “Vive la France!” the antiparliamentarian counters). But by April 1929, when it finally opened, the film's domestic career and foreign sales potential had been seriously diminished by the imminent arrival of sound films. As for Feyder, he had already sailed for America, in December 1928.
Surprised and disappointed 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 - before a final period of relative stability back in France, which would produce a final handful of great films, most famously La Kermesse héroïque (1935), his last contribution to great film “comedy”. - LENNY BORGER