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Edwin L. Marin
Before there was Fanny, there was Port of Seven Seas
The credits for this movie say that it is based on Marcel Pagnol's 1931 play Fanny, but that isn't true. It is a very close remake of Pagnol's 1932 movie adaptation of his play, an adaptation that, along with two other Pagnol movies, Marius (1931) and César (1936), served as the source for Joshua Logan's 1961 movie Fanny, which condenses all three of the French movies into one film. (Follow all that?) Because Port of Seven Seas is very much a remake of Pagnol's movie - Preston Sturges, who wrote the script, often simply translated Pagnol's French script - it is impossible not to compare the two. Since the French original is one of the classics of French cinema, something that gets run on French TV over and over, that sets the bar high.
And sometimes this movie comes up to that high bar, primarily with the performance of Frank Morgan (the Wizard of Oz) as Panisse. The original Panisse, Charpin, made this character complex, rich, and unforgettable, and I can honestly say that Frank Morgan performs at the same level. Some of his scenes, such as when he explains to Madelon (Pagnol's Fanny, the only character whose name is changed) why he is happy to marry her even though she is carrying someone else's child, are great moments in American cinema, and certainly worthy of a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. This film is worth seeing for his performance, and if you know Charpin's original you will not find Morgan any less wonderful.
Maureen O'Sullivan is also very fine in this movie as Madelon (Fanny). Given Oriane Demazias's melodramatic performance in the French original, some may even prefer O'Sullivan.
This movie's weak point is the star, however, Wallace Beery. In part he suffers from comparison with Raimu's performance in the French original; Raimu was one of the greatest actors of his age, and Beery did not have his depth and range. In part, however, this is not a good Wallace Beery performance: too often he seems to be just reciting the lines and sounds very unnatural. He had given and would continue to give far better performances in other movies. Even on its own terms, his performance in this movie is not a good. For anyone who knows Raimu's, Beery's is an almost complete loss.
John Beal as Marius drastically overacts, and Whale allows him to come off as too sympathetic in the confrontation scene near the end of the movie where the three male characters decide the fate of the child, which must have confused the first American audiences. Pierre Fresnay in the French original comes off as very unsympathetic, keeping the audience on the side of Panisse.
Cora Witherspoon's part, Honorine, has been shrunk from the French original, but she does a fine job with what she has left, and should have been billed over Beal.
In sum, this is a movie that is worth watching in its own right. If you know Logan's Fanny or Pagnol's, it is a must see and does not come in a poor third. Frank Morgan is definitely much better as Panisse than Maurice Chevalier, and Maureen O'Sullivan plays Madelon (Fanny) differently from Leslie Caron, but certainly every bit as well.
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