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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.
Though my James Whale retrospective was officially over, I managed to
get my hands on yet another rarity (I am now only left with his last
unreleased work, 1949's HELLO OUT THERE to catch up with) so I opted
to check it out instantly. This was his sole stint at MGM and, though
the material is hardly typical of him, he manages to infuse it with
great humanity and surprising depth. This is especially remarkable when
considering that the 81-minute film is essentially a compression of
three lengthy French ones a particular characteristic of their
creator Marcel Pagnol whose cumulative length exceeds 7 hours (though
this effectively tails off at the end of the second)!; interestingly,
the adaptation/streamlining was done by none other than Preston
As expected, the Marseille waterfront atmosphere is carefully evoked (courtesy of celebrated cinematographer Karl Freund) and the cast (mainly filled by MGM stalwarts) proves another definite trump card here: Wallace Beery plays gruff tavern-keeper Cesar, Frank Morgan is wealthy merchant Panisse (his best friend), Maureen O'Sullivan the market-seller Fanny (albeit awkwardly renamed Madelon!) and John Beal essentially turning up at the extended finale as the sailor Marius (Cesar's son). Also on hand is Etienne Girardot as a doddering crony of Beery and Morgan, with the trio's scenes together inserting a welcome dose of humor into the generally melodramatic proceedings.
For those unfamiliar with the narrative, we have Madelon and Marius intending to marry but he finds the call of the ocean irresistible and leaves her and his father behind. When it is discovered that the girl is pregnant, the much-older Panisse (a childless widower) offers to marry her which is no sacrifice for him since he had repeatedly expressed his love for Madelon and raise the kid as his own! However, Marius eventually re-appears and claims both for himself but he finds opposition from everyone (Panisse was willing to relinquish the girl but not the baby), including his own father! The plot, as it stands here, concludes in bittersweet fashion with Cesar persuading Marius to go back to his true love i.e. the sea; the last entry in Pagnol's original trilogy follows the adventures of the grown-up boy.
The film, then, is an underrated achievement even more so in the face of the 1961 remake called FANNY (which, being an Oscar nominee and featuring the cream of Hollywood's French star imports, has rather stolen this one's thunder!) that actually originated as a stage musical but whose entire song score would ultimately be dropped for its transition to the screen!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Thank you, Richard from the United States for the fine review.
The plot of Fanny. (Not necessarily the plot of Port of Seven Seas).
Fanny sells shellfish by the sea shore. Marius mixes drinks in his father's bar, while dreaming fantasies of the sea. They love, all too well, passion makes Fanny's belly swell. Sails away Marius, what to do: Fanny?
Fanny marries Panisse, wealthy; but his youth a goner. He marries her to save her honor. Marius returns to husband his wife, and claim his son Cesariot; but his father, Cesar kicks him out on his ass, Cesariot finds out the Truth and journeys to find his Dad.
Eventually, all is well. But will it sell?
Wallace Beery could not speak the absurdist language that Sturges had translated.
He was out of his depth. He was also not the box office attraction that he once had been. He was sullen, he was uncooperative, he played childish tricks on the crew, and generally made life harder than it had to be.
As James Curtis, Whale's biographer has it, Wallace Worsely Jr, Whale's script clerk said, "Nobody seemed to be speaking to anybody else. Whale would sit on the set reading the newspaper. There didn't seem to be any sense of urgency to it."
Worsely also said that (Beery) "would go around the set and take and remove the decorations; lamps, rope, tackle and things, and put them in the back of his station wagon. And every day, when the crew came back from lunch, they had to go out to his car, unload it, and redress the set."
The reviews were really very good.
The audiences did not agree with the critics. It lost $112,000.
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