An escaped convict seeks refuge with his former lover, Flora, who works as a lion tamer in a travelling circus. She agrees to hide him from the police and finds work for him in the company; but his past catches up, putting Flora in mortal danger. Meanwhile, Flora's son, who doesn't know the convict is his father, is planning to elope with the circus owner's daughter.
It's a corny plot but never mind: the pleasure is in the details -- the characters and the sketches of circus life -- and in the skill with which Feyder weaves these into a grand spectacle and a coherent drama. At the heart of the picture is the tough but kindly Madame Flora, played by Feyder's wife Françoise Rosay. It's a tour-de-force performance, and a brave one, too, with Rosay getting up close and personal with some ferocious looking tigers. Feyder rewards her with long scenes and lingering takes.
"Les Gens du voyage" was the last film in which Feyder's genius from "Le Grand Jeu" and "La Kermesse héroïque" is still apparent (though it ranks below either of those masterpieces). As was the occasional practice of the time, he filmed a simultaneous German version, "Fahrendes Volk", with a mostly German cast. Françoise Rosay retained her role; indeed, it would be hard to imagine the film without her.
In her first film, little Louise Carletti gives a striking and mature performance as the spiteful younger daughter of the circus owner. She would become a familiar face in French cinema during the Nazi Occupation. And if you don't blink, you can catch a glimpse of future stars Micheline Francey and Madeleine Sologne, playing a couple of ballet students.
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