A glimpse into early French ‘talkies’..

Melo 32.jpg

Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of research on early French ‘Talkie’ films, not only as background for my 1930’s crime series, which has a great deal to do with the film world, but also because my paternal grandfather, Robert-Rene Masson, known as ‘Bob’ , worked from 1929-1933 as a cameraman for the big French film production company, Pathe Nathan, in Paris. That’s him, the moustachioed cameraman, on the set of a 1932 film he shot, ‘Melo’, a drama of high society, desperate love, infidelity and death, directed by Paul Czinner.
Another film that I know he shot was the famous ‘Les Croix de Bois’, or ‘Wooden Crosses’, directed by Raymond Bernard, which is still recognised as a classic of its kind. In its searing, even astonishing, realism and soldier’s eye view, it anticipates such war films as Black Hawk Down and Saving Private Ryan by decades(it too was filmed in 1932). It does not preoccupy itself with politics but with the direct experience of the ‘poilus’ or ‘grunts’ in the trenches of World War I, and pulls no punches in its depiction of the carnage, squalor, and terror of war.

My grandfather left quite a lot of brilliant photographs–he was an accomplished photographer as well as cameraman. The photos are of film shoots, of his family, especially his beautiful wife, my blond grandmother Marie-Louise, and their glamorous life (he was from a very wealthy French-Canadian family, and the reason he left films in 1933 was because, at the age of 28, he inherited his father’s fortune –sadly, a fortune he squandered completely in his life, and which my father never saw anything of, having been cut off without a penny when he scandalously married my mother, daughter of an illiterate Portuguese immigrant and quite beyond the pale!)
But we hadn’t seen any examples of his film work–many of the early talkies have disappeared or are in too bad a condition to be restored or remastered–until I found a video copy of ‘Les Croix de Bois’ on the Internet recently. Last week, I watched it with my sister and brother. It was a most moving experience–not only the film itself, with its doomed, lively, swearing characters, and its impressively scary scenes of bombardment and attack, but also the knowledge that it was him behind the camera..Though the film had been rather badly transcribed on to video, losing some of the top bits of the images, and the sound quality was crap(hopefully it’ll get put on DVD one of these days), nevertheless, we were riveted.
My grandfather died when I was 17. Though I knew him reasonably well, and though I knew he’d worked in film, as a self-absorbed teenager, I didn’t even think of asking him questions about it all. And he wasn’t an easy character, or someone who really liked to talk about himself. It’s only now that I’m trying to piece together this part of his life–and others–and discovering that he knew well many great actors–such as Victor Francen(who made a subsequent career in Hollywood), Pierre Blanchard, Harry Baur–of the period, as well as directors, producers and more. It wasn’t only French film people he knew–being a physically brave type, he even doubled for the American actor Douglas Fairbanks Junior in a stunt once. What stories he might have had to tell! It’s like a detective story in itself, now, trying to trace his career back, through the imperfect recollections of my father, who was only one year old when his father left the industry(though he kept up with most of his film-world friends, and Dad distinctly rememebers meeting Victor Francen in Paris in 1938), and my grandfather’s surviving younger sister, my 90 year old great-aunt Germaine, who was 10 years ‘Bob’s’ junior, and only remembers dazzling parties and a handful of names from the period. So there are large gaps, but already, I’ve discovered quite a few things no-one in the family knew till now, and though I don’t think I’ll get to know all the films he was involved in–because Pathe Nathan produced hundreds and hundreds of movies at this time–still, it’s exciting and touching to be actually close to those parts of his life, at a crucial time in film history, so many years later..

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Nicholas Gruen
2021 years ago

Wow,

Thx for that Sophie.

(I was just wondering where you’d got to!)

Rob
Rob
2021 years ago

Did he work all with Jacques Tourneur? I only know Tourneur from his Hollywood period (the Val Lewton films, including ‘I Walked with a Zombie’ – personal favourite, despite the title! – and the original and best of the American films noir, ‘Out of the Past’). But I know Tourneur was active in the early ‘thirties in France and his films from that period are still very well regarded. Love to get hold of them. A fascinating period of world cinema as you say.

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

I’m not sure, Rob. I know he worked with lots of different directors for Pathe Nathan, so he may well have done with Tourneur. I’m still trying to establish a list of the films he did work on and that’s not very easy, as the cameramen are often not credited–and it’s only through his photos(which my dad has in France and has made copies of selected ones for me)that we know about Melo and Les Croix de Bois. I think too that the film on which he doubled for Fairbanks MAY have been 1931’s ‘L’Aviateur’, which was made in Paris, but I’m not absolutely sure. I’m hoping to get onto the Cinemateque francais, the archives of French cinema about it, but in good French style they don’t appear to answer emails, so I’ll have to reach them by post!

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

I’m not sure, Rob. He may well have done. I know he worked with lots of different directors and I’m still trying to establish a list of films he was involved with(cameramen often were not credited then)so it’s quite painstaking detective work! I’ve been trying too to get onto the Cinematheque francais, the French archives, but as in good French style they’re not answering their emails, I’ll have to send them stuff by post!

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

sorry for the double-up!

David Tiley
2021 years ago

Boy, what a ladykiller. A man of action, he has taken off his tie.

Even Belmondo would have gone no further.

Seriously, a great snap. I love those old production stills. A historian of sound would probably be able to place that equipment really accurately because it was changing fast. I presume that is a camera built into a sound proofing box, though there is no evidence of any connection for syncing purposes between camera and sound.

It may just have been a staged shot with some gear in a corner since we can see no performers.

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

actually, David, I think it was taken at a break in the shooting..or perhaps just before it started. I’ve got a couple of others from that film, one of which shows him in action(backside foremost!) with performers sitting around, also a lovely still actually of a scene of a dance..Will try and upload those too, just for interest’s sake! And because they’re great pics..He was certainly a ladykiller, very debonair, handsome and elegant(part of the reason for his doing the Fairbanks stunt was he looked quitea lot like him). And he was very sporty too–loved fast cars(he had a gorgeous red Bugatti in the 30’s, and his family owned some fantastic cars), motorbikes(his sister told me he had one of the first Harleys imported into France), skiing, and so on..He was very disappointed in his only son, my father, who hates all sports with a passion!
But he was also very aggressive and domineering..and at times quite scary!

Pip Wilson
2021 years ago

Hello, Sophie,
Was just surfing by this place for the first time and saw your name (old Simply Living days). Fascinating piece. Good luck. Pip

sophie
sophie
2021 years ago

Why, hello, Pip! How very nice to see you here..thanks so much for dropping by.