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..