Marcel Carné on Children of Paradise: Forty-Five Years Later

The following is excerpted from a 1990 audio interview that originally appeared on the Criterion Collection’s laserdisc edition of Children of Paradise. It was conducted by the late Brian Stonehill, who was a communications and media studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, California, and the author of the 1998 book The Self-Conscious Novel: Artifice in Fiction from Joyce to Pynchon. Translation by Bona Flecchia and Alexandre Mabilon.

Brian Stonehill: What are your fondest memories of the making of Children of Paradise?

Marcel Carné: I shot the film during World War II. I was very bold then, and thinking about it now, it was madness to make such a film in a country lacking the bare necessities. Anyway, I started working on Children of Paradise, and the producer told me that, given the enormous success of Les visiteurs du soir—it had been a big hit at the box office—he now wanted a great film with great impact. It’s rare for a producer to come to a director with such a proposal, so of course I began to think. [Jacques Prévert and I] were living near Nice then, and one day, walking along the promenade des Anglais, scouring for ideas, we ran into Jean-Louis Barrault. I hadn’t seen him since the war began, and we went for a drink. Naturally, we talked nonstop about the theater, and he started to tell us about what had happened to the mime [Jean-Gaspard] Deburau. The artist was at the height of his fame—not that he was world-renowned, because at the time news didn’t travel so fast, but he was very famous in Paris and even in the French provinces. He was walking arm in arm with his mistress—he was wealthy then—when a drunkard called out to him and insulted the woman profusely, calling her a whore and all sorts of names. Seeing that the man was drunk, Deburau pushed him aside. The man, with that insistence peculiar to drunkards, came back at him. Finally, Deburau, exasperated, hit the man with his cane and, by some fluke, killed him. So he was tried, and it was a very public trial. But the reason we were so taken by the story, and why we would have liked to do it, was that the whole of Paris attended the trial only to hear the mime speak, to know what his voice sounded like. We thought it was a fantastic idea. We went back to our country retreat, near Nice, and started thinking. We soon realized that it wasn’t a good idea for a movie, that if we chose Barrault to play the part of Deburau, the audience would already be familiar with his voice. There was no suspense. And on the other hand, if we chose some unknown actor, people would have mocked his voice. So we gave up the idea . . . Well, actually, Prévert wanted to give up, but I said no, because I felt that the period in question—the boulevard du Crime, the theater—and a film paying tribute to it sounded good to me. So I went to the great Musée Carnavalet in Paris, to the prints department, sure that I would bring back some stuff. I also wanted to go to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, to a little bookstore I knew about a hundred yards from here, and to another one right behind it, to look for books about that period and its theater. I went to the Carnavalet and had copies of two hundred prints made. I found three or four books about the theater, and in one of those I found out that the upper balcony was called “Paradise.”

BS: And that wasn’t a common expression at the time.

MC: Not common at all. Nobody used it. Now people call it the henhouse, in common terms . . . So we played around with words. There was a toy store that no longer exists, on the rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Madeleine. It was called the Paradise of Children. So we called the film Children of Paradise, but it can bear a double meaning. The children could be the dead, so they are in heaven/paradise, or they could be the actors who play those characters. Also, the actors can be the children of the audience up there in Paradise.

BS: Was the Grand Théâtre actually directly facing the Théâtre des Funambules, the way it is [in the film]?

MC: No, it’s not facing it, it’s next to it. If you look at the boulevard du Crime, the Funambules is farther down, and the Grand Théâtre is on the left. Everything is on the left. There’s nothing on the right except panels of buildings for background shots. But we couldn’t build anything too spectacular, since the set was eighty to a hundred yards long . . . So we worked, we discussed the actors we could use. The great thing about Jacques was that we had the same taste when it came to actors. We liked and hated—well, “hated” may be a bit much, but we liked and disliked the same ones. And that was always the case. There was never a time when I mentioned using an actor and he’d say no because he didn’t like him or her.

So we started working suddenly and furiously. We realized that the film was going to be very long. See, people said that the performers on the boulevard du Crime were geniuses. We had to show that. It’s too easy to say that Mr. So-and-so is a genius. You have to express that he was a genius, was well respected, brilliant, and so on. You have to show it somehow, and that takes up reel time. French movies are generally about an hour and forty minutes long. We realized we had an additional twenty to thirty minutes of footage. People said that there was too much dialogue, although thirty-seven minutes of the film is pantomime. Anyway, we had to add those thirty-seven minutes to the hour and forty minutes. I said I didn’t want that responsibility. The producer was the director of the Studios de la Victorine in Nice. So I went down to Nice to see the producer. I told him everything was going well, that we were happy, and he was enthusiastic about the subject we’d chosen. Then I told him, “There’s a small problem, André [Paulvé]. The film is going to be very long.” He said, “What do you mean by very long?” I replied, “It’s going to be two hours and ten or fifteen minutes.” Of course, he replied, “But that’s going to cost a lot more money. And I’m not going to have any returns.” We thought about it, and he said to me, “Do you want to do it in two parts? Because I could manage that.” Two hours and fifteen minutes does not amount to two parts, so I said, “Listen, I can’t agree to make two parts all by myself. I’m going back to the country to see Prévert.” I had to take a tiny little train. It took three or four hours to travel six or seven miles. It was ridiculous. Jacques and I thought about it, and he finally said, “Yes, we can do it.” I went back down to Nice; the phone didn’t work, or at least not very well, so I had to go back down to tell André whether or not I accepted. I did, on the condition that in Paris, at least at first, they would project both parts in the same movie theater.

When we showed the film to Gaumont, which ended up becoming the final distributor, I said, “This is what the first producer promised me.” They told me they were under no obligation to honor the original producer’s commitment and asked me if I had any documents. I told them that I didn’t, that I simply trusted the producer’s word. We went through what seemed the longest negotiation. They eventually agreed. So we doubled the ticket price. I also asked them, “When you show the three-hour-and-ten-minute film, if I’m right, you’ll show it at 2:00, 5:30, and 9:00.” They said, “Yes.” So I went on, “I’d like for people to be able to buy tickets from the box office at 9:00 p.m.” They said, “That’s impossible—we’ll need one more person.” I said, “Come on, don’t make me laugh.” “Even worse, we’ll need two, since there are two theaters.” But I got them to agree because I had noticed that movies were doing very well during the war. We had no entertainment—no more television, no restaurants. The only thing left was the performing arts. That’s why cinema suddenly took off. French people discovered dance, classical music; they went to concerts and plays . . . I told the producers to do this: we’d sell the tickets at eighty francs apiece, which was double the normal price, and if, at the end of two weeks, revenues were lower, then they could do what they wanted. Revenues didn’t decrease for forty-five weeks. So the film stayed in its original cut.

I don’t know what it’s like in New York, in America, but I had assembled two versions of the movie: one where the film ran all at once, and another where it ran in two parts. The two-parter was shown over two different weeks, so we ran the opening score and a synopsis of what had happened in the first part. When it ran all at once, we didn’t need the synopsis. There was a five-minute intermission, and people would have a beer and come back into the theater, and it would start with Part Two. Pathé always ran the film in two parts, with the synopsis, even if they showed the whole thing at once. The audience got a bit upset, booed a little when they saw the synopsis, but I was never able to get them to show the single-segment version.

BS: What was it like to shoot during the occupation?

MC: It was a bit troublesome. We met with a lot of obstacles when we shot Les visiteurs du soir, in terms of materials—costumes, sets that needed a coat of shiny paint, or staff, which, you know, is made of plaster and horsehair. Horsehair was hard to come by in those days, so we used grass. Furthermore, we needed insulation material to coat the plaster, so we could paint over it before it dried. But we couldn’t find coating material either—it was requisitioned—so we just painted over the wet plaster, and we’d get big splotches forming on it. So we’d stop the take and cover the splotches. Also, we had a shiny paint for the pavement, and the actors would chip it with their shoes. We had ways of fixing it, but it was aggravating. What’s more, people were famished. We’d put fruit on the table, and the fruit was eaten even before we finished setting up. In the end, sadly enough, we had to inject fruit with phenol so the crew wouldn’t eat it. But we still had to put real fruit there for the takes, so the actors could use it. We warned everyone not to eat the fake fruit—it gave them diarrhea—and said that we’d put fresh fruit on the table only when we started shooting. There was a property man who’d set up the fruit plate. We had huge loaves of bread, and once, during a take, a loaf of bread was in my way, so I pushed it away to remove it from the shot, and it felt surprisingly light. I turned it over—there was a hole as big as my hand. The cameramen had eaten the entire inside of the loaf. Things like this happened every day. Satin, silk, velvet, we couldn’t find any of that stuff.

Children of Paradise, miraculously, was much easier. We didn’t need staff so much as wood for the decor, and we found people willing to sell materials—at outrageous prices, of course. A famous English tailor from the Lanvin store was wonderful about providing us with material for Arletty’s dresses. There were people who had materials that you couldn’t find. There were three or four stores of that kind, but those products were reserved for the German officers. Similarly, there were four or five restaurants in Paris for the superior officers, meaning lieutenant colonels and above. A commander was not allowed to go. I went there, even though the prices were exorbitant, but I liked a good meal. I made a pretty good living . . . Well, I did for a while, and then it got a little worse because, while we were shooting the movie, they asked us to make concessions, and I worked for free for six months or so and had to sell my parents’ house.

BS: Did you have any problems with censorship during the making of the film?

MC: Not at all. And yet we feared we might because people had said as much. In Les visiteurs du soir, there was some political innuendo—like the heart beating under the rock represented the heart of France beating under the occupation. The devil was Hitler. All kinds of things like that were interpreted as symbols, while neither Prévert nor myself had even thought about it.

BS: And during Children of Paradise?

MC: We were very scared. Since the film wasn’t finished, we had to be slyer than they were. What was really annoying was when we had scenes with extras, and God knows there were a lot. In the morning, the Germans came in with their own extras, from the unions, and made us use them. So we had to talk them out of it, since we didn’t like them—they were collaborators, you understand. We didn’t want them, so we invented excuses, saying that they didn’t have the right physique for nineteenth-century France. I’d say, “I have nothing against this gentleman, but I can’t use him.” We cheated like that all the time . . . I mean, it wasn’t all that terrible. What was absolutely terrible was that we were closely watched, because of the Resistance.

One day, I asked for one of the production directors—there were two of them—and I was told he would be back in an hour. I said, “He’s not here?” “No, he went to run an errand.” So I said, “Fine.” An hour passed, and then another. So I asked for the production director again—I forget his name. Finally, I found out that he had run off because there were two Gestapo agents waiting for him downstairs in our second-floor studio. We had opened a garage behind the studio to make it into a costume shop, and he fled that way. If, by chance, we hadn’t, the Gestapo would have seized him. I had an assistant director who—he never told me, but I learned later—was one of the leaders of the Resistance. I was upset, but there were obviously a lot of partisans in the crew.

Anyway, I had some problems because Arletty, as we all know, was the mistress of a Gestapo officer. A well-known one, actually, whom I met by chance once—handsome, intelligent, well educated. People despised her because of the affair, and she used to receive threats, like little wooden coffins . . .

BS: People say that she was even imprisoned at the time of—

MC: She was. Not exactly imprisoned . . . I had a friend who played a page in Les visiteurs du soir and who was good friends with Arletty. When the Resistance began to surface, she hid at this friend’s house. So he called me on the phone, saying, “Marcel, I have to talk to you.” I told him to come by, and he replied, “No, I can’t leave the apartment. I can only meet you at the bistro downstairs.” I asked him what was wrong, and he told me that he would tell me when we met. So I went right away, since he lived close by. He lived on the other side of the Moulin Rouge; it was about a half-mile walk. When I met him, he said, “Arletty’s hiding out in my home.” I said, “That’s a problem. What should we do? Be careful . . . Can’t she go anywhere else?” During that period, there were snipers on the roofs of Montmartre, and they went into homes and searched apartments. Anyway, he left, and two days later, I got a phone call from him saying that Arletty had been arrested in his house. A bunch of partisans knocked at his door. My friend, like an idiot, opened the door, and one of the partisans suddenly said, “Oh, look at the whore over there! Do you see Arletty over there?” So they arrested her, took her away; they came close to shaving her head at the station. They never hit her, but they were very lewd toward her, called her all kinds of nasty names and put her under house arrest outside Paris. There, she had to go see some kind of judge on a daily basis. The judge began to fancy her. Every day she went, and he joked around with her. One morning he said, “How do you feel this morning, Ms. Arletty?” She answered, “Not very ‘resistant.’”

BS: How was it working with her on Children of Paradise?

MC: She was wonderful. She had such stage presence with that double role. You see, Children was infinitely less hassle than Les visiteurs du soir. That’s what you call luck. I had a fantastic crew, because if the crew hadn’t been so solid and tight, since I don’t have a fascist streak in me, nor am I a born leader . . . I mean, you need a center of gravity. You have all the responsibilities, and people have to respond to you. And I never . . . Well, I had some arguments with the technicians, but even those were very mild. I never had serious arguments, and never argued at all with the actors.

BS: How was it working with Jean-Louis Barrault?

MC: He had a lot of input into the pantomime scenes. I chose him because he was a well-known and remarkable mime. [Étienne] Decroux had trained Barrault for a short while too.

BS: Yes, he was his professor—but there was a bit of friction between the two, wasn’t there?

MC: Yes, there was. There was some in the story, but also offstage.

BS: Is there a parallel between the actors’ lives and their roles in the film? Like when we spoke of Arletty earlier, she was also the victim of a judicial blunder.

MC: She clearly was. It was a perfect ending for the first part. It held together pretty well, especially because the first part is a bit longer than the second, and the opposite is usually no good. There are some rules when directing, you know. While shooting, you think the footage is flowing smoothly, but it’s not all usable. I learned about that with [Jacques] Feyder. He said, “See, I showed this scene at length, but when we come to this set, it’ll have to be shorter.”

BS: Did you learn a lot from Feyder?

MC: Not really . . . Well, yes. I did learn how to direct actors. The main influences in my work come especially from German directors, like Fritz Lang, Murnau, Pabst, and Sternberg, mostly for lighting and such. I’m also a fanatic for American cinema. I often watch B movies on television, and there’s always something. I can watch any stupid movie because of the lighting and photography. In France, we can’t work as well with color as we did with black and white. All the colors are very realistic, which is quite strange. If there’s a lamp here, the light has to come from that lamp. [Eugen] Schüfftan showed—as one of his students noticed—a lighted lamp and no light, just a surreal ray above it. That’s what I mean: if you can’t interpret light, then you have amateur photography. It’s so easy today with these new cameras to shoot a beautiful picture.

BS: Forty-five years after its original release, Children of Paradise is still playing in Paris and New York. People say the film is timeless and tireless. Why do you think this is the case?

MC: I have no idea. I can’t pretend I know. When we made the film, we thought it was an important one. It was very long, expensive, with lots of sets and characters, so we knew it would stand out that year, if only because of the production values. We looked at the rushes; we were satisfied with them. But I didn’t like to talk about my films anymore, because I’d had so much fun with Drôle de drame, but when it was released, it received a violently negative critique. People didn’t laugh, while I had enjoyed making it so much.

BS: People, both critics and general audiences, often speak of a sense of richness in Children of Paradise, and of how the film communicates an intense, complex feeling, like life itself. Could you explain how you created that feeling?

MC: First of all, it has to do with the number of characters. It’s a pretty straightforward story. Three men are in love with the same woman in different ways . . . Maybe there are four of them. Anyway, there’s the mime, Frédérick Lemaître, and the count. The important ones are three, at least. Lacenaire loves her as well, in his own way. And she loves each one of them too. I mean . . . There’s a critic who tried to explain it, created a metaphor. He said this story is like a photo developer that would react differently to four different chemicals being dropped into different baths. It’s kind of like that, and that’s what makes for its richness and length. It’s not two men loving the same woman, or two women loving the same man. It’s a lot more complicated than that. The first one, the mime, is shy. The second one is a lady-killer who can’t love and who will discover true love. Lacenaire is the intelligent one who wants to impress her. He finds her very intelligent. She’s not very well educated, but she certainly is intelligent. The count wants to appear with a beautiful lady at his side. He begins to love her when he feels her slipping away. So this plot makes for a complex film. Especially when you consider all the supporting roles. When you have to choose forty, forty-two, fifty-three, or however many people are necessary, you say to yourself, “I can’t make any mistakes.” Because you’re like the conductor—and this is the same for the crew—who has to audition everyone in order to form his orchestra.

BS: Do you lose sleep over picking out your crew?

MC: Of course. When you’re shooting, you’re a bundle of nerves. I am not the same man. I mean, I’m less nervous now because I’m older, but when you think of the amount of pressure you’re under . . . It’s not that I’m proud or cocky, but beforehand, I never fully realize what my expectations of the crew are. When I shot Drôle de drame, all I had made was a little film that was a study in style, and I wasn’t afraid of asking [Louis] Jouvet, [Françoise] Rosay, Michel Simon, Barrault. It was a fantastic crew for a quasi-beginner. I asked them to work with me without thinking about it. Port of Shadows was the same. [Jean] Gabin is the one who wanted me to make it; he wanted to do a movie with me.

BS: What has happened to French cinema since?

MC: I wouldn’t know. When I’m on a television show abroad, somebody inevitably asks me, “Marcel Carné, you belonged to the golden age of French cinema . . .” and so on. It saddens me. And unfortunately, I can’t say they’re wrong. Thanks to the war, we had a certain advantage, since the cinema industry was in full swing. So we could more readily get money to make movies. Nowadays, it’s harder. You have to be a businessman.

BS: How do you feel, from where you’re standing, about the aversion of critics in the so-called New Wave to the cinéma de qualité and the studio system?

MC: It could quite simply be called ambition. To say, “Fine, here I go.” That’s what it is. What was serious was when critics followed suit. But then they became afraid of appearing old-fashioned by defending the cinéma de papa, as we call it. And they made fun of its French quality, which is there. They didn’t do anything—nothing important, anyway. They never made a Carnival in Flanders, a Grand Illusion, or a Children of Paradise, forgive my saying so. They made “intimate” films with some kind of elevator music—like Truffaut. I’m not criticizing Truffaut, but one day we inaugurated a movie theater in the suburbs where there were two theaters: a Truffaut Theater and a Carné Theater. And we went up on the stage together. Truffaut had dragged my name through the mud, mind you, but I was very honored to have my name together with Truffaut’s. I’m not sure he felt the same way. He said so many nasty things about me . . . Anyway, he had no comment, which was easy to do after ten years. He finished his speech by saying, “I’ve made twenty-three movies, and I’d give them all up to have done Children of Paradise.” What could I say after that? Nothing. He said it in front of three or four hundred people, but it was never written down . . . I am not upset with him anymore. At that time, if I was in a studio or whatever, and Mr. Godard came in, he said nothing to me, not even hello. It’s almost as if he turned his back on me. I mean, I didn’t like many of his movies, but I found some things interesting once in a while, like in Weekend and Pierrot le fou. Those movies were quite sassy. Well, sassy may be a bit slangy, so let’s say they were bold. When they said, “At least we can shoot on location, something the old filmmakers couldn’t do”—they shot on location, fine, but they owe that to the talents of the photochemists and engineers, not to their own. Negatives now are sensitive even to the light of small fixtures. Where we needed huge ones that weighed twenty to thirty pounds, they have little ones the size of lightbulbs. The same can be said about sound. When I started, we had a truck on the set with a whole system and three technicians, including a boom guy who made shadows on the walls of the set. If they didn’t have the photosensitivity of the new negative, if they didn’t have engineers, and if they had kept the cameras and projectors we used to have, they could have never shot their films on location. It wasn’t easy. I remember I wanted to shoot I forget which film at Paul-Louis Veller’s palace in the Marais. He said, “No way. You’re a good friend, and if you want to organize a dinner for the release, I’ll be glad to help you. But I’ll never let you put your equipment on my antique wooden floor. Even if you were my own son, I would not allow it.”

BS: In Children of Paradise, which character do you identify with the most, in terms of your own sensibility; which one do you admire?

MC: You can’t admire them. They’re all different. I admire Barrault’s sensibility, Brasseur’s ease of speech, and the breeding of the count. Never has an actor seemed so noble as [Louis] Salou. He had so much class . . . I can’t say. The one I feel most akin to is Barrault/Deburau. When all is said and done, I am a big sentimentalist, even if I don’t seem that way. In terms of my private and intimate life, I’m very vulnerable.

 MC: No! I don’t think so. There are . . . let me think . . . other unhappy lovers. I don’t know. They did a biography on Molière. He was unlucky in love. What’s funny is that all great men had wives who cheated on them, almost all of them. Even kings—which was dangerous for the one who cheated, but it’s a fact . . . I don’t think so. It may be that, because he communicates more, he is more expressive through his face and gestures than the others.

BS: Is that side of Deburau’s character, his using images as a means of expression, something you feel close to?

MC: Maybe, maybe. Pantomime was not my forte, at least not consciously. But there were some things I showed Jean-Louis by miming them. It wasn’t easy to shoot.

BS: We spoke about the shooting of Children as a series of successes, with very few problems. Didn’t you have any difficulties or friction during the shoot?

MC: No friction at all. When we shot the carnival scene, though, something horrible happened for which I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forgive myself . . . We shot the carnival scene, and the assistant director told me there were two guys asking for one of the extras in the office. “Do they look French?” I asked. “Yes, they have Nice accents. The extra’s wife is very sick, and she wants to see her husband before she dies.” You understand, we were living in fear back then, so I asked him what they looked like. “They look French. They don’t look like Gestapo . . .” We still didn’t know then. We learned all those things a little at a time. I said, “Did they look at the list of those present?” All the extras usually sign in when they get in, so if someone gets here late or goes for a walk . . . He said no. I said, “Tell them he’s not here.” We continued to shoot, and he came back, saying, “Mr. Carné, I am sorry to insist, but the wife got hit by a tram and had both her legs cut off. She’s going to die without seeing her husband unless he’s at the hospital in one hour.” I wasn’t sure what to do. I had given them an answer, so I sent the assistant director to get the extra. They went into the office, and the assistant director came back five minutes later, haggard. It was two Gestapo agents. I never forgave myself for that.

Remember I told you about a leader of the Resistance in my crew? That was him. I grabbed him and said, “How could you not tell they were Gestapo? They have suits and a certain look. Even I can recognize them. How could you, a leader of the Resistance, not be able to tell?” He told me I couldn’t have told either. They had Nice accents; they looked French. The Gestapo was very influential in Nice.

BS: During the shoot, you had people working clandestinely on the film.

MC: We had [Alexandre] Trauner and [Joseph] Kosma . . . Trauner did the models of the sets, not the sets themselves, for Les visiteurs du soir, and I had to go and get them past Nice, in a faraway town. And there was [Georges] Wakhevitch for Les visiteurs du soir, and [Léon] Barsacq for Children, who accepted the work. It was brave because I risked going to the camps, whereas Prévert, who didn’t choose the crew, didn’t. It was my responsibility. Once, I went over there to see the models, and Trauner wanted to come to Nice to see how the set of the castle had turned out. Prévert talked him out of it and told me he’d almost decked him. After that, he hid in a cabin in the middle of the forest. Kosma was in a little hotel hidden in the trees right outside Cannes. He gave me the lyrics for two songs for Les visiteurs, and he thanked me, the guy who gave him work, by saying that he was the one who had composed the music for Les visiteurs, when it was actually Maurice Thiriet. He did the hunt, the tournament, the entire orchestration. Kosma asked for the rights to it in court and lost. They both did their part. He only gave me two pages. After that, Trauner always tried to brush me aside, almost pretending he was the filmmaker. So I let it go for a while, but finally I told everyone the truth. Furthermore, those two are far from having worked on all my movies. Same with Schüfftan, who made three films with me, out of twenty-three. It’s not many.

BS: What dedication do you want to put on the film when it goes to home video and gets viewed by the entire world?

MC: What I’d do . . . I’ll tell you what moves me the most. When they stop me in the street, if they recognize me, they never tell me I am really talented or that my films are great. They always, always say: “Thank you for the joy you have given me.” So I hope that this disc will provide them with equal joy. It doesn’t move me because I am a very sensitive person but because it makes me happy to hear it. I’ll always remember the first time I went into a theater to see people’s reactions to Hôtel du Nord. I saw them laughing—everybody was laughing. And it made me happy.

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