Fanny (1961)

Ring a Ding Ding

Fanny (1961)

     What is it about a story of young love interrupted by life’s challenges, leaving two people forever apart but always longing, that tugs at the heartstrings? The story of Fanny might be nothing new, merely a re-assembling of plots from other classic stories (“The Count of Monte Cristo” and “Wuthering Heights” come to mind) and a story in its third screen incarnation, but it remains a somewhat unpredictable romance as one is unsure how things will unravel. I would not say grab the tissues, but, ladies, prepare to sigh.

     Leslie Caron‘s Fanny and Horst Buchholz‘s Marius grew up together in the waterfront town of Marseilles. Fanny works with her mother (Georgette Anys) as fish mongers while Marius helps run a bar with this father, Cesare (Charles Boyer). As we enter the action, it is Fanny’s 18th birthday and she has the day off to wear a sleeveless “skimpy” dress. Marius is also secretly planning to join a ship crew transporting scientists leaving port the next day for a five-year duration. For some inexplicable reason, Marius longs for a life at sea, having overblown fantasies about what exotic islands are like. Fanny has been flirting with Marius all day, but the boy is too dense to do anything about. When the girl leads on the 58-year-0ld Panisse (Maurice Chevalier) in front of him, however, Marius puts on quite the angry show that ends with the two men strangling each other. Cesare breaks up the fight between his son and his best friend/enemy.

     That night, Fanny comes to Marius as he is closing the bar and the two sneak off to the pier (the girl’s mother is out of town). Fanny declares her obvious love for the boy and proclaims she knows he feels the same, but Marius tries to resist kissing the girl in his arms as he explains his sailor ambitions. The two eventually lock lips in an exceedingly romantic moment as Marius reveals he has thus far avoided a seaward voyage because of the young woman. The next scene is Fanny’s mother returning home to find two liqueur glasses and a man’s belt at her kitchen table, Marius in her daughter’s bed. She runs to Cesare furious and the two plot a marriage between the two. When the couple arrives, they are agreeable, but hearing his father’s plans for his life visibly upsets Marius. Fanny convinces him at the last minute to board the sailing vessel by telling him she plans to marry the rich Panisse.

     Both Cesare and Fanny mourn the fleeing of the young man, but the situation worsens when a forthcoming child is discovered. Fanny’s mother insists she marry Panisse, who is all too happy to be getting a child with the arrangement as no one in his family produced an heir. Cesare learns of the situation and becomes agreeable when he is allowed to be godfather, giving him an excuse to be involved in the life of his actual grandson. Almost two years later Marius is on leave for a few hours and visits Fanny where he puts together the puzzle of the child’s origin. He is hurt and ashamed and wants to take over –and Panisse is willing to step down– but Fanny refuses despite still loving the man. Jump about 10 years ahead where the story will end. Marius has been out of contact with everyone he once knew. The Panisse’s are living happily away from the waterfront, but the child has a longing to go to sea.

    The origin of this production of Fanny can be traced back to a French play by Marcel Pagnol, which was made into a movie in both France and then America in the 1930s. Hollywood also made an adaptation called The Port of Seven Seas, but that version varied greatly from the original story. This approach was actually a translation of a Broadway musical version with book by Joshua Logan (this film’s director) and S. N. Behrman. Jack Warner opted to delete the songs from the story, however, believing that audiences had grown tired of musicals. Ironically then, West Side Story beat Fanny for best picture in 1961. The movie was also nominated for Best Actor for Boyer, Score, Editing and Cinematography.

     Despite the Academy’s apparent favor of the camerawork, I did not care for the cinematography in Fanny. There were times when fast zooms or camera sweeps make me think I was watching a cheesey 70s horror film starring Vincent Price. Director of Photography Jack Cardiff also used a lot of close ups on Marius and especially Fanny’s face as they looked directly into the lens. It gave an intimate feel to the moment, drawing the viewer into the action, but it was sometimes employed even when the characters were not looking at one another. It was also hampered greatly, I feel, by a soft focus lens used exclusively for Caron. I have never been a fan of that approach typically used for close ups of women’s faces to make they look “more beautiful.” I always find actresses more attractive when I can see the details of their faces. Alfred Hitchcock was also an anti-soft focus guy. I seem to recall an argument with David O. Selznick over using it for Joan Fontaine in Rebecca … but that’s another story.

  • Fanny is set for 5:15 p.m. ET April 25 on TCM.

Source: Ben Mankiewicz

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