The Good. Marseilles is famed as one tough town, the wickedest port this side of New Orleans, but here it is photographed in unforgettable, blue-and-gold tinged beauty by cinematographer Jack Cardiff. The gorgeous score rises and falls (but mostly rises) in the background, reminding the Siren that this was an adaptation of a Broadway musical that condensed Pagnol's trilogy. Warner Brothers, still three years away from its highly successful My Fair Lady, at the time was convinced that musicals were a bad bet at the box office.
The story revolves around the Marseilles waterfront and its people. The Siren is a big fan of Charles Boyer, and he's wonderful as the bartender César. Boyer's performance, in its charm and working-class toughness, hearkened back to his star-making turn in Fritz Lang's Liliom many years earlier. Here Boyer gives César just the right touch of the philosopher to go with the roughneck bossiness.
Maurice Chevalier was often accused of giving mannered, tricksy performances in later life. The Siren would argue that it's a question of whether the tricks still charm, and fit with the character, but here the issue is moot because Chevalier jettisons the old gestures and gives a gentle version of Panisse, the elderly storekeeper who marries Fanny. The Siren wouldn't call his acting in Fanny naturalistic, but it has the ring of truth, Chevalier's reactions becoming those of Panisse and not his usual boulevardier. He manages to make the man's essentially unrequited love for Fanny touching, not creepy and Humbert-ish as it so easily could have been.
The Siren loves Leslie Caron (I said that before, didn't I?) and she is graceful and honest as Fanny. Her character's motivations could seem base in the wrong hands, but Caron plays to Fanny's desire to please and keeps our sympathy. Many women of 29, as Caron was when she made Fanny, can't play teenagers even if they still look that young--you simply don't believe in their innocence. In fact, even some teens can't play the naivete of youth. But Caron hits each life stage's notes perfectly, as a young girl still testing her allure like a chemistry set, through the fearful onset of adulthood when Fanny discovers her pregnancy, and then finally into the mature mother of the film's final third. So that leaves us with
The Minor (problem, that is), which is Horst Buchholz, playing Marius, the young man who impregnates Fanny and then goes off to sea. He was in vogue at that moment, on a great roll that would also include One, Two, Three and The Magnificent Seven in the same two-year period. Buchholz was gorgeous and the Fanny fans at IMDB seem to love him, but the Siren can't agree, not here. His jaws work back and forth whenever he must show emotion and if it's a big moment his head jerks around like a meerkat in a nature video. Quite aside from the actor's German accent, which isn't as bothersome as you might think, he snaps out his lines like marching orders. He is intense and brooding at all times, even when he is supposed to convey the joy of young love. Buchholz had an onscreen air of supreme self-involvement, which worked beautifully for his tag-along gunfighter in Magnificent Seven and the slogan-spouting Communist in the Wilder movie. Here it works in the first act, as he stalks around Fanny, unwilling to declare his love or watch her flirt with anyone else, and later, when he must act selfishly. But his crucial love scenes with Caron are less moving than they should have been.
So now we are left only with
The Major. Fanny forms an interesting way to look at the roles of cinematographer and director, how they differ and how much influence each has on the final visuals. The lighting in Fanny is perfection, the colors exquisite, sets are blended seamlessly with location photography. (Glenn Erickson astutely points out how the waterfront can always be glimpsed beyond the entry of Cesar's bar.) But the choice of what the camera is pointing at, the way the shots fit together, is dull and choppy. At best the mise-en-scène is something you can ignore to concentrate on the characters, the story and the beauty of the photography; at worst it becomes intrusive and annoying. The minimum a director should be able to do is prevent the audience from thinking "why are we looking at this?" Erickson says "Cardiff's eye is apparent in every camera angle. We get the feeling that director Logan concentrated on his actors and left the visuals to a master." Would that it were so. Other films that Cardiff worked on, such as John Huston's The African Queen and Powell and Pressburger's Black Narcissus, have an elegance of blocking and camera movement that Fanny does not. Given that South Pacific and Camelot both have Fanny's unimaginative framing and cumbersome lack of flow, the Siren puts on her deerstalker, takes a puff on her meerschaum and fingers Logan as the culprit.
Logan wasn't always like that--he did a good job with Picnic--but here he has no sense of how to shoot conversation in a way that doesn't beg for a proscenium arch. The Siren has many curmudgeonly problems with recent big-budget movies, and one is how stingy filmmakers have become with real close-ups for anything other than fast-cut, grotesque emphasis, say a villain or somebody who's about to get crushed by an oncoming whatever. But here comes Logan to remind the Siren that older films sometimes abused the close-up too, in this case with overuse, cutting back and forth between characters in a way more suited to the Men's Final at Wimbledon than a widescreen film. Leslie Caron was never more beautiful than here, but even the worshipful Siren began to wonder just how many shimmering, peachy-skinned, coral-lipped close-ups we were supposed to take, especially when they are intercut with medium shots of less-attractive actors shot with crystalline precision. So here's gauzy Leslie filling the screen, cut to old guy from the waist or chest up in sharp focus, with nothing that melds the two or gives a sense of one continuous vision. Nope, it's Leslie's line, time for Leslie's close-up. Or Leslie's reaction. Or what the heck, let's just look at Leslie again.
Fanny, in the end, made the Siren take a look at how much emphasis she places on direction. On that score, you have to flunk the movie. Logan guided three very good performances and one so-so one, but in other respects it's badly directed, end of story. But the Siren can't lie and say she disliked Fanny, when in fact she enjoyed it very much. The delicate theme of romance down the years, children as the thread that binds us together, the beautiful south of France, the intensely lovable characters and most of all Jack Cardiff created a movie that the Siren was powerless to resist completely, Logan or no Logan. It is out in a new widescreen DVD that supposedly looks quite good, so check it out and tell me whether you, too, had to throw your reservations off the pier.
P.S. Yes, the Siren has heard the old story that the director originally wanted the marquee to read "Joshua Logan's Fanny," and thinks that reeks of apocrypha. She'll believe it when someone comes up with a solid source, not just vague tales of the "press pointing out."
P.P.S. If you aren't pouncing on Dan Callahan's every star profile, you are missing out. Two of his best: Leslie Caron (focusing on the Siren's favorite Caron performance, in Lili) and Charles Boyer.