04 December 2011

Louis Jouvet

Louis Jouvet (1887 - 1951) was one of the most influential personalities of the 20th century theatre. He is almost forgotten now, but Jouvet used to be a living glory of the French stage. He made a huge impact as both a stage director and an actor. His character, his eagle-like profile and his unique way of speaking made him also an unforgettable film star who appeared in some of the masterpieces of the ‘poetical realism’, the Golden Age of the French cinema.

Louis Jouvet
French postcard by Editions O.P., Paris, nr. 123. Photo: Paramount.

Louis Jouvet
Belgian postcard. Offered by Kwatta chocolade. Photo: Dist. Filmsonor/N. Els, Bromurite.

A Staccato, Syncopated Diction
Jules Eugène Louis Jouvet was born in Crozon, Bretagne in 1887 in a devoutly catholic family. His father, from Brive, was an engineer, his mother Eugénie was from the Ardennes. As a youth, he had a stammering and diction problem. When he was 14, his father was crushed under rocks while he was overseeing the digging of a tunnel. After this tragedy, Louis left with his mother to live with an uncle in Rethel in the Ardennes. From 1904, he studied pharmacy in Paris, but he spent all his spare time in the theatres. His first job was as a pharmacy assistant, but he longed to be an actor. Louis auditioned for the Conservatoire National Superieur d'Art Dramatique de Paris but he was rejected three times. He was reproached for his bad diction and his physical appearance. In 1908 he started to work for a theatre company as a administrator, later as a setdresser, as an assistant, and in 1910 he finally made his stage debut in a production of The Brothers Karamazov. That year he also played a minor role in the film Shylock (1910, Henri Desfontaines), starring Harry Baur. In 1912 he married Else Collin, with whom he would have three children, among them actress Lisa Jouvet. In 1913, Jacques Copeau engaged him as a director for his Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. This meant the turning point in his career. For a while, he was better known for his lighting design than for his acting (he even designed a new kind of lamp that bears his name). But critics and public alike soon took notice of Jouvet's great acting talent in memorable productions of Molière's La Jalousie du Barbouillé, and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night . He masked his speaking problems with a staccato, syncopated diction which made him instantly famous. From 1919 till 1921 he worked in New York, appearing with his troupe in a repertory of productions that received much acclaim. In 1922, he broke with Jacques Copeau, and started his career as a stage director. He founded his own theatre company at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. There, he had his first great success with Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine (1923) by Jules Romains, which he played 1500 times. In 1928, he met author Jean Giraudoux of whom he would go on to direct several plays. In 1934 he also became a teacher of acting technique and theatrical history at the Conservatoire de Paris. From 1935 on, he managed the Théâtre de l'Athénée where the first performances took place of Giraudoux’ La guerre de Troie n'aura pas lieu (Tiger at the Gates) (1935), and Ondine (1939).

Louis Jouvet
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 3. Photo: Studio Piaz.

Louis Jouvet
French postcard by Collection Chantal, Paris, no. 563. Photo: Paramount.

Louis Jouvet
French postcard by Editions Chantal, Paris, no. 563. Photo: Dist. Les Films Vog. Perhaps for Un carnet de bal (1937, Julien Duvivier).

Undisputed Classics
Louis Jouvet would dedicate his life to the theatre. He is reputed to have said that he acted in films only so that he could raise the money to finance his stage work. Yet his 32 films, many of which are now undisputed classics of the French cinema, provide an enduring record of his talent and enable us to appreciate this great actor. He made his first significant film appearance in Topaze (1932, Louis Gasnier), an adaptation of a play written by Marcel Pagnol, whom Jouvet admired greatly. The following year, he enjoyed his first commercial film success with the adaptation of his stage hit Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine/Knock (1933, Louis Jouvet, Roger Goupillières) opposite his later wife Madeleine Ozeray. Soon more successes followed, such as La kermesse héroïque/Carnival in Flanders (1935, Jacques Feyder) and Un Carnet de bal/Dance Program (1937, Julien Duvivier), but his subtle, forceful, witty performances redeemed also some poor films. His finest performances were in some of the masterpieces of the poetic realism cinema: the farce Drôle de drame/Bizarre, Bizarre (1936, Marcel Carné) opposite Michel Simon, Hotel du Nord (1938, Marcel Carné) with Arletty, and La fin du jour/The End of a Day (1939, Julien Duvivier) with Jean Gabin. Jouvet also appeared in two films by Jean Renoir: Les bas-fonds/The Lower Depths (1936) and La Marseillaise/The Marseillaise (1938). In 1941, having experienced serious problems with the censorship of the German occupier, he took his repertory company for a tour of South America. Only after the war, Jouvet returned to France. Again as the director of the théâtre de l’Athénée, he created with Giraudoux La Folle de Chaillot (The Madwoman of Chaillot) (1945). He also helped the new theatre figures like André Barsacq, Jean-Louis Barrault and Jean Vilar. Jouvet’s most significant success in the post-war cinema was in the atmospheric thriller Quai des Orfèvres/Quay of the Goldsmiths (1947, Henri-Georges Clouzot) with Suzy Delair. In 1950, he received the Légion d'honneur. Louis Jouvet died of a heart attack in 1951 in Paris. Just before his death he had appeared in a new film adaptation of his old success, Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine: Knock/Dr. Knock (1951, Guy Lefranc). Louis Jouvet was married twice: to Else Collin and to Madeleine Ozeray. He was the uncle of Anglo-French actor Peter Wyngarde.

Scene from Knock ou le triomphe de la médecine/Knock (1933). Sadly no subtitles. Source: Pianissimo57 (YouTube).

Louis Jouvet and Jean Gabin in Les bas-fonds/The Lower Depths (1936). Again no subtitles. Source: Phildesfr (YouTube).

Funny, short scene from Drôle de drame/Bizarre, Bizarre (1936) with Jouvet and Michel Simon. Source: SkippyleGrandGourou (YouTube).

Sources: Volker Boehm (IMDb), Geocities, Films de France, Rovi, Wikipedia, and IMDb.

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