17 October 2013

Gaston Modot

French actor Gaston Modot (1887-1970) starred both in silent and sound films by such major directors as Abel Gance, Luis Buñuel, Jean Renoir, Marcel Carné, and Julien Duvivier.

Gaston Modot
French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 416. Photo: Cliché Sartony.

Comedies Series and Westerns in the Camarque

French actor Gaston Modot was born in Paris in 1887. For over 50 years (1909-1962) he was active as a film actor, playing with almost all important French directors.

Modot, the son of an architect, originally was interested in painting. At the beginning of the 20th century he lived in Montmartre, meeting Picasso and Modigliani, but also writers like Blaise Cendrars.

After a try at painting he became a film set decorator, thus entering the world of cinema.

In 1909 he started to act for the Gaumont company where he was part of the gang of the Pouittes in the comical adventure films by Jean Durand.

He also often acted in the comical series with Calino and Onésime (both Ernest Bourbon) and Zigoto (Lucien Bataille), and in the late 1910s also those with Serpentin (Marcel Levesque).

With Joë Hamman, he performed in his western series shot in the Camargue.

During the First World War he started to combine his comic parts more and more with dramatic performances.

Examples are a supporting part as domestic (not as protagonist, as Wikipedia claims) in Mater dolorosa/Sorrowful Mother (Abel Gance, 1917), starring Emmy Lynn and Firmin Gémier, and the part of Bertuccio in Le comte de Monte Cristo/The Count of Monte Cristo (Henri Pouctal, 1914-1917), a serial in 8 episodes.

Joë Hamman
Joë Hamman. French postcard by Editions Cinémagazine, no. 118.

Exotic Male Antagonists

After the First World War, Gaston Modot got more interested in acting in the artistic intellectual films of the so-called French Impressionism, such as Germaine Dulac’s La Fête espagnole/Spanish Fiesta (1919) and Louis Delluc’s Fièvre/Fever (1921), both with Ève Francis.

With Max Linder, Modot played in Abel Gance’s horror comedy Au secours!/Help! (1924).

He mostly acted though in more conventional productions such as La terre du diable/The land of the devil (Luitz-Morat, 1922), shot around Mount Vesuvius in Italy. It was one of the rare films in which Modot was the male protagonist of the film. He played the Italian shepherd Ascanio who keeps Betsy, a British woman, at his home and involves the demon.

Other examples are Mathias Sandorf (Henri Fescourt, 1921) with Romuald Joubé, the serial Les Mystères de Paris/Mysteries of Paris (Charles Burguet, 1922), Le miracle des loups/Miracle of the Wolves (Raymond Bernard, 1924), Carmen (Jacques Feyder, 1926) with Raquel Meller, La merveilleuse vie de Jeanne d’Arc, fille de Lorraine/Saint Joan the Maid (Marco de Gastyne, 1927-1929), and, again, Monte Christo (Henri Fescourt, 1929) with Jean Angelo.

Modot often played exotic male antagonists in orientalist dramas such as La sultane de l'amour/The Sultan of Love (Charles Le Burguet, René Le Somptier, 1919), A l'horizon du Sud/On the horizon of the South (Marco de Gastyne, 1923), and Sous le ciel d'orient/Under the sky of the Orient (Fred Leroy-Granville, 1927).

In the late 1920s Modot performed in several German-French co-productions such as Geheimnisse des Orients/Secrets of the Orient (Alexander Volkoff, 1928) with Iván Petrovich, and Die Stadt der tausend Freuden/The City of Thousand Joys (Carmine Gallone, 1928) with Paul Richter.

 Opposite Lya Lys as The Woman, Modot became famous for his part as The Man in the Surrealist and anti-establishment film L'Âge d'Or/The Golden Age (1930) by Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali.

When shown at the Parisian art house Studio 28, right-wing fanatics destroyed the film screen and the Surrealist paintings in the lobby of the cinema.

Raquel Meller
Raquel Meller. French postcard by Ed. Art de Comoedia, quotidien des theatres, in the series Nos Artistes Dans Leur Loge, no. 20 . Concessionnaire: Editions Lafayette, Paris. Photo: Comoedia.


In The Left Wing Camp

In 1930 Gaston Modot had his first role in sound cinema with René Clair's Sous les toits de Paris/Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), starring Albert Préjean.

When in the 1930s the situation politicized in France, Modot was clearly in the left wing camp.

He played Peachum, king of the beggars, in the French film adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, L’Opéra de quat’sous (G.W. Pabst, 1931); a soldier in the Spanish Civil War drama La Bandera/Escape from Yesterday (Julien Duvivier, 1935) starring Jean Gabin; and Gaston Ravaux in the communist drama Le temps des cérises/The Time of the Cherries (Jean-Paul Dreyfus = Jean-Paul Le Chanois, 1937).

He also joined the left wing cast of Jean Renoir’s collective production La vie est à nous/The People of France (1936), a political pamphlet funded by the Communist Party to support the electoral campaign of the Popular Front.

Modot became a regular of Renoir’s cast, performing in his First World War drama La grande illusion/Grand Illusion (1937) and his French revolution drama La Marseillaise (1937-1938).

Unforgettable he was in Renoir’s La règle du jeu/The Rules of the Game (Jean Renoir, 1939) as Schumacher, the explosive gamekeeper who chases Marceau, lover (Carette) of his wife Lisette (Paulette Dubost), all through the villa and the garden of the rich marquis Robert (Marcel Dalio) and his wife Christine (Nora Gregor), accidentally killing an aviation hero (Roland Toutain) who happened to be Christine’s lover.

Apart from Renoir, in the 1930s Modot played also memorable parts as Firmin in Fantômas (Paul Fejos, 1932), police officer Matra in Crainquebille (Jacques Feyder, 1934) starring Tramel, and Jimmy in Pépé le Moko (Julien Duvivier, 1937) starring Jean Gabin and Mireille Balin.

During the war years, he played the blind man Fil de soie in Marcel Carné’s two-part Les enfants du paradis (1945).

During and in the immediate post-war years Modot was also co-screenwriter for a handful of films.

Memorable parts of his post-war acting career he played in Casque d’or (Jacques Becker, 1951), French Cancan (Jean Renoir, 1954) and Le testament du Dr. Cordelier/The Testament of Doctor Cordelier (Jean Renoir, 1961).

In 1962 Gaston Modot ended his career, after acting in over 300 films, both shorts and features.

Modot died in 1970 in Paris. He was 82.

Fièvre/Fever (1921). Source: RadioFilmandTV (YouTube).

Sound sequence of L'Age d'Or/The Golden Age (1930). Source: GWijthoff (YouTube).

Sources: cineressources.bifi.fr/, Wikipedia (English, German, French and Italian) and IMDb.

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