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12 April 2015

Madeleine Robinson

Madeleine Robinson (1917-2004) was a French-Czech, later naturalized Swiss actress. Determinedly independent, she was known for the intensity of her performances but also for her fiery temperament off stage and screen. From 1934 on, she played in 80 films and in numerous TV productions and stage plays and became one France’s most respected actresses. Her film career included several masterpieces like Une si jolie petite plage/Riptide (1949), Dieu a besoin des hommes/God Needs Men (1950) and Orson Welles’ Le Procès/The Trial (1962).

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by S.E.R.P., Paris, no. 109. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by S.E.R.P., Paris, no. 208. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by EPC (Editions et Publications Cinématographiques), no. 202. Photo: Cl. Joffres.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris. no. 59. Offert par les Carbones Korès. Photo: Studio Carlet Ainé.

Strange and intriguing


Madeleine Robinson was born as Yvonne Madeleine Svoboda in Paris in 1917. Her parents, Victor and Suzanne Svoboda, were Czech immigrants, who had come very young to France. Her father was a baker and her mother a tram ticket collector. Her parents separated when she was ten years old.

Madeleine had three brothers and the family was very poor. At 14, she began to work, first as a factory worker and later as a messenger girl and as a maid in the house of an artist. She was admitted as a free listener by Charles Dullin to follow his drama classes at the Théâtre de l'Atelier. Dullin was highly regarded as the teacher of a revolutionary approach to drama eschewing realism in favour of stylisation. Fellow students included Jean Marais and Jean Vilar.

To support herself, she posed as a model for pictures and worked as an extra. She chose the pseudonym ‘Robinson’ because of her childhood memory of reading Robinson Crusoe. He was the image of a free man and her Czech birth name meant ‘freedom’. At the age of 18, she started her film career with a bit role in Tartarin de Tarascon/Tartarin of Tarascon (Raymond Bernard, 1934).

Two years later, she played a starring role as a young mother in the comedy Mioche/40 Girls and a Baby (Léonide Moguy, 1936). Conrad Veidt and Sessue Hayakawa were her co-stars in the drama Tempête sur l'Asie/Storm Over Asia (Richard Oswald, 1938). Oswald and Veidt were both exiles from Germany, and would soon leave for Hollywood.

During the German occupation of France, she made a few of her best films. Strange and intriguing is Lumière d'été/Summer Light (Jean Gremillon, 1942), written by Jacques Prévert. In an isolated mountain hotel, Robinson is a naïve young woman who has come to meet her dissolute fiancé (Pierre Brasseur), a drunken artist. Disappointed in the soullessness of this society and disillusioned by her fiancé, she is drawn to a young engineer (Georges Marchal) whose values eventually inspire her to love. The film was banned by the Vichy authorities for its allegorical attack on the decadence and corruption of the ruling classes.

Also interesting are the drama Douce/Love Story (Claude Autant-Lara, 1943) with Odette Joyeux, and the horror film Sortilèges/The Bellman (Christian-Jaque, 1945).

After the war, Robinson starred opposite Jean Marais in the historical drama Les Chouans/The Royalists (Henri Calef, 1947), an adaptation of a novel by Honoré de Balzac. DB DuMonteil at IMDb: “Marais' aristocratic style and his stunning charisma made the film a winner. He will meet two beautiful women: the first is Madame de Gua, a royalist, one of the chiefs of the chouans, these people who could not accept that their country had become a republic. She is played by a great actress, Madeleine Robinson, who gives a flawless performance: like Marais, she's able to convey subtle feelings from an intense hate to a delicate frailty. The second, Marie de Verneuil is a spy in the pay of the Republicans. Madeleine Lebeau is not exactly on a par with her two tremendous co-stars, but she makes all her scenes count.”

Another highlight was the film noir Une si jolie petite plage/Riptide (Yves Allégret, 1949) with Gérard Philippe as a fugitive at a desolate seaside resort in rainy Normandy in winter. Robinson is a dishevelled chambermaid, who vainly tries to rescue him from despair.

Also remarkable were Dieu a besoin des hommes/God Needs Men (Jean Delannoy, 1950) starring Pierre Fresnay, and the drama L'affaire Maurizius/On Trial (Julien Duvivier, 1954) in which she co-starred with Daniel Gélin and Anton Walbrook.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by Editions Votre Vedette (E.V.V.), no. 126. Photo: Discina.

Madeleine Robinson
French collectors card by Massilia. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by SERP, no. 128. Photo: Studio Harcourt.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by Editions Chantal, Rueil, no. 23. Photo: C.P.L.F.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by Editions P.I., Paris, no. 59. Photo: Studio Carlet Ainé. Offert par les Carbones Korès.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?


Madeleine Robinson starred in many stage plays. Between 1954 and 1972, she performed several times the play Adorable Julia (Being Julia) by Somerset Maugham. It was also broadcasted on television. Her second big hit in the theatre was Noix de coco (Coconut) by Marcel Achard, which was filmed for television too.

She continued to appear in films, but had to wait nearly a decade for a plum role. Ronald Bergan in The Guardian: “For much of the 1950s, Robinson made films for, in her words, raisons alimentaires, but later benefited from better roles as a mature woman.”

In Claude Chabrol's study of a dysfunctional bourgeois family, A Double Tour/Web Of Passion (1959), she played the neurotic wife of an adulterous wine merchant. Not one of Chabrol's best films, but it earned Robinson the best actress award at the 1959 Venice film festival.

In 1962, she played Mrs. Grubach, the landlady of Josef K. (Anthony Perkins) in Orson WellesLe Procès/The Trial (1962), based on Franz Kafka’s classic novel.

On stage, she played Martha in the play Qui a peur de Virginia Woolf? (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) by Edward Albee. For her part she was rewarded with the Prize for Best Actress by the Syndicat de la critique (Union of the Critics) in 1965. This production, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, also caused a controversy, because of her problems with co-star Raymond Gérôme. He took her to court over a spat during rehearsals. She lost.

This attributed to her reputation of having a ‘bad temper’. The Telegraph: “She became a legend on the boards and on set for brooking no challenge to how she thought a part should be played. Many were the directors and colleagues with whom she fought bitterly on such matters.”

Vittorio De Sica directed her in the film Un monde nouveau/A New World (1966) with Nino Castelnuovo. In the theatre, she played leading roles in A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams and in Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage.

In 1977, she played Aunt Leo in Parents Terribles (Terrible parents) by Jean Cocteau, in which Jean Marais was her partner and director.

Two years later she appeared in the Spanish film Siete días de enero/Seven Days in January (Juan Antonio Bardem, 1979) about the 1977 Massacre of Atocha. It was entered into the 11th Moscow International Film Festival where it won the Golden Prize.

Very successful was the biopic Camille Claudel (Bruno Nuytten, 1988) in which she played the narrow-minded mother of schizophrenic sculptor Camille Claudel (Isabelle Adjani). Her last screen appearance was in the TV-film L'Enfant en héritage/A Child's Inheritance (Josée Dayan, 1992).

In 2001, she received a honorary Molière award for lifetime achievement. She was married to actor Robert Dalban with whom she had a son, Jean-François (1941), to Guillaume Amestoy and ahe lived with Spanish actor-writer Jose Luis de Villalonga. From her relationship with the singer Jean-Louis Jaubert of the group Compagnons de la chanson, she had a daughter, Sophie-Julia (1955-1993).

For years, Madeleine Robinson lived in retirement in Montreux in Switzerland. She was garlanded with many awards including the Legion of Honour, the National Order of Merit, and Commander of Arts and Letters. Her companion was a poodle which she had named Vendredi (Friday). At the age of 86, she died in 2004 in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard Ind. Cinematogr, no. 41.

Madeleine Robinson
German postcard by Kunst und Bild, Berlin, no. 187. Photo: Allianz-Film.

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris.

Madeleine Robinson
German postcard by Ufa, Berlin-Tempelhof, no. FK 1504. Photo: Franco London Film, Paris / Prisma. Publicity still for L'affaire Maurizius/On Trial (Julien Duvivier, 1954).

Madeleine Robinson
French postcard by Editions du Globe, Paris, no. 195. Photo: Sam Lévin.

Madeleine Robinson
East-German postcard by VEB Progress Filmvertrieb, Berlin, no. 1133. Photo: DEFA-Pathenheimer. Publicity still for the film Les arrivistes/Trübe Wasser/The Opportunists (Louis Daquin, 1960).

Sources: Ronald Bergan (The Guardian), The Telegraph, AllMovie, Wikipedia (French and English) and IMDb.

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