French postcard by A.N., Paris, no. 1173. Photo: Harcourt.
Philosophically minded tramps on a park bench
Raymond Souplex was born as Raymond Guillermain in 1901 in Paris. He was the son of a public servant and the youngest of four children. In 1920, he tried to enter the Conservatoire but failed.
But while he studied law and his first job as a clerk, he composed songs and wrote sketches. He became a singer and performed in the cabarets and dinner theatres in Paris. In this period he met Jane Sourza who became his accomplice for many years and not his girlfriend as was long believed.
From 1935, he participated in radio broadcasts of Radio Cité with Noël-Noël, Saint-Granier and Jane Sourza. With the latter, he played a pair of philosophically minded tramps on a park bench in the comedy show Sur le banc (The bench).
In 1954, Robert Vernay made the film Sur le banc, based on this radio show. Souplex played again the lead role of the tramp opposite Jane Sourza and Julien Carette. James Travers at Films de France: “Unlike the radio show that inspired it, the film version of Sur le banc was never going to end up a classic, but the combined talents of Souplex and Sourza, pepped up with a generous dash of Julien Carette, make it a pleasing enough timewaster on a dull afternoon.”
Raymond Souplex’ film career had started in 1939 with the film Sur le plancher des vaches/On dry land (Pierre-Jean Ducis, 1939) with Noël-Noël. At the time, Souplex had already become quite popular. During the Second World War, he continued to perform on stage, on the radio and in films.
In Les Surprises de la radio/The Surprises of the radio (Marcel Aboulker, 1940), he played himself in the middle of other big French stars of the era. He also participated with artists like Fréhel and Lys Gauty, in a tour along the factories of the Third Reich where many French people had to labour forced by the Service du travail obligatoire (Compulsory Work Service; STO). He got a reprimand for this tour after the Liberation.
French postcard by Ed. Chantal, Rueil, no. 101. Photo: Carlet.
The five last minutes
After the war, Raymond Souplex resumed his show Sur le banc (The bench), now for Radio Luxembourg, from 1949 till 1963. He returned to the screen in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Manon (1948) alongside Cécile Aubry, Serge Reggiani and Michel Bouquet.
Actor/journalist/screenwriter Henri Jeanson chose him to play an aging crooner in Lady Paname (Henri Jeanson, 1950) alongside Louis Jouvet and Suzy Delair.
In 1957, Claude Loursais gave him the lead role in the French television series Les Cinq Dernières Minutes/The Five Last Minutes, in which he played the police inspector (from 1965 on Commissioner) Antoine Bourrel. This Columbo-like role was inspired by the thriller Identité judiciaire/Paris Vice Squad (Hervé Bromberger, 1951) in which he played an identical character.
The collaboration with Claude Loursais lasted 56 episodes from 1958 to 1972. In the series Bourrel is assisted by inspector Dupuy, played by Jean Daurand. The two actors became so popular that they also appeared together as a police tandem in two films: L'assassin viendra ce soir/The assassin will come tonight (Jean Maley, 1964) and La Malédiction de Belphégor/The Curse of Belphegor (Georges Combret, Jean Maley, 1967) with Dominique Boschero.
In 1972, Raymond Souplex died in Paris of lung cancer at the age of 71. The filming of the fifty-sixth episode of Les Cinq Dernières Minutes was not finished yet. This episode would never be completed. A square in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, where Souplex has long lived on the corner of Montcalm and Marcadet street now bears his name. His wife died in 1993 and their daughter Perrette Souplex is also an actress.
Jane Sourza and Souplex as the tramps Carmen and La Hurlette in Sur le banc. Source: Chaîne de holdabaum (YouTube). Sorry, no subtitles.
Jean Daurand as Dupuy and Souplex as Bourrel in the episode Dans le pétrin/In trouble (Claude Loursais, 1959) of Les Cinq Dernières Minutes/The Five Last Minutes. Source: Cripure Louis (YouTube). Sorry, no subtitles.
Sources: James Travers (Films de France), Hal Erickson (AllMovie), Wikipedia (French and English) and IMDb.