11 May 2015

Jean Forest

Boy actor Jean Forest (1912-1980) is best remembered for his touching, naturalist and convincing performances in the silent French films by Jacques Feyder: Crainquebille (1922), Visages d'enfants (1923-1925) and Gribiche (1926). He went on to a career in French radio after failing to achieve a film career as an adult.

Jean Forest
French postcard by Cinémagazine, no. 238.


Jean Forest was born in Montmartre, Paris, in 1912.

Jean was picked up from the streets by Belgian film director Jacques Feyder to debute in his urban realist film Crainquebille/Bill (1922). The film, based on a story by Anatole France, reverses the standard orphan plot. Forest plays Souris (Mouse), a homeless boy who saves the old fruit and vegetables vendor Crainquebille (Maurice de Féraudy) from suicide. The latter has been plagued by a misunderstanding with a cop, prison life, loss of clientele and alcohol. The film was a worldwide success, praised for its naturalistic acting and location shooting (at les Halles). John DeBartolo at Silents are Golden calls Crainquebille 'one of the forerunners of French realism' that would dominate the French cinema of the 1930s.

In Feyder's next film, Visages d'enfants/Faces of Children (Jacques Feyder, 1923-1925), Forest plays a boy who is traumatised by the tragic loss of his mother (played by Suzy Vernon) and does not accept his new stepmother and her daughter. When he has gone too far in pestering his stepsister he tries to commit suicide by drowning. His stepmother saves his life in the nick of time, causing Jean to accept her. Again the film marked naturalistic acting and authenticity in the location, the mountain area of the Haut Valois in Switzerland.

Despite some very favourable reviews on its release in 1925, this truly touching and beautiful film was not a great box office success and was all but forgotten by the 1930s. For decades the film was believed to have been lost, but in the 1990s a tinted and toned copy was found at the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now Eye Institute). With extracts belonging to other film archives, the film was reassembled, and in 1994, the film was re-released in its newly restored form.

Forest's third film with Feyder was again a big success, even bigger than Crainquebille: Gribiche/Mother of Mine (1926) with Françoise Rosay. The film, centred around Forest, deals about a boy who consciously accepts to be adopted by a rich American lady, because it will enable his working-class mother to remarry. But he cannot get used to the luxurious but empty milieu (sets by Lazare Meerson) and during the Bastille festivities he escapes to his mother and her new husband.

Suzy Vernon
Suzy Vernon. French postcard by E.D.U.G., no. 1028. Photo: Paramount. Publicity still for Miche (1932).


Jean Forest also played in other films. He was the young vagabond Claudinet in Les deux gosses (Louis Mercanton, 1924) based on the classic story by Pierre Decourcelle.

One year later he played young Jack in Jack (Robert Saidreau, 1925) after the famous novel by Alphonse Daudet. Two years later, he played the lead in Les coeurs héroïques (George Pallu, 1927).

In the sound era Forest continued to play in French films, although in just a limited number of films. He played the young Jean Chapelain in Une femme a menti (Charles de Rochefort, 1930), an early French Paramount sound production. He performed the title role in Etienne (Jean Tarride, 1933) with Junie Astor and a young Jean Marais.

Other roles were Lt. Drake in La route impériale/The Imperial Road (Marcel L'Herbier, 1935) with Käthe von Nagy; St. John/Jean in Golgotha/Behold the Man (Julien Duvivier, 1935) with Harry Baur and Jean Gabin; and Jean in Tovaritch (Jacques Deval, German Fried; though uncredited Victor Trivas and Jean Tarride are also mentioned as co-directors, 1935). This was the French version of the much better known American Tovarich (1937) with Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert.

After 1935, no more film roles of Forest are known, but he pursued a career in radio. In 1951 for instance, he won ex aequo the first prize in Naples with his radio adaptation of Theophile Gauthier's Une larme du diable, and in 1956 his adaptation of the Jack Perret piece L'examen de calcul won the Prix Italian for literary or dramatic programmes in Rimini.

Visage D'Enfants overture. Source: MaestroACoppola (YouTube).

Sources: John DeBartolo (Silents are Golden), French Film Site, Ciné-Ressources (French), DvdToile (French), Wikipedia (French) and IMDb.

For Visages d'enfants and its restorations, see Wikipedia

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