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The Times (11/Jan/1975) - Obituary: Pierre Fresnay

(c) The Times (11/Jan/1975)


Distinguished French actor of stage and screen

M Pierre Fresnay, the distinguished French actor who was conspicuous throughout his career in the theatre and films for the scrupulous almost ruthless, integrity of his performances, died in Paris on Thursday at the age of 77.

As a young man he often acted in England both in French and in English, and he remained a familiar figure to British audiences through the showing of such films as Monsieur Vincent and La Grande Illusion. Many filmgoers will recall with a particular pleasure his playing in the famous trilogy Marius; Fanny; and Cesar.

Fresnay came of an Alsatian family, by name Laudenbach. He, Pierre-Jules Laudenbach, the son of a Professeur, was born on April 4, 1897, in Paris, was educated there at the Lycee Henri IV, and trained for the stage under his uncle, Charles Garry. Just before the outbreak of the First World War he joined Mme Réjane's company at what became the Théatre de Paris, but he was accepted some months later as a pupil at the Conservatoire National and became a Pen-sionnaire of the Comédie Francaise early in 1915.

Between 1919, when he returned to it after three years service with the French Army, and 1926 Fresnay once visited London with the company and frequently gave recitals in French in the English provinces, in addition to taking 80 parts in Paris, in some of which, especially those in the plays of Alfred de Musset, he was considered to have excelled all other actors in living memory. None the less, he was dissatisfied with the Comédie Franchise and he left it, not without being sued for breach of contract and fined 200,000 francs, to make a new career in the theatres of the boulevards and in the cinema.

With the Compagnie Des Quinze he was seen in the title parts of two plays by Mr André Obey, Noe in Paris and Don Juan in London, where he also succeeded Mr Noel Coward as leading man to Mme Yvonne Prn temps in Conversation Piece.

Coward had written this operetta in English, specially for Mme Printemps, but since she did not speak the language at that time, Fresnay had had to teach the part to her word by word.

Mme Printemps and Fresnay appeared together in Conversetion Piece in New York, and again in London, more briefly, in a cornedy bv Mr Ben Travers ; and in 1937, after the long run in Paris of the operetta Trois Valses — here, too, Fresnay's part was necessarily a non-singing one — they required a standing professional address at the Theatre de la Michodiere. Henceforward they worked there exclusively, except when making films. They were associated in the management of it first, till his death in 1942, with Victor Boucher, later with M Francois Périer. Fresnay there acted in and directed, among other plays, Léocadia (Time Remembered) and Le Voyageur sans Bagage by Jean Anouilh, whose first play L'Hermine he had put on elsewhere in 1932, Marcel Achard's Aupres de ma Blonde and Andre Roussin's Les Oeufs de L'Auvuche.

In the cinema, Pierre Fresnay's work was cast in an intelligent, sometimes aesthetic, mould. It was ultimately powerful, though, because he was able to suggest the torment that tried to claw its way through to the composed exterior. This was never demonstrated better than in Maurice Cloche's Monsieur Vincent, the lustrous film about the French priest and philanthropist made in 1947. Professionally Fresnay found it difficult to rid himself of the saintly trappings of that role and it is a measure of his success in Cloche's film that film-goers who saw him in subsequent films still fancied they saw traces of a halo round his head.

Fresnay's screen debut was in 1931 playing the title role in Marius. This was the first of Marcel Pagnol's famed trilogy about life in the Marseilles docks in the 1920s. The following year he appeared — again with Raimu, Orane Demaziz, Charpin and Maupi — in the sequel Fanny and, two years later, came the film that completed the trilogy, César. Conversation pieces though the films undoubtedly were, they achieved considerable commercial success and artistically they gave discriminating film-goers the world over a taste for provincial French fare.

Fresnay appeared briefly in Alfred Hitchcock's The Man Who Knew Too Much, made in Britain in 1934. But it was not until three years later in Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion that he again made an impact on the film scene. He played the French officer, a First World War prisoner, whose civilized outlook erected a bridge between himself and his captor, the aristocratic camp commandant played by Eric von Stroheim. This was Fresnay in typical mood, controlled, and yet inwardly coiled ; it was a devastatingly attractive performance, made even more effective by the underlying in-tellectualism that was sometimes to be the despair of his fellow actors.

Jean Gabin who appeared with Fresnay in La Grande Illusion is reported to have said of him: "He's a marvellous actor, but he always makes you feel you are using the wrong spoon." Fresnay will also be remembered for his enigmatic contribution to Clouzot's frightening Le Corbeau, made in 1943, and for his relaxed-impersonation of Offenbach in the enjoyable soufflé La Valse de Paris in 1949. Few of the films which he made in more recent years did anything to enhance his enviable reputation.

Fresnay was married three times, the marriage with Yvonne Printemps being the third. His previous marriages with respectively Rachel Berendt and Berthe Bovy of the Comédie Franchise were dissolved.