What a curiosity this musical without music turned out to be.
Joshua Logan’s romantic melodrama “Fanny” (1961) has the air of a “let’s do something like ‘Gigi'” about it, another star vehicle for Leslie Caron and Maurice Chevalier, more gorgeous French locations and source material.
It’s based on the musical Logan and S.N. Behrman based on the plays of French novelist, filmmaker and playwright Marcel Pagnol (the “Jean de Florette” trilogy and the “Fanny/Marius/Cesar” trilogy are his most famous works). It’s set and shot in Marseilles, well-acted, and filmed and edited in the most pedestrian, perfectly-framed-background cover shot, two-shot and “ready for my close-up” style by Logan.
Sixty years after its release, this subdued, overlong and five-times-Oscar-nominated tale never lets us forget “They left out the music,” literally and figuratively.
Caron has the title role, the beautiful daughter of the fishmonger Honorine (Georgette Anys). We meet her on her eighteenth birthday, a young woman (Caron was 30) smitten with her friend since childhood, the about-to-turn 19 bartender Marius (Horst Bucholtz, fresh off of “Magnificent Seven,” and 28 when this came out). His destiny seems to have been set by his father, Cesar (Charles Boyer), the owner of the iconic waterfront Bar de la Marine.
Fanny dreams of Marius, but if Marius could sing, he’d croon “my life, my lover, my lady, is the sea.” Every ship that enters the beautiful, pre-“French Connection” harbor, makes him wistful. And he’s constantly being nagged into acting on this passion by The Admiral (Raymond Bussières), a homeless vagabond sailor and neighborhood character.
Dad isn’t hearing it. “You’re a dreamer, that’s what you are.”
And while Fanny does her dreaming and Marius does his, the aged ships stores merchant Panisse (Chevalier) is still stuck on “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” He’s fixated on Fanny, and the nicest thing his friends, including Cesar, can call him are “you old billy goat” and “70 year-old lecher.” “Eunuch” comes up, too.
But Fanny is aware of his intentions, as is everybody else, including Marius.
“He is rich, and you know how your mother feels about money.”
A love triangle is set up, with each of the three tugging in different directions. “Fanny,” set in the late 20s and cusp-of-WWII ’30s, never lets us forget its ties to older ways of thinking about marriage, “age-inappropriate” as it often still was.
One night of passion will trigger all that is to follow.
As “Fanny” settled into its soapy, edge-of-sappy story, I was struck by the screen compositions — the many scenic views of the harbor, the way the stunning hilltop Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde fills the background out most every window, especially that of the Bar de la Marine.
Playwright-turned-filmmaker Logan, his legendary DP , Jack Cardiff (“Blacl Narcissus,” “The African Queen”) and two-time Oscar winning editor William Reynolds (“The Sound of Music,””The Sting” and “The Godfather”) blocked, filmed and edited “Fanny” in the most pedantic, old-fashioned way imaginable.
It’s as if they filmed this as a musical, realized the slim, slight story could never sustain the three-hours-plus running that would have entailed, and cut the tunes as an afterthought. They didn’t, but that’s how this plays.
Rare is the movie where the “establishing-shot,” “two-shot,” “over-the-shoulder-shot,” and “closeup” rules, chiseled in stone by D.W. Griffith, grabs this much of our attention. The old school players Boyer and Chevalier give us staid performances in wide shot and animated with acting “business” close-ups, further calling attention to this strategy. It’s Filmmaking 101, and you wonder why Logan, who filmed many a play (“Mister Roberts,””Bus Stop,””Picnic”) never grew beyond it.
Sometimes being an “actor’s director” is a trap, and if you want to know why cineastes don’t swoon over Logan’s career, this is the reason. His films are cinematically and dramatically sturdy and stodgy — well-acted, but visually dull.
The veterans in the cast make better impressions than our far-too-worldly, young-but-not-that-young leads. Daniel Auteuil’s French film of a few years back at least cast younger players, getting us closer to the dewy-eyed innocence and first-love-passion Pagnol wrote about.
With every rise in emotion, every big statement of longing, this “Fanny” makes us feel a song coming on, that moment when mere words or faraway looks in the key-lit eyes of our stars isn’t enough to “say” what they’re feeling. Logan & Co. never deliver on that promise.
Rating: unrated, adult themes
Cast: Leslie Caron, Charles Boyer, Maurice Chevalier, Horst Bucholtz, Lionel Jeffries, Baccaloni, Raymond Bussières and Georgette Anys.
Credits: Directed by Joshua Logan, scripted by Julius Epstein, based on the musical by Joshua Logan and S.N. Behrman, which was based on the play by Marcel Pagnol. A Warner Brothers release on Tubi, Amazon, etc.
Running time: 2:14