The kind of classic you’ll encounter when you study film (like I did twenty years ago), but it was certainly worth a fresh look. Children of Paradise remains one of French cinema’s major achievements, not least because of the circumstances under which it was made. Begun in 1943, the filmmakers had to work with conditions set by the Vichy regime and their Nazi masters. The opulent production in Nice was plagued by many practical problems, including storms that wrecked the meticulously built Boulevard du Crimes set. There were reportedly starving extras in the cast who would steal food and some of them were also Resistance agents hiding in plain sight from the Nazis. Members of the crew were Jews, which had to be concealed.
When the Allies landed in Normandy in 1944, production was delayed and one of the actors was sentenced to death by the Resistance for collaborating with the Nazis; Pierre Renoir, older brother of Jean, had to replace him and all the character’s scenes had to be reshot. It’s a wonder the film was completed.
We’re in Paris after the July Revolution of 1830. On the Boulevard du Temple, called ”the Boulevard du Crimes” because of all the crime melodramas shown every night in the theaters, aspiring actor Frédérick Lemaître (Pierre Brasseur) meets the beautiful Garance (Arletty) for the first time and is smitten. This is also where she’s latterly accused of having stolen a man’s pocket watch and is saved by the (silent) testimony from the pantomime Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault)… who also falls in love with Garance. At the same time, she’s involved with a thief and a murderer, Pierre-François Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand). The paths of these people will cross many times over the years, with dramatic consequences.
Making two separate films
Since Vichy set rules for how long films could be, Marcel Carné shot Children of Paradise as two separate films and then just strung them together; the second half of this epic takes place years after the events of the first half. The title is borrowed from an expression describing the public gallery where the loud approval or disapproval of the common people brought life to the shows; a large part of the film is a vivid homage to the theater.
Screenwriter Jacques Prévert based his melodrama on real people from 1830s and ’40s Paris, at least the four men who are part of Garance’s life (which later in the story includes a nobleman who becomes her protector). The most interesting and enduring of these people is not really Garance (even if Arletty was the biggest star in the cast), but Baptiste. Barrault is touching as the shy artist who falls deeply in love but can’t bring himself to embark on this particular romance, even when he’s invited to do so, and his portrait of the pantomime at work is meticulous; in real life, Baptiste created the most classic of all pantomime acts, the white-painted Pierrot. Brasseur is also terrific as the kid who becomes the theater’s greatest actor.
The film may have thousands of extras and impressive sets, but the three-hour story is essentially simple. It doesn’t cease to entertain though, as the characters struggle to do the best they can with their lives. I imagine that’s also what the filmmakers did as World War II slowly wound down.
And Arletty had her own melodramatic story after the war, being accused of treason for having had an affair with a German officer. She came out alright in the end, but made clear everybody knew that her ”heart is French” but her ”ass is international”.
Children of Paradise 1945-France. 195 min. B/W. Produced by Raymond Borderie, Adrien Remaugé. Directed by Marcel Carné. Screenplay: Jacques Prévert. Production Design: Léon Barsacq, Raymond Gabutti, Alexandre Trauner. Cast: Jean-Louis Barrault (Baptiste Deburau), Arletty (Claire ”Garance”Reine), Pierre Brasseur (Frédérick Lemaître), Marcel Herrand (Pierre-François Lacenaire), Louis Salou, Maria Casarés, Albert Remy… Pierre Renoir.
Trivia: Original title: Les enfants du paradis.
Last word: “What was really annoying was when we had scenes with extras, and God knows there were a lot. In the morning, the Germans came in with their own extras, from the unions, and made us use them. So we had to talk them out of it, since we didn’t like them – they were collaborators, you understand. We didn’t want them, so we invented excuses, saying that they didn’t have the right physique for nineteenth-century France. I’d say, ‘I have nothing against this gentleman, but I can’t use him.’ We cheated like that all the time… I mean, it wasn’t all that terrible. What was absolutely terrible was that we were closely watched, because of the Resistance.” (Carné, Criterion)