Life and love on the Marseilles waterfront form the basis for Marcel Pagnol’s three plays–MARIUS (1929), FANNY (1932), and CESAR (1936). The “Marseilles Trilogy” (as it is commonly known) was first filmed as three French films with their original names in the 1930’s. M-G-M filmed the story in 1937 as PORT OF SEVEN SEAS, with a score by Franz Waxman. The story later returned to the stage in the hit 1956 Broadway musical, FANNY, with a score by Harold Rome.
The trilogy tells the intertwining stories of a would-be sailor, Marius, and his childhood sweetheart, Fanny. After one night of passion, Fanny helps Marius escape to sea. When she becomes pregnant, she is married off to a wealthy, older merchant, Panisse, a childless widow who is happy to raise Fanny’s baby as his own. Complications and buried emotions arise when Marius returns.
When Warner Bros. decided to film the musical in 1961, Rome’s songs were cut and his melodies were incorporated into the underscoring. Songs like “To My Wife,” “I Have to Tell You,” and the heartbreaking title tune were lushly adapted by Oscar winners Harry Sukman and conductor Morris Stoloff.
Though the film received five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (it lost to WEST SIDE STORY), it is seldom remembered today, though you can occasionally catch it on Turner Classic Movies. Jack Cardiff’s beautiful cinematography brings Marseilles’ seaside community come to life. Leslie Caron proves once again that she doesn’t need toe shoes to turn in a compelling performance, and Charles Boyer (Cesar) and Maurice Chevalier (Panisse) bring a dose of French charm to the film. Joshua Logan was never the subtlest of film directors, so you may have to excuse those overhanded moments that play to the back of the balcony.
Because of a name change in the category, FANNY, even though it is an adaptation, netted Sukman and Stoloff a worthy Oscar nomination for Music Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, the category that is usually considered Best Original Score. (In 1963, Billy Wilder filmed another musical, IRMA LA DOUCE, as a non-musical, and André Previn took home the Oscar for Adapted Score. Such are the inconsistencies of the Academy Awards and their name changes.)
For me, the film ultimately succeeds because of the power and genuine emotion in Pagnol’s story, Caron’s moving performance, and Rome’s wonderful melodies. The long-awaited DVD of FANNY appeared in July 2008 with a rare treat: a bonus CD of the original album. Good news for fans of this lovely score.
If you’ve never seen FANNY, give it a try. By the end, you too may be sighing, “Fanny, Fanny, Fanny.”