Something of a missing link in the filmography of Marlene Dietrich, this immediate postwar French production pairs her with one of her great amours, Jean Gabin. Almost forgotten now, it has qualities other Dietrich films don’t, starting with her taking a character role rather than one that plays off her glamorous silver screen image. It’s a tragic romance with the French social divide as its context, and was dismissed as a failure here — after being cut a full two reels by the censors. Also with Marcel Herrand & Daniel Gélin.
Icarus Films Home Video
1946 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 108 min. / Street Date April 18, 2023 / The Room Upstairs Available from Icarus / 29.98
Starring: Marlene Dietrich, Jean Gabin, Jean d’Yd, Margo Lion, Marcel Herrand, Daniel Gélin, Jean Darcante, Marcel Pérès, Camille Guérini, Henri Poupon, Lucien Nat, Marcelle Hainia, Charles Lemontier.
Cinematography: Robert Hubert
Production Designer / Art Director: Georges Wakhevitch
Film Editor: Germaine Artus
Original Music: Marcel Mirouze
Adaptation and dialogue by Pierre Véry, George Lacombe from the novel by Pierre René Wolf
Produced by Paul-Edmond Decharme
Directed by Georges Lacombe
Here’s one we thought we’d never see. One of the first film books I bought was Homer Dickens’ The Films of Marlene Dietrich — the UCLA Archive had perfect nitrate prints all of her early Paramount pictures, and I was taken with her incredible ‘silver screen image.’
Marlene Dietrich’s postwar film career had its highlights. Her most successful performances are in the English No Highway in the Sky, Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair and Witness for the Prosecution and her guest bit in Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. But now we have a ‘new’ Dietrich feature to see. Her only French movie was filmed in 1946, immediately after the war. The producer was the backer of H.G. Clouzot’s Manon and Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels. Director & co-screenwriter Georges Lacombe is remembered mostly for working with more famous associates, like H.G. Clouzot.
The show’s main attraction is the romantic pairing of Dietrich and French star Jean Gabin, with whom she shared a long romance that began when Gabin came to Hollywood, with directors Jean Renoir and René Clair. Gabin soon went to war, while Dietrich became one of the most active USO entertainers overseas. Their one film together Martin Roumagnac stands as the culmination of their relationship. The show has a different agenda than Dietrich’s earlier Hollywood pictures — it wasn’t confected to exploit her glamorous screen siren image. For perhaps the first time Dietrich is not drenched in exotic lighting and knockout costume changes. In an early scene she walks her bicycle through a French town, wearing a simple skirt and blouse. Yes, the painted eyebrows are there, and a trip to Paris allows her character to dress in style for a reel or so, but the story comes first. Martin Roumagnac is unique among her films.
Successful contractor Martin Roumagnac (Jean Gabin) is devoted to his work and has little need of money. He lives simply with his sister Jeanne (Margo Lion) just outside the provincial French town of Clairval. Everything changes when he meets and falls in love with Blanche Ferrand (Marlene Dietrich), the widow of a seed-seller. She’s only been in town for three years, and now runs her late husband’s shop with her Uncle (Jean d’Yd), selling pet birds as well. Town rumors hint at Blanche’s checkered background in Paris. Her Uncle treats the shop as if it were a front, a place for Blanche to encourage an affair with the local Consul Monsieur de Laubry (Marcel Herrand), a cultured and wealthy man with a sickly wife. Blanche collects other admirers as well. She has been seeing Rimbaut, the deputy mayor (Lucien Nat), and she has also caught the eye of the young new school superintendent (Daniel Gélin).
Roumagnac’s friends are convinced that he is making a mistake by spending more of his time with Blanche. He expresses his devotion (and spends all of his money) building her a country house, and deeding it to her as an act of love. But the jealous Rimbaut sees to it that no news building contracts are awarded to Martin’s business firm. Things go really bad when the rumors reach Martin, that Blanche is carrying on a parallel romance with the high-toned Consul de Laubry.
Men seem incapable of understanding that a woman might allow more than one man into her life. Blanche Ferrand does nothing wrong beyond making up her own mind in her own way. But the personal outcomes seem as predetermined as in a Zola story. Blanche is eventually repulsed by the bigoted Consul, who reveals his snobbery toward ‘common laborers’ like Roumagnac, and his intention to use their marriage as a political partnership for personal gain. Martin is proud of his workingman’s hands, and ill-at ease in a tuxedo, wondering which fork to use in a fancy restaurant. He is true to Blanche, and she is true to him, but she allows her uncle to play out the possible union with the Consul just a bit too long.
Martin Roumagnac was likely considered the kind of ‘cinema of quality’ declared invalid by the New Wave critics. Director Georges Lacombe puts together good scenes but doesn’t impose a directorial style. Marlene Dietrich is certainly given opportunities to show her legs, and pose in a few killer close-ups, but she’s not idolized as in her Hollywood pictures, which often stopped the show to put her on display. Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair played with Dietrich’s ultra-stylish image by mixing glamour with earthy moments where she’d do something vulgar, like spit toothpaste at her lover. This show doesn’t let her star persona override Jean Gabin’s common appeal. It’s really Martin Roumagnac’s movie, in the long run, with Blanche as the woman he never quite understands. Dietrich’s fans may have objected to her character’s relative lack of control over her own life.
The handsome production was largely filmed on location in Haute-Marne, with visuals that contrast the rural locale with Paris — itself repesented by a backdrop and a ritzy restaurant. The romance in the film almost takes second position to practical economics. Blanche’s Uncle is banking on an advantageous marriage, and Martin’s civic friendships and alliances are weakened by the rumors that he’s being fleeced by a femme fatale. In the end his fellow workers are the ones to remain faithful to him, even when he can no longer employ them.
The nearly two-hour film may seem slow to those not pre-sold on the Dietrich-Gabin team-up. The one thing the filmmakers can be blamed for is not giving Marlene Dietrich a single character-defining scene. Yet the last reel is very moving, with some powerful surprises. We can see the finale coming far ahead of time, but so does Martin, in a way. The film does work.
That’s not what New York reviewers thought in 1948, when Martin Roumagnac played after an almost two-year delay. It appears to have been been cut by a full two reels, to only 88 minutes. Homer Dickens says that the cuts were motivated to remove ‘scenes of prostitution’ but it’s unlikely that he ever saw the film, as his synopsis incorrectly identifies Blanche as a high class prostitute. Dickens damns the picture as a ‘turgid melodrama.’ With a fifth of its running time were really missing, it must have been a mess.
The mood isn’t bright but the two stars are very attractive. Jean Gabin’s Martin is confused by love, but never in a way that makes him seem a fool. Dietrich is really something in this atypical naturalistic mode — she’s not a creation of makeup and studio lights, but the too-attractive-to-be-real woman next door. When riding a bicycle her hair is as wind-blown as anybody’s.
The acting support is top-notch. Marcel Herrand was the arch-criminal Lacenaire in The Children of Paradise, and here modulates his performance as the unpleasantly calculating Consul. Margo Lion is billed as another guest star; ten years before she played in Jean Gabin’s breakthrough movie La Bandera. Jean d’Yd was one of the inquisitioners in The Passion of Jean D’Arc.
It’s too bad that Martin Roumagnac wasn’t more successful, as it might have given Marlene Dietrich more opportunities for leading roles. She maintained a full glamour capability for at least ten more years. When appropriate film offers narrowed she spent more time out of the public eye, and turned her career efforts to controlled-context stage shows. She thus maintained her image as a legendary icon all the way to old age.
Icarus Films Home Video’s DVD of Martin Roumagnac is a fine-quality standard-def encoding of a carefully remastered restoration. As we’re so accustomed to slightly more vivid Blu-ray images, the appeal is for the film itself — it’s something we never expected to be made available.
The flawless image shows off numerous handsome close-ups of Dietrich. One back-lit sun hat at a cafe almost gives her a halo. Blanche’s dresses are often too flashy to please the biddies in downtown Clairval, and her painted eyebrows are the giveaway that she’s straight from Paris. But early on we see her shopping like any local woman with an errand to perform.
Director Lacombe ends at least three of his lovemaking scenes the same way — Blanche and Martin embrace, kiss, and sink slowly out of frame. But a ‘first date’ picnic has a delightful moment in which Blanche throws herself back on the soft grass. Martin has too much class to act directly on that amorous green light — they’re both mature adults, not kids. The chemistry between them is undeniable — no cutaways to horses nuzzling in the stable are necessary. The show communicates the personalities of its richly-drawn characters, not the star personae of the actors playing them.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sound: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only, non-removable)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: April 2, 2023
Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson