The World Will Shake

Rating: 7 out of 10.

What would happen if a machine could predict the time of death of every living person? This forgotten French SF melodrama from 1939 has a remarkably well-crafted script and a superb cast led by Claude Dauphin and Erich von Stroheim. 7/10

Le monde tremblera. 1939, France. Directed by Richard Pottier. Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot & J. Villard. Based on novel by Francis Didelot & Charles Robert-Dumas. Starring: Claude Dauphin, Madeleine Sologne, Roger Duchesne, Erich von Stroheim. Produced by Raymond Borderie. IMDb: 6.2/10. Rotten Tomatoes: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

Wouldn’t it be convenient to know the exact time of your death? For one thing, you wouldn’t have to worry anymore. That mole on your arm? No, you won’t die of skin cancer. Driving without a seatbelt? No sweat, death is years away. Plan your life accordingly, make your will, plenty of time to say goodbye to everyone. Have a grand sendoff party the day before! That’s the idea behind Jean Durand’s (Claude Dauphin) invention, one that he has spent his entire life working on. Backed financially by a mysterious man who calls himself Frank (Erich von Stroheim), he is on the verge of unveiling his invention to the world — a machine that can measure your biological radiation curve in order to tell you the exact time you will die. Only problem is, he needs proof it works, and has a hard time finding volunteers to test his scary-looking contraption. After failing to ensnare a prostitute, he and his assistant Julien (Julien Carette) have a stroke of luck, as a man chased by two thugs takes refuge in Durand’s mansion (Raymond Aimos). With nowhere to go, the man volunteers — and his lifeline tells Durand he will die in 20 minutes. After being wined and dined by the scientists, he lets himself out, only to be shot. Durand rejoices. The machine works!

Soon Jean Durand’s machine is world news, and the millionaires of the world line up outside his door to receive their death sentences. The hypochondriac who is told he will live to 100 years throws a funding party for Durand, while the judge who only has a month to live goes home and kills his mistress who has been fooling around, then turns himself over to the police. But bigger problems soon arise, as the hard-working factory owner who realises he only has two years left to live shuts down his factory in order to enjoy the rest of his life — leaving 2000 workers unemployed. Billionaire investors liquidate their shares, sending Wall Street into tailspin. Crowds gather by the thousands, protesting against Durand’s machine ripping families apart, causing mass unemployment, poverty and chaos. The church revolts against one man’s quest to play God.

Madeleine Sologne as Marie-France and Claude Dauphin as Durand.

But all of this is really a backdrop to the romantic melodrama of the film. Durand is dating beautiful Marie France Lasserre (Madeleine Sologne), who is begging him to finally present himself to her banker father, the famous Emil Lasserre. But he refuses to see him until he has made his fortune. Meanwhile, when his machine is proven to work, the Mysterious Monsieur Frank tries to blackmail Durand into using it for life insurance scams — unbeknownst to Durand, Frank is in dire need of money, as he he has owes a huge dept to a criminal boss. But Durand refuses, in essence condemning Frank to death as the crime lord will certainly kill him if he does not pay his debts.

When Durand and and Marie-France’s father finally meet, it turns out, to the astonishment and dismay of both, that Frank and Emil Lasserre and one and the same man. By this time, Emil Lasserre has already found out that he has only 5 days to live, and will be damned of his daughter will live out her life with the man who — although unwittingly — sentenced him to death. Without further explanation, he asks Marie-France to wait 5 days for him to give his blessing to their union, and she agrees not to see Durand during this time. Meanwhile, Marie-France has joined the opposers of Durand’s machine, finding it a monstrosity. Also opposing Durand is his best friend, physician Gerard (Roger Duchesne), who has grown close to Marie-France. Gerard argues that Durand’s machine destroys the foundations of human co-existence, causing people to lose any sense of meaning of life. Why work, why toil, while love, if nothing you do will alter the outcome of your life? If all is predestined to end a certain time, which cannot be altered, then what is the point of it all? But Durand refuses to listen, arguing that new meaning will emerge, and civilisation will rise anew.

The people protest against Durand’s machine.

However, seeds of doubt are sown within Durand, and in a fit of anger, he decides to use the machine on himself. The result: he has 11 days to live.

Meanwhile, Emil Lasserre’s attempts to raise money in order to pay off his debts have failed. In an emotional scene, he calls up an old friend and says goodbye, while writing a letter to his daughter with tears in his eyes: “Don’t trust Durand. He is a cynic.” he then takes out his gun from his desk drawer ans shoots himself. Marie-France asks Durand to choose between her and his machine. Durand, convinced that Gerard has manipulated Marie-France in order to steal her for himself, storms out in anger. Later the same day, he tricks Gerard into using the machine, and presents him with a result sheet that says he has 11 days to live. When Gerard informs Marie-France of this tragedy, she wows to stay with him until the very end, and for their love, she will end her life, and they will die in each other’s arms. Back at the lab, Durand is close to a nervous breakdown, frantically looking for an error in his calculations, which would prove his own death sentence false. As the days and hours keep ticking away, approaches the moment of doom. With 10 minutes to go, Gerard shows up on his doorstep – Gerard, who has been given the exact same time of death as Durand, packing a gun.

Erich von Stroheim as Frank/Emil Lassarre and Madeleine Sologne as Marie-France.

Le monde tremblera, or The World Will Shake, has such a generic title that it is easy to pass up this French 1939 SF melodrama. My advice is: don’t do it. Despite its terrible title, this is one of the best science fiction films made in Europe during the 30’s. Science fiction was a rare bird in French movie production in the 30’s – most productions were French versions of German SF movies in the early days of the decade, when dubbing or subtitling was not yet the norm, and film producers made their movies in several different languages. The World Will Shake was based on the novel La machine à prédire la mort, by Charles Robert-Dumas and Francis Didelot, first serialised in the weekly Ric et Rac from October 1938 to January 1939, and published as a novel at the end of 1938, probably in time for Christmas shopping.

Many have drawn comparisons between the film and Robert Heinlein’s story Life-Line, his first published short story, which has a very similar premise. However, his story was published in August 1939, and Le monde tremblera premiered in May 1939. Since it is highly unlikely that Heinlein would have read Robert-Dumas’ and Didelot’s story, nor seen the film, this is probably just one of those strange coincidences that sometimes happen where multiple authors or artists come up with the same idea simultaneously, but independently. It’s always interesting when it occurs, as it makes you wonder what it was that set off the same train of thought in several people. Was there a news item, some new scientific discovery, or was this a topic that was generally in the mind of the public in 1939? I also have this weird feeling that I have read an earlier iteration of this story, and my stupid head says it was written by someone like Wells or Poe, but I can’t find any matches in their bibliographies. Is this just me dreaming, or can you think of an earlier story about people allowed to know the exact date of their deaths? Please comment below!

Posters.

The World Will Shake was produced by Raymond Borderie for CICC, and directed by Richard Pottier, a name that won’t ring many bells for an international audience. Often panned by critics, Pottier was nevertheless a popular and somewhat influential director in France, whose films were widely seen in Europe. He directs The World Will Shake with a steady hand, and has been given a decent budget. He’s working from a top-notch script from J. Villard and Henri-Georges Clouzot, better known as the director of the hugely influential thrillers The Wages of Fear (1953) and Les diaboliques (1955) — the latter which was a favourite of Hitchcock’s. Robert Lefebvre is the right man for the job behind the camera, without doing anything special, and the film is backed by a well-rounded classical score by Jean Lenoir and Wal-Berg. The production design by Léon Barsacq adds nice atmosphere. The machine itself isn’t particularly original – it looks a bit like a mix between Frankenstein’s (1931, review) lab and the mechanical “philosopher’s stone” in the German/French 1934 film Gold/L’Or (review), which was made in two languages. But it adds a nice touch in which the user must enter a darkroom and develop a photographic plate, and feed it through a “reader”, which tells the scientist when a person will die. For added suspense, the numbers appear gradually – beginning with minutes and ending with years. These numbers ticking by, of course, form some of the meatiest moments of suspense in the film.

As James Travers points out on the blog French Films, Pottier and the writers take their cues from Frankenstein, with a driven scientist neglecting love and friendship in his quest for fortune and fame through his work. Like Frankenstein, Durand embarks on his project with the best interests of mankind at heart. In a clever reversal, however, Durand delivers death, where Frankenstein delivered life – or is it actually the other way round? What Pottier does much better than James Whale, though, is set up the “backup boyfriend”, a staple in mad scientist movies of the era. Apparently, having female leads stand alone at the end of a movie with boyfriends gone cuckoo and often dead was seen as too downbeat an ending, so in almost all monster and mad scientist films, a secondary suitor was set up. However, in most cases, the second banana bloke has little relevance to the plot. Here, Gerard is well integrated into the story, as the mirror image of Durand. Best friends since medical school, the two have taken different paths. Durand scolds Gerard for becoming a general practitioner, living a boring middle-class life without passion or ambition, while Gerard replies Durand has thrown away years of his life chasing a pipe dream, betraying his call to help those in need. In a perhaps over-explanatory, but still emotional, scene, Marie-France is ready to give up on her life, having lost both her father and her lover, and, in the cynical vein of Durand, states that her life beyond this point is utterly useless. At the same time, a young boy with a severe injury is brought to Gerard’s home. With his nurse away, Gerard cleverly tricks Marie-France into assisting him in the operation. Seeing her smiling face as the boy recovers, he asks: “Well, do you still think your life is useless?”.

Claude Dauphin trying to trick a prostitute into testing his machine.

Gerard also becomes one of the focal points in the story, as he shares the same time of death as Durand. This thread is a perfect example of the sort cleverness that the film indulges in. We first see Durand calculating his own time of death as 11 days from now. A moment later, he gives a result to Gerard, which states that he also has 11 days left to live. Now, as a clever member of the audience, we assume that he has falsified the result and in fact used his own plate instead of Gerard’s, as to take revenge on his romantic rival, but we never know for certain, as the film doesn’t reveal whether this is the case. We go on believing this until the very end, when Gerard confronts Durand at the moment of doom – and both pull guns on each other.

In general the characters are well written. Jean Durand is an ambiguous character. He is on the one hand extremely likeable, funny, ambitious, driven, a sort of a poster boy for an American romantic hero type. But as the script moves along, we begin to like him less and less, but still the screenwriters won’t allow him to go full Mad Scientist, instead he holds on to a sliver of humanity, cold, calculating and megalomanic as it is. Conversely, the film introduces Frank/Emil Lassarre as a straightforward villain, the effect of which is not lessened by the fact that he is played by Erich von Stroheim, one of the most sinister character actors in movie history. But we also get scenes of him with his daughter — they are introduced as a family in a surprising shot where both are working out on rowing machines — which give a whole new depth to the character. Slowly we realise that his villainous behaviour comes partly out of desperation, and his loving and respectful relationship with Marie-France quickly wins the audience over. By the time he takes farewell of her and his friends, the movie has you bawling. The character of Gerard is a rather one-dimensional good guy-type, but with so many complex characters around, he acts like an anchor and a stable point of the movie. Roger Duchesne has good rapport with Madeleine Sologne, whose character is not perhaps the best written of the lot, but is still multi-dimensional enough as to have her stand head and shoulders over most of her damsel-in-distress sisters of the era. And kudos to the screenwriters for resisting the urge to actually make her a damsel in distress at any point in the movie. The only rescuing she needs is emotional.

Erich von Stroheim and Madeleine Sologne.

The rest of the characters are more or less typical horror movie stock, but good actors breathe life into them. Seasoned character actor Julien Carette paints a sympathetic portrayal of Durand’s assistant Julien, and lanky Raymond Aimos is memorable in the small but crucial role as the small-time crook who is blackmailed by Durand into testing his machine. A standout comical performance is given by Armand Bernard as the rich hypochondriac who is told he’s going to live to 100.

Richard Pottier’s direction tastefully follows the tone of the script. The movie begins more or less in the vein of a light-hearted melodrama with shades of film-noir. Durand’s success with his machine is initially played as a positive turn of events, and even its negative effects are portrayed as larks. There’s a funny comedy sequence in which Armand Bernard’s character realises that living until he’s 100 years old means he’ll have to cope with his – real or imagined – bodily ails for another 60, and resolves to kill himself. He tries several times to set up booby traps for himself, but naturally fails every time. It’s great comedy, and the light tone of the middle part of the movie creates a dramatic shift when things suddenly start to go downhill and the movie plunges deep into dark almost expressionist horror territory.

Julien Carette and Erich von Stroheim.

At its bare bones, the plot of Le monde tremblera isn’t especially original: scientist tries to play God with new invention, neglecting friends and lovers due to his obsession with professional immortality. His invention, though well-intended, turns out to be a monstrosity because it rebels against the moral laws of God and reaches beyond boundaries where Man is not supposed to meddle. In the end, the inventor is usually redeemed as he realises the folly of his ways. This is the classic setup as outlined in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, or; the Modern Prometheus, and the story harks back to mythology: mirrored in the stories of not only Prometheus, but Icarus, Lucifer and why not even Loki. This was the blueprint for almost every single mad scientist movie made after Frankenstein in 1931, and remains the same even today. Even in France, the plot had already been seen on screen a number of times: 1924 brought forth a sudden burst of French science fiction movies, all dealing with Frankensteinean inventors – although all with an interesting twist: The Crazy Ray (review), The City Struck by Lightning (review) and The Inhuman Woman (review).

As opposed to so many of the Frankenstein copies made in the US in the 30’s and 40’s, though, The World Will Shake doesn’t feel pre-chewed. There’s a lot of interesting ideas in the script that stay with you after having seen it, that aren’t necessarily even spoken aloud, but rather hinted at. Sometimes this kind of hinting without delving into can feel frustrating, like the movie makers are omitting something or rushing past their own ideas, but never with this film. Instead, the way it is written, performed and directed gives you the feeling of a wholly developed film that can be enjoyed as is, but also seems to encourage the viewer to contemplate its themes efter watching it. For example, the whole film hinges on the idea that everything in life is predestined and that free will is all just an illusion, however, it never specifically puts it in words. In a way, the movie, I suppose, want the audience to rebel against the thought, as it wants its characters to do so as well. The problem, of course, with this train of thought – just like the problem with knowing the exact time of your own death – is that all moral choices lose significance. Because if everyone’s deaths are pre-determined, it means everyone’s life is as well. So whatever choices you make, you were always predestined to make, and so cannot make a good or bad, a moral or immoral decision.

Of course, our human minds revolt against this philosophy, because we need our choices to have meaning in order for our lives to have meaning. Even if it were the case that our lives were predetermined, we would fight to find meaning in our lives – essentially in one of the character’s most cynical moments, that is what Durand argues: before he reads his own death sentence and his world starts collapsing, he tells Gerard that he is quite aware that his invention will wreak havoc on the foundational principles of our lives, but: we will adapt, we will find new meaning, we will revolt agains meaninglessness. Little does he at that point understand that the ending of the film will prove him right: through the ultimate destruction of his machine: if our lives are indeed predetermined, then we would rather live without that knowledge, fumbling blindly through this maze we call life, inventing our own meaning. Of course, this leads to interesting theological issues. Does God, if one believes in a deity, have a plan for all of us? And if he does, and if our choices are not really ours, but God’s, do they actually matter? And if we knew God’s plan for us, would that lead to the same disillusionment that knowing our own time of death does?

Raymond Aimos as the fugitive test subject.

But there are other points brought up the film that deliberately eat away at the film’s premise. For example, the fact that Emil Lassare takes his won life, rather than him being killed by his debt collectors, raises the question: would he have killed himself at the exact moment his life was supposed to end, had he not known that was the time his life was going to end? We see his entire personality change the moment he learns he will die in five days. Before that, we would not have picked this man, this force of nature, for one to bow before a shadow of a threat and surrender – no, he would have fought with teeth and nails until the very end. The fate of the three main characters, Durand, Gerard and Marie-France, are all intrinsically linked to Durand’s invention. So while, on the one hand, the person who doesn’t want to live until 100 is incapable of killing himself – which is an action he attempts solely because of the existence of the machine – on the other hand, the fates of our three “heroes” are completely dependent on the existence of the machine. That means that the machine itself can change the course of history. And who knows, perhaps the hypochondriac did manage to kill himself later, after all? And in that case, perhaps Durand could have chosen not to build the machine. It can be seen as a logic hole in the script, but I’d rather view it as a door of doubt deliberately left open by the writers.

The same kind of themes are such that are discussed in many later films from another angle, that of time travel and the so-called grandfather paradox. The question, as I’m sure most readers know, is that if you can travel back in time and change history, then you should be able to travel back and kill your grandfather before your father is conceived. But if your father is never born, then how can he have had a child that can go back and kill his grandfather? In a sense, the prediction machine of the film is “the present”, while its the film’s characters live in the “the past”, and as such are unable to change the outcome of their lives. The grandfather paradox was heavily discussed in American pulps in the 30’s, and it is quite possible that the writers have chosen to put a different spin on it.

Le monde tremblera only had a short run in French cinemas before the war broke out, but was re-released in 1945 as La Révolt des vivants, or “Revolt of the living”, which is perhaps a slightly better title. In 1939 the film was nominated for the, in retrospect, ill-named Mussolini Cup, the most prestigious prize at the Venice Film Festival (now replaced with the Golden Lion).

I have not been able to dig up any contemporary reviews of the movie, and it is such a curio that there are few modern ones at that. Based on less than 100 votes, it has a 6.2/10 audience rating on IMDb. AllMovie has a short plot synopsis and a 2/5 rating, I suspect without anyone on the site having actually seen the film, as the synopsis is more or less lifted from Phil Hardy’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies. Hardy writes that the film “is notable mainly for Leon Barsac’s décors and as an early script by Clouzot“, giving the impression that he hasn’t seen it, either.

Some, though, have. James Travers at French Films calls it “a canny reworking” of the themes in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and notes that because of DNA screening, which may reveal much of our own life expectancy today, “Pottier’s little-known film never had greater resonance than it has today”. Mark David Welsh, in a superb write-up, calls Le monde tremblera “an intriguing and exceptionally well-presented drama, thanks to Pottier’s sure hand on the tiller and an intelligent, well-developed script”. David Cairns at Shadowplay writes: “Richard Pottier directs, not too ably […] But the photography and script are strong […] The film’s jarring tonal shifts aren’t typical of Clouzot, but its cynicism is — even as it positions itself as a warning against cynicism.

Director Richard Pottier (right) with singer Luis Mariano.

While not exactly a neglected masterpiece (that would have required a little more from both script and direction), The World Will Shake is nevertheless a surprisingly good film, both given its production date, at the latter and lesser end of the mad scientist era, and its country of origin. Nobody produced films like this is Europe in the late 30’s, and France probably had not had an actual SF movie in the pipeline since Abel Gance’s ill-fated turkey La Fin du Monde (1931, review). At 90 minutes, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, nay, the story grabs you from the beginning — first thanks to well-written and well-played characters and a light-hearted, sprightly tone, and later with its intelligent and well-crafted script. It’s a film that doesn’t underestimate its viewer, which is always a boon. Plus, there’s Erich von Stroheim.

Director Richard Pottier was born Graz, Austria, in 1906 as Ernst Deutsch, and after dropping out of medical school, moved to Germany, where he began working as assistant to a number of directors, most notably to Josef von Sternberg during the production of The Blue Angel (1930). In 1934 he was called to France, where he started directing under the pseudonym Richard Pottier. He made a number of popular melodramas, musicals and comedies during the 30’s and 40’s, most of which had a wide European distribution. He is perhaps most famous for his 1935 musical comedy Fanfare d’amour, not for its own merits, but because it was remade in 1959 by Billy Wilder as Some Like It Hot. But he also didn’t shy away from heavier subjects, such as euthanasia, in Meurtres (1950). Furthermore, he directed a number of crime thrillers, such as two of the earliest films based on Georges Simenon’s Inspector Maigret books, in the early 40’s. Directorial offers declined in the 50’s, though, as did the quality of Pottier’s films, many of which were second-rate musicals. However, there are a few noteworthy ones, for example the adventure Les révoltés de Lomanach (1954), which was Omar Sharif’s first non-Egyptian film. Toward the end of his career Pottier spent some time in Italy, where he directed two sword-and-sandal peplum movies. David and Goliath (1960), co-directed with Italsploitation specialist Ferdinando Baldi, sees Orson Welles as King Saul in one of the many projects he took on in order to finance his projects toward the end of his life. Romulus and the Sabines (1961) is an oddity which stars Roger Moore, between Ivanhoe and The Saint, in an early movie lead as Romulus, the mythological founder of Rome, in the light-hearted retelling of the Romans’ abduction of the Sabine women. After this, Pottier apparently figured it was time to put the lens cap on permanently, and he had a long, and hopefully happy, retirement until his death in 1994.

Authors Francis Didelot and Charles Robert-Dumas would both probably be deserved of a longer write-up. Robert-Dumas was a teacher of German, who ended up as a decorated interpreter during WWI. During the German occupation of France during WWII, he was arrested twice for suspicion of being a part of the resistance movement, and transferred to a prison in Frankfurt by the Gestapo from 1942 to 1944. He passed away in 1946. Didelot was an author of mainly children’s books and detective novels, a handful of which were adapted for the screen in France in the 30’s.

Authors Francis Didelot and Charles Robert-Dumas.

La Machine à prédire la mort was Robert-Dumas’ only collaboration with Francis Didelot, a descendant of Edgar Allan Poe born in Madagascar, of all places, in 1902. His father was a colonial governor, whose work took the family to all the four corners of the Earth during Didelot’s childhood. After studying law in Paris, he worked briefly in the profession before his restless nature prompted him to become a travel writer. However, he relocated to Paris, and found his calling as a writer of detective and mystery stories in the mid-30’s, and as a screenwriter – often with adaptations from his own novels. Perhaps his best known novel is Le Septième Juré (“The seventh juror”, 1958), which was adapted as a film by Georges Lautner in 1962, as an episode of the TV show The Alfred Hitchcock Hour (The Star Juror) in 1963, and as a French TV movie in 2008. Didelot, with his background as a lawyer, was also well set to, for a few years, act as the president of the Society of Men of Letters, a French society looking out for the moral and legal rights of authors.

Lead actor Claude Dauphine was a stage hand at a Parisian theatre who reportedly learned a large role in two days when one of the actors fell ill just before opening night in 1930 – he was then hired as an actor there and then, creating for himself a successful career both on stage and in film. Today, his best remembered pre-war film is Wladyslaw and Irene Starewicz’s enchanting animated movie The Story of the Fox (1937), in which he had a leading voice acting role. However, at the time, he made his name in such popular films as the crime classic The Curtain Rises (1938). Dauphin served in the French army during WWII. In 1942 German occupants identified him as a member of the resistance, but he was able to sail to Gibraltar on a Fishing boat, and arrived in London in 1942, where he quickly learned English, first serving in British Intelligence, and later as a liaison between the French and US forces. While in the UK, he appeared in a supporting role in the romantic comedy English Without Tears (1944).

Claude Dauphin with Jane Fonda in Barbarella in 1968.

By the end of the war, Dauphin was a popular actor in France, but his career really took off in the 50’s. In 1950 he starred in his first American film, Robert Siodmak’s Deported, partly filmed in Italy, in a large supporting role. This led him to appear in a screen test for Warner Bros. during a trip to the US. Having almost forgotten about it after returning to France, he was suddenly summoned to Hollywood to appear as the second male lead opposite Doris Day and Ray Bolger in the musical comedy April in Paris (1952). The next year he appeared in another large role in the unrelated British romantic comedy Innocents in Paris. 1952 also saw two of his best remembered French performances, in Max Ophüls’ Le Plaisir and Jacques Becker’s Casque d’Or. After April in Paris Dauphin started dividing his time between France and Hollywood, and in 1955 he married American actress Norma Eberhardt (his third and last wife). He appeared regularly on US TV, and had sizeable supporting roles in a number of successful Hollywood movies, like Joseph L. Mankiewicz The Quiet American (1958), Val Guest’s The Full Treatment (1960, a rare US lead), The Visit (1964) with Ingrid Bergman and Anthony Quinn, Lady L (1965) with Sophia Loren, Paul Newman and David Niven, Two for the Road (1967) with Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney, and a handful of other movies. However, he is probably best remembered, at least by science fiction fans, as Jane Fonda’s boss, the President of Earth, in Roger Vadim’s campy sexploitation comedy Barbarella (1968).

Madeleine Sologne in her trend-setting hairstyle in Love Eternal in 1943.

Lead actress Madeleine Sologne was born Madeleine Vouillon in 1912 in the district of Sologne, which she took as her stage name. At the age of 24 she was happily working away as a hatter in her own hat shop, when she married a cameraman and started modelling for a painter, who encouraged her to take acting lessons. In less than a year, she appeared on stage and landed her first small film role, in no less a film than Jean Renoir’s communist propaganda vehicle La vie est à nous (1936). Although long assigned to uncredited bit-parts, she slowly worked herself up the career ladder, until, in 1939, she received her first leading lady roles, first in the minor film Le père Lebonnard, and then in The World Will Shake, a film that made her something of a name in the French film press. More leads followed between 1940 and 1943, most notably for fans of genre cinema, in three movies: Les hommes sans peur (1942), not exactly SF, but a movie about the invention of x-ray machines; Croisières sidérales (1942, review), another one of the very rare French SF movies of the era, and lastly the horror film Le loup des Malveneur (1943), France’s answer to The Wolf Man (1941). However, the crowning glory of her career was Jean Delannoy’s Love Eternal (sometimes as The Eternal Return), a romantic retelling of Tristan and Isolde in modern-day France, from a script by Jean Cocteau. Released in 1943, it was one of the biggest commercial hits of the occupation period. Sologne, who dyed her hair peroxide blonde for the role, became a fashion icon, and hair dressers all over France were overrun with young women who wanted their hair “à la Madeleine Sologne“, with a sharp side parting on the left, a long swoop and a single, unified lock by the shoulders. Sologne continued to me a box office draw in leading roles throughout the 40’s, but the quality of the scripts she was offered was in steady decline. In 1946 she teamed up again with Erich von Stroheim in La foire aux chimères, this time as his lover, in a Phantom of the Opera-inspired melodrama about a disfigured money forger and a blind girl. After 1948 she withdrew from the screen to focus on her stage work, although she did occasional roles in film and TV from the late 50’s to the mid-70’s. She lived a long life and passed away in 1995.

While Erich von Stroheim could out-Karloff most of the horror icons of the era, he actually didn’t appear in that many horror or SF films. Despite his faiblesse, as a director, for German expressionism and dark themes exploring the cruelty of mankind, Stroheim neither wrote, directed nor acted in many horrors. Those he did appear in, however, tended to also have some SF element. In 1936 he co-wrote the script for Tod Browning’s The Devil-Doll (review), loosely adapted from Abraham Merritt’s novel Burn Witch, Burn! and in 1952 he appeared as the mad scientist of the n:th remake of Alraune (review). His only SF entry as an actor in Hollywood was as a mad scientist in The Lady and the Monster (1944, review), based on Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain. His only other horror film was the B-movie The Crime of Dr. Crespi, in which he played a mad scientist who paralysed his victims before burying them alive.

Despite his aristocratic claims, Erich von Stroheim hailed from a middle-class Jewish hat maker family in Vienna, Austria, and emigrated to the US in search of a better life in 1909. After a number of odd jobs, he found himself in Hollywood, where he started working as a stuntman and as an consultant on German culture, fashion and military matters. He had served briefly in the Austro-Hungarian army, but never as an officer, as he claimed. During WWI he also found himself in demand for roles as “sneering German officers”. After cutting his teeth as assistant director of military sequences, Stroheim emerged as one of the most ambitious and visionary writers and directors in Hollywood, making his debut with Blind Husbands in 1919, and made his real splash with the follow-up Foolish Wives, which he claimed was the first movie to cost 1 million dollars to make. His masterpiece is considered to be Greed (1924), a detailed adaptation of Frank Norris’ 1898 novel McTeague. An avant-garde production mixing silent film makeup and 19th century period clothing with modern locations in San Francisco, today the film is credited as one of the most daring and innovative in the silent era. However, Greed also marked the beginning of the end for Stroheim as a director. Exacting to a degree about small details, and refusing to stick to budget and time-constraints, Stroheim created a rough cut that was over ten hours long. Realising it had to be cut, he was able to get it down to six hours, which could be shown as two different movies, both three hours long. Still deemed too long by the studio, Goldwyn Pictures, Stroheim enlisted the help of director Rex Ingram to get it down to four hours, again intended to be shown as two different films. But after a merger resulting in MGM, the new studio brass demanded Greed be cut down to a single movie of no more than three hours in length. Stroheim was taken off the film, and the final version was edited down to 2,5 hours by one of the screenwriters. The resulting film was a flop upon release and Stroheim disowned it. However, it has later become re-evaluated as one of the greatest films ever made.

Stroheim directed — or at least started directing — a half dozen other films, but almost all of them ran into trouble because of his micromanagement of details, insistence on artistic freedom and his refusal to compromise for budgetary or commercial reasons. This resulted in extremely bloated budgets, missed deadlines and overlong, unreleasable films, which often had to be cut down by over half of their length, meaning hundreds of thousands of production dollars went down the drain, which could have been avoided with better planning. Combined with his notoriously harsh attitude towards actors, this ultimately lead to Stroheim being fired from Queen Kelly, and subsequently from Walking Down Broadway in 1933, after which he was effectively blacklisted as director in Hollywood. Nevertheless, Stroheim’s films are revered today for the way in which he introduced more complex themes and sophisticated plots, as well as sexuality and psychology into commercial films. Over the years, Stroheim did continue acting, and after getting snubbed in Hollywood started doing more work in France, where he became especially vaunted by auteur directors. As an actor, he is perhaps best remembered for his roles in Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion (1937) and in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), for he earned his only Academy Award nomination. 

Stroheim and Fay Wray on the set of The Wedding March.

The film is full of other character actors deserving of a line or two. Armand Bernard, Raymond Aimos and Julien Carette were all among the most recognisable character players of the era, all of whom popped up in over 100 films. Bernard and Aimos were veterans of the silent days, and Bernard’s comedic talents even bought him a couple of comedy leads. Julien Carette debuted with the advent of the talkies, and quickly became an audience favourite with his thick Parisian accent and his man-of-the-people air, his facial plasticity and intensely emotive acting. He also had the chance to play the lead in a handful of movies.

Composer Wal-Berg was one of the top recording conductors, orchestrators and composers in France, particularly in regards to light music, like jazz and chansons. He worked with everyone from Marlene Dietrich to Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf. He also created music for over 20 films. Jean Lenoir’s scores, which he did plenty of, will not go down in history, however, one of his songs has. “Parlez-moi d’Amour” was written in 1930 and recorded by Lucienne Boyer, and became a world-wide hit. It can be heard in dozens upon dozens of films, including What Price Hollywood (1932), Casablanca (1942) the afore-mentioned English Without Tears, Backfire (1950), Das Boot (1981), Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), The Impostors (1998), It’s All Gone Pete Tong (2004), the Edith Piaf biopic La Môme (2007), Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (2011) and Saul Dibb’s Suite Française (2014)

Set designer Léon Barsacq was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the American war epic The Longest Day (1962), primarily filmed in France.

Janne Wass

Le monde tremblera. 1939, France. Directed by Richard Pottier. Written by Henri-Georges Clouzot & J. Villard. Based on the novel La machine à prédire la mort by Francis Didelot & Charles Robert-Dumas. Starring: Claude Dauphin, Madeleine Sologne, Roger Duchesne, Erich von Stroheim, Julien Carette, Raymond Aimos, Armand Bernard, Robert Le Vigan. Music: Jean Lenoir, Wal-Berg. Cinematography: Robert Lefebvre. Editing: Boris Lewin. Production design: Léon Barsacq, Jean Perrier. Makeup artist: Paule Déan. Produced by Raymond Borderie for CICC.

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