Recollections of Jean Renoir at the Cinefamily
January 20, 2017
I live within walking distance of the Cinefamily, but for some reason I don’t browse their calendar as often as I peruse other venues'. I could attribute this oversight to Cinefamily's rather eclectic programming, which in general skews more peculiar than my selective tastes. However, their special tributes and series draw me in multiple times a year; I particularly enjoy the Hangover Matinees (I almost made it to all seven pre-Codes in the "Seven Deadly Sins of Pre-Code") and the Silent Treatment, a monthly silent screening series. Cinefamily even showed one of my all-time favorite movies, The Innocents (1961), this past October. (OK, now that I'm looking back at the films I've watched there over the last few months, I really should make it a point to scan their schedule more than once a month. That's on me.)
Last week, the Cinefamily screened Jean Renoir's La Grande Illusion (1937), followed by a Q&A with actor/director/film historian Peter Bogdanovich and author Pascal Mérigeau, whose 2012 French work Jean Renoir: A Biography has just been translated into English. I heard about the event but it didn’t even make my radar, as my kickball team was slated to play our Championship game that night after one month of rain-outs. When precipitation decides to grace LA, it usually does so in the winter, and our third attempt at a game was also cancelled.
The weather turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I'd seen La Grande Illusion once before, but I never fully appreciated the picture's humanity and humor until watching it in a theater with an audience. Much has been written about this anti-war classic centering around two captured French soldiers and their escape attempts from German POW camps, and I doubt I could add any new observations; however, I strongly encourage those who haven’t seen it to do so - like now. In echoing Cinefamily founder Hadrian Belove's introduction, the whole planet could learn a very valuable lesson from this tale.
One of several excellent posters for La Grande Illusion.
I'm not terribly familiar with Renoir's career, having only seen this picture, La Bête Humaine (1938), The Rules of the Game (1939), This Land is Mine (1943), The Woman on the Beach (1947) and Elena and Her Men (1956). Nonetheless, I was excited for the Q&A, chiefly due to Peter Bogdanovich’s presence, but instead of a discussion on Mérigeau's book, the conversation quickly turned into a mini-Renoir love fest, packed with heartfelt anecdotes from those in the audience who knew Renoir (he died in 1979). Of the four people who spoke that evening, Mérigeau was actually the only one who wasn't directly acquainted with Renoir. This information unintentionally relegated him to the backseat of the chat - not to mention, half the time I strained to comprehend his thoughts due to his thick French accent. Therefore, this piece will focus on tales from those who knew Renoir personally.
Bogdanovich, a frequent visitor at Renoir’s LA home, shared perhaps the most humorous stories, partly because he assumed a French accent every so often when speaking as Renoir. (I wish I could re-create that effect here, but sadly I can't.) Anyway, after watching all of Renoir's movies at a 1970s LACMA retrospective, Bogdanovich paid the director a visit. He gushed over one of Renoir’s early pictures, Boudu Saved from Drowning (1932), calling it brilliant, to which the legend humbly offered his thanks. Bogdanovich reiterated his opinion, and Renoir again restated his appreciations. One could assume this cycle could spin forever, but finally Bogdanovich asked Renoir what he thought of the film. Well, Renoir’s first gripe was the sound quality (the technology was still new), then he voiced his concern with the film stocks (they didn’t have much money, so different stocks were used), then he took issue with the editing (sometimes it was too fast, other times too slow), but ultimately…Renoir deemed Boudu Saved from Drowning his greatest work!
A serious-looking poster for Boudu Saved from Drowning.
Film critic Todd McCarthy did not expect to take the stage when Bogdanovich called on him, but he joined anyway. I’m familiar with McCarthy's movie reviews, but I had no idea he knew Renoir, or that he was even old enough to. McCarthy recalled Renoir's Saturday afternoon 16mm screenings at his home (frequently featuring his own films), particularly the two panels that slid open to allow for the projector. Why remember such a mundane detail? Apparently, one small picture painted by Renoir’s father, the famed Pierre-Auguste Renoir, hung on each side, leading McCarthy to quip that Renoir must have felt some sort of gratification pushing aside two multi-million dollar paintings to make way for his films.
McCarthy’s job at the time afforded him relatively easy access to 16mm film prints. Thus, he helped Renoir obtain the works of directors he was contemporaries with - those whose pictures he hadn't had the chance to watch - like Luchino Visconti and Orson Welles. In regards to Welles, Renoir had only seen Citizen Kane (1941), so he had a lot of catching up to do. However, when it came time for The Trial (1962), Renoir’s wife and even François Truffaut warned McCarthy against showing it to Renoir, because they feared the movie’s apocalyptic ending would give him nightmares. McCarthy stalled as long as possible, even lying and maintaining that he couldn’t locate a 16mm print, but Renoir finally broke him down. A week after they watched The Trial, Renoir approached McCarthy and admitted that he had been nightmare-free ever since!
The Trial: Nightmare-dispenser or reliever?
The great Norman Lloyd, who co-starred in Renoir’s The Southerner (1945), was also in the audience. Instead of joining the others on stage, Lloyd simply stood from his front row couch seat to speak. (At one point, I realized the way everyone on stage was so intently focused on Lloyd would've made a fabulous photo op, but I didn't want to move a muscle in fear I'd miss a word!) I’ve seen Lloyd in person a few times and he’s always such a delight, but I was surprised to see him out so late – it was about 10pm, and he’s 102! What a trooper.
As usual, you could hear a pin drop when Lloyd spoke, because he absolutely commands the room; he’s astonishing just to observe, and quite frankly, his Q&As are more reminiscent of a performance. Lloyd reiterated what a pleasant man Renoir was and also discussed his movie nights. According to Lloyd, near the end of Renoir’s life, he wanted to watch all of his pictures again, and Lloyd was present the day he saw his last one. Renoir confided in Lloyd that early critics presumed the director would mimic his father’s style. He tried hard not to do so, but in the end, Renoir concluded his whole career imitated his father’s, just as the critics postulated. (I couldn't tell from Lloyd's intonation if this was a positive or negative realization for Renoir. Or somewhere in between.)
Norman Lloyd, center, with Betty Field and J. Carrol Naish in The Southerner.
(Oh, and if you thought Lloyd couldn't be any more endearing than he already is, you haven't heard him recount that one time Renoir tried directing a puppy who kept wandering out of the frame.)
Though the details differed slightly, Bogdanovich, McCarthy and Lloyd’s memories of Renoir painted him as a genial, humorous gentleman. Near the end of the evening, either Bogdanovich or McCarthy – I can't recall which – told the audience that Renoir moved to America around 1940, never to live in his home country of France again (though he occasionally returned to make a movie). The reason? In Los Angeles, Renoir lived near his best friend, playwright Clifford Odets, and Renoir didn’t want to leave him.
How sweet is that?!