Saturday, 26 February 2011

Marcel Dalio (1900-1983)

There are films whose atmosphere you carry with you for hours or days after, and then there are films you just want to hang out in. I mean the ones that conjure up such a sure sense of place and camaraderie between the characters that you want to join them, because you are positive that even without a plot to follow, the characters are still having a good time. Who wouldn't want to hang out in Errol Flynn's Sherwood Forest (The Adventures of Robin Hood, 1938)? Or go to one of Nick and Nora Charles' dinner parties even if you might get accused of murder (The Thin Man Series)? But the films that above all others I would like to hang out in, are those of Howard Hawks. It could be Dutchy's bar/hotel/air service office in Only Angels Have Wings or the newsroom in His Girl Friday or even Stumpy's jail in Rio Bravo, though the last probably doesn't smell that good. But my favourite hangout is Frenchy's in To Have and Have Not.

Which is of course where you will find Marcel Dalio. He plays Gerard aka Frenchy the slightly nervous proprietor of the bar/hotel on the island of Martinique where you will find Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, Walter Brennan at the bar and Humphrey Bogart smoking in his room, ready to throw his matches to Lauren Bacall. I want to stay at the hotel. Of course, I'd also like to be as slim and sexy and well dressed as Lauren Bacall while I did so.

I don't think Frenchy gets enough credit in this film. He runs a hotel where everyone turns up to have a good time and at the same time he has French freedom fighters in and out of his basement. No wonder he has a permanently crumpled suit and a permanently worried expression on his face.

There are of course some similarities to Casablanca, Marcel Dalio's other most famous American movie. Another great bar, another disillusioned American played by Bogart who finds his principles at the right time, another glamourous woman. In Casablanca, Dalio's part is much much smaller - he is the croupier at Rick's illegal gambling tables, appearing in only two scenes. And it must have been a very strange and poignant experience for Dalio to act in, as the film so closely mirrors his own wartime experience.

Dalio was born Jewish in France, and became a prominent actor appearing in key films such as Jean Renoir's La Regle du Jeu and La Grande Illusion. I've not yet seen the former, I have seen the latter but it was a long time ago, and I'll confess I mostly remember Jean Gabin. To be honest, he probably doesn't qualify for my collection of "supporting players" on the grounds that he was a star in France in the 30s. But the war broke out. Marcel Dalio left Paris ahead of the Germans' arrival with his then wife Madeleine LeBeau (the broken-hearted Yvonne in Casablanca), and spent two months in Lisbon before the couple was able to get visas to travel to Chile. You can read more about his journey on Wikipedia.

He carried on working in America, and back in Europe after the war. I remember him in Donovan's Reef, the John Ford movie set in the South Pacific, as a flustered priest trying to keep people in order and plagued by a leaking roof. And now I look at the list of films he went on to make, there are many I have seen. But the ones I remember most are Casablanca and To Have and Have Not. And his nervous glances, Gallic shrug and crumpled suit and expression.

Here's a tiny glimpse of him at the end of a choice Claude Rains moment from Casablanca.

And here's a bar scene from To Have and Have Not with Hoagy Carmichael at the piano, Bogart and Bacall eyeing each other up and Marcel Dalio still trying to get Bogart to give a damn.

Casablanca (1942)

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