The year was 1973 and I was a student at Ringling's Clown College where, as part of the training, dean Bill Ballantine screened comedy films. Yes, this was the Dark Ages, still several years before the first VHS tapes and a full two decades before DVDs. I fondly remember sitting with the likes of Penn Jillette, Michael Davis, and Mike Bongar, devouring the works of W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, and other classics. One delightful oddity that caught my attention was a modern-day silent film comedy, Yoyo (1965), directed by and starring the French renaissance man, Pierre Etaix. Although Jacques Tati — another French master of the modern silent film — was to complete his last feature film the next year (Parade, 1974), neither he nor Etaix were exactly household names in the United States.
Fast-forward to 2010, a mere 37 years later, and through correspondence with writer Frank Bren — more on whom later — I learned that Etaix was alive and well and on the comeback trail. Now a young 81, he had recently mounted and starred in a stage production in Bordeaux — Miousik Papillon — that he hoped to bring to Paris, and was involved in an intense legal and public relations battle to regain rights to his films, which he had sold to a company that then decided not to release them. That's right, nearly four decades later and still no theatrical releases, no VHS tapes, no DVDs. [You can read a London Guardian article about this long battle by clicking here.]
Clearly something had to be done. A web publicity campaign was launched, petitions circulated, donations solicited. Major film artists lent their support. Here's a clever promo video (in French) in which Etaix does some sleight-of-hand with five coins that disappear just like his movies did. Ultimately all he and co-creator Jean-Claude Carrière can do is pray to St. Anthony of Padua.
Hmm... since I was going to be in Paris for two weeks, perhaps I could connect with the Etaix campaign, maybe even with the old master himself, at least for an interview. In Search of Pierre Etaix. I had a mission! It was almost like being a real journalist.
So I signed the petition. I even made a donation. And I wrote to the friend of Etaix who was running the campaign. And no one answered. Being a crack investigative reporter, I took the next step. I wrote again, and I waited. I drank some Bordeaux, munched on my pain au levain and roquefort, and when that didn't work, I showed great determination, consuming yet more wine, bread and cheese. And meanwhile waited some more. And then I had to leave Paris. Bummère, as they say along the banks of the Seine.
I thought this was the end of the story, but back in New York just a few days later I was greeted by a barrage of late-breaking Etaix news. There had been a victory in the film rights battle! Not only would the movies be released this summer, but Le Grand Amour was to be screened May 19th at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival. Here's the Cannes press release:
The Cannes Classics programming of Le Grand Amour by Pierre Etaix is a major event. It was only recently, after a long legal battle, that the director succeeded in recovering the rights to his own films. Eight films by Pierre Etaix have now been restored and prepared for re-release. In Competition at Cannes in 1969, Le Grand Amour, which was the first colour film by Jacques Tati’s collaborator and assistant director, has been selected to open this special retrospective. A comic and poetic film, where Pierre (played by Pierre Etaix), though happily married, falls in love with his pretty young secretary and starts dreaming, Le Grand Amour will be screened this evening in the presence of the director.
So even if my personal Etaix quest was a failure, here he is about to be rediscovered by the wider world, and at least I can help spread the word. To prime the pump, here's some stuff you might want to know about this creative clown genius:
• He won an Academy Award in 1963 for his short, Heureux anniversaire.
• His writing partner was and is the prolific and talented Jean-Claude Carrière, who won much acclaim for his work with film director Luis Bunuel and stage director Peter Brook.
• He worked as an illustrator and created designs and gags for Jacques Tati, serving as an assistant director on Mon Oncle.
• He made five features between 1962 and 1971: The Suitor (1962), Yoyo (1964), So Long as You're Healthy (1966), The Great Love (1969), and Land of Milk and Honey (1971).
• He was cast by Jerry Lewis in his unreleased film The Day the Clown Cried. Lewis said of Etaix: "Twice in my life I understood what genius was. The first time was looking at the definition in the dictionary. The second was encountering Pierre Etaix."
• He returned to cabaret and circus performing in the the 70s and was married to the celebrated French circus clown Annie Fratellini, grand-daughter of the legendary Paul Fratellini; Annie played Etaix's wife in Le Grand Amour and in the circus was the auguste to his whiteface clown.
• Together they founded the first French national circus school, l’Ecole Nationale du Cirque Annie Fratellini, which pioneered the growth of circus as an art form in France and the emergence of "nouveau cirque."
But all of this is just an introduction to the following excellent 2008 retrospective on Etaix's career by the aforementioned Australian writer, Frank Bren. This is a "work in progress" from Mr. Bren's forthcoming book, which currently has the working title, ETAIX — adventures in cinema. It is reprinted here from Film Ink magazine with the generous permission of Film Ink and Mr. Bren.
Frank Bren: Pierre Etaix—France's Forgotten Comic Genius
I'll try to keep you posted on the latest developments and get a hold of any Etaix book or DVD set if and when. Meanwhile, a few links:
Etaix's new music-hall show
Films of Pierre Etaix web site
Etaix video clips
Etaix on Wikipedia
Etaix on IMDB
Film Ink magazine
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