Bright Lights Film Journal

Pierre Etaix: Revisiting a Forgotten Master

“The man’s a genius!” —Jerry Lewis

The films of Pierre Etaix are back. For those unaware of his existence, these screen gems of the 1960s will be a happy discovery; for those who know him, a cause for celebration. Restored under the joint supervision of two cultural heritage bodies (Groupama Gan Foundation and Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage), the comedies of this director, writer and clown began appearing in Paris cinemas starting on July 7, 2010, and will eventually play in cinemas worldwide while appearing commercially on DVD for the first time later this year.

The films (first-release years in brackets) are both features and shorts. The features (directed by Etaix and, with the exception of the last, co-written by Jean Claude Carrière) include Le Soupirant/The Suitor (1963); Yoyo (1965); Tant q’on a la santé/So Long as You’re Healthy (1966); Le grand amour/The Great Love (1969); Pays de cocagne/Land of Milk and Honey (1971). Shorts include Rupture (1961; co-dir./scr. by Etaix & Carrière); Heureux anniversaire/Happy Anniversary (made in 1961 but eligible for its 1963 Oscar; co dir./scr. by Etaix & Carrière); En forme/In Great Shape (2010 first release; made in c.1965). Heureux anniversaire won the Short Subjects, Live Action Subjects Academy award for co-authors Etaix and Carrière at the 1963 Oscars.

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The Long March of Pierre Etaix

The above is, quintessentially, the complete works of one director, a modest enough output but, restored en masse,as these eight films were with the exception of Yoyo (restored earlier, in 2007), they set some kind of technical record. Etaix’s output far exceeds that of fellow Frenchman Jean Vigo (1905-1934), whose sole feature and three shorts are well remembered, and rightly so. Yet Etaix does not even make the indexes of significant, recent books on French and world cinema, even those with the scope and space to include him.

As with Vigo, there are compelling reasons to appraise his work as a touchstone for filmmakers today, particularly (though not only) connected to comedy. The many critical raves from the 1960s about these films are as much for his enhancement of cinema language as about his comedy.

There are reasons for his vanishing act. His films were never issued on video and were effectively quarantined as a result of unfortunate decisions by their makers, Etaix and Carrière. There were also complex legal issues best explained on the website lesfilmsdetaix.fr (and links) that contributed to our now seeing these films in the authors’ own lifetimes. Suffice it to say that its more than 56,000 petitioners, spearheaded by luminaries like Woody Allen, Leslie Caron, and David Lynch, played an enormous role in freeing up the films for urgently required restoration and, in French terms, for the public’s right to enjoy works considered part of its cultural heritage.

Happily, Etaix remains with us in the flesh, frailer perhaps than his younger self starring in his own films, but recognizable and still in business. Over the years, he has remained in the International Who’s Who, principally because of his film work, although the chroniclers of that profession abandoned him. It has been a long march back for Pierre Etaix.

“One of the leading film comic creators on the world scene.”

Etaix’s homage (cartoon below)1 to the early apostles of film comedy says much about his vision as a professional clown and a little about his annoyance with terms like “the French Buster Keaton,” as Paris-Match dubbed him in 1963 — as much for a physical resemblance as for Etaix’s gifts as a pantomime comic.

He arrived with a bang in 1963 with the release of his first feature, Le Soupirant (The Suitor), which, with co-laureate L’Immortelle by Alain Robbe-Grillet, co-won the prestigious annual Prix Louis Delluc, one of the longest-running “best film” recognitions in Europe. Overjoyed, critic Georges Sadoul announced the birth of “A New Comic” in his weekly column for Lettres Francaises (14-20 February 1963) after viewing Le Soupirant, apparently for the second time:

Comedy is cinema’s most difficult genre. Nothing demands more precision, research or clearer focus. For the last forty years and more, since the time of Jean Durand and Max Linder, has French cinema had any genuine comic authors? Many fine actors, certainly, but very few authors. Noel-Noel before the war and our great Jacques Tati afterwards. And of course Pierre Prévert, who began with his exceptional It’s in the Bag! (L’Affaire est dans le sac, 1932) but was then eliminated little by little from a cinema to which he could have contributed so much in collaboration with his brother, Jacques. Their first film was a short, the ideal form for perfecting the art of comedy.

Sadoul elsewhere regrets that, as a jury member for the just-awarded Prix Louis Delluc, he had instead voted for L’Immortelle in late 1962. His other regret — French cinema’s dearth of comic authors — is echoed through the decades in other French journals and also in Hollywood for its similar situation. To cite Philip K. Scheuer, writing in the Los Angeles Times (18 May 1965): “If Jerry Lewis were worse, one could ignore him. If he were better, one would rejoice in him. As it stands, he is a great flawed gem, but the best that we have,” adding that Lewis had “even agreed to tie up with Pierre Eteix [sic], maker of a New Wave success called The Yoyo for a coproduction.” He further reminds us — to counter that cliché of how much the French love Jerry — that Lewis’s films were “Paramount’s most reliable and consistent moneymakers” — so it is Americans who loved him enough to make him, as some say, one of the richest, most successful comics in show business history (see “Benayoun” below).

Let’s not forget that, with the absence of new features from Jacques Tati between 1958 (Mon Oncle) and 1967 (Playtime), Etaix and Lewis were the most visible total-filmmaker-comics internationally. Sadoul’s point on shorts as apprenticeship (and, by inference, that critics should criticise but not destroy first films) might also apply to Robert Bresson’s Les Affaires Publiques (France, 1934) discussed under “Bresson” below.

As Variety (24 February 1965) notes in its review of Yoyo: “Pierre Etaix proved he had a personal comic filmic flair in his Oscar-winning short Happy Anniversary and his first feature pic. The Suitor. He now cements it, [emerging] as one of the leading film comic creators on the world scene.” From Variety again on 2 April 1969: “Pierre Etaix is one of the few comic author-director-actor film-makers practicing today.”

In 1963-’64, The Suitor was an enormous hit across the U.S., if not in Avatar revenue terms, then at least in its warm critical reception across the nation while setting international box office records generally for a French comedy. Yet, within little more than a generation, mass amnesia blotted him out of filmgoers’ memories, even in his native France.

Etaix belongs to a certain family of like minds devoted to film comedy, which is not easy to pigeonhole except in terms of an esprit expressed in his cartoon. The holy dozen, including that first genius of movie comedy Max Linder, had virtually done everything by the 1930s, creating the medium’s first comic masters. Witness Woody Allen’s list of items that make life worth living in the closing minutes of his film Manhattan (1979), when “Groucho Marx” tops his list. Or take Chinese cinema’s best-known director-comedians who swear by three of the apostles as profound influences on their work: Stephen Chow (Chaplin) and Jackie Chan (Chaplin, Lloyd, and Keaton).

Formation2

Pierre Etaix was born in 1928 in the ancient town of Roanne in the département of Loire. With a current population of roughly 38,000, Roanne’s native notables include two filmmakers: Etaix and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, though the latter lived there for only about two years. Jeunet’s recent Micmacs, incidentally, pays a small tribute to Pierre Etaix, so quickly that it’s easy to miss.

With the notion, early in life, of becoming a clown, young Pierre took lessons in violin and piano, and in drawing, dancing and gymnastics, while teaching himself to play the xylophone, accordion, saxophone, mandolin, trumpet, abd concertina as well as stage magic, all deemed essential to a clown’s armory. I can attest to his close-up skills in making coins disappear 18 inches away from my nose — once in his Paris apartment and, four years later, again at a restaurant nearby. He also studied glass design under a master in that field, Théodore-Gérard Hanssen.

In a fortunate family environment, his father, being a fan of Laurel & Hardy and contemporary comic greats, ran small-gauge projections of their films for his family at home. Pierre joined an amateur theatre in Roanne and one of his co-players (a friend of Etaix Senior) was Claude Massot, who would feature marvelously in Etaix’s first four features, unrecognisably as a fat woman in Yoyo. One can watch Massot now (as Etaix’s father) on youtube in a key set-up scene from The Suitor.

Curiously, at the family screenings, Etaix never saw “Malec” (Buster Keaton, 1895-1966) and, in our interviews, he regretted missing Keaton’s Paris seasons at the Cirque Medrano — late 1947, late 1952 and early 1954 — which had so helped revive Keaton’s fortunes, particularly in 1947 preceding his second-life comeback on U.S. television. Etaix only discovered him when many Keaton films, presented in partnership with Raymond Rohauer (1924-1987), triumphed in early 1962 at the Cinémathèque Francaise as elsewhere in Europe that year. Despite press rumours of an Etaix/Keaton collaboration (like the more substantive Etaix/Lewis project Scheuer mentions above), the two men never met, though Etaix twice wrote about Keaton for Paris’s weekly Arts magazine, and eventually met Eleanor, Buster’s widow.

From 1953, Etaix began selling joke cartoons to periodicals like Le Rire and Franc Jeu (and in later years, to Paris Match) at around the time he “discovered” Jacques Tati, bowled over by the comic force of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (France, 1953).

Film School — Mon Oncle

His film apprenticeship was his four years’ work with Jacques Tati’s Specta Films company from late 1954 as a gag writer, assistant director, storyboardist, go-fer and uncredited player for Tati’s Mon Oncle (France, 1958) — though the Internet Movie Data Base credits him simply as an “assistant director” (one of two) to Tati.

It is still hard to determine which of his many now-published illustrations and designs for Mon Oncle or which of his specific gags made it onscreen. Etaix himself carefully explains that it was impossible to attribute authorship to individual gags as they evolved over time, often into something hard to reconcile with the original idea or suggestion. Author David Bellos, whose book Jacques Tati: His Life and Art (The Harvill Press/Random House, 2000/2001) is the densest, most readable account of Tati as filmmaker, suggests that Etaix was certainly under-credited for his work and poorly treated after quitting Specta to work full time as a comic and clown in his own right. The newspaper France Soir (26 February 1959, p. 9) runs this intriguing headline: “Jacques Tati va produire le premier film réalisé par son équipe d’assistants” (Tati to produce the first film made by his team of assistants). Presumably drawn from an interview, Tati pledges, from money earned on Mon Oncle, financial backing for an independent film comedy by Bernard Maurice, his production manager on Mon Oncle, together “with Etex [sic], designer and gagman for Mr. Hulot [incorrect] and My Uncle based on an idea of a young journalist, Paule Sengissen.”

The outcome of the above is unclear, but it suggests that Tati’s abrupt breach with Etaix occurred sometime in 1959 when the latter began performing a comedy “number” in Parisian live venues reportedly at the Bobino that year and more regularly in 1960 at Les Trois Baudets where Jacques Brel also performed from time to time. It seems there was little warmth in their relationship before Tati’s death in 1982, though Tati ignited Etaix’s film career, as we shall see, in 1961. Yet the two men, with completely different personalities, had much in common, including a similar number of film comedy classics and similar career paths — music hall and circus to film shorts to features, with a return to live performance.

Etaix’s one noticeable appearance in Mon Oncle — his first, if uncredited professional screen performance to my knowledge — is as the “telegrapher” (wheeling a bicycle) who startles a woman de-feathering poultry with a clucking imitation. His contributions to Mon Oncle and first encounters with Tati are best revealed and clarified in a brilliant and recommended “making of” book entitled Etaix dessine Tati (Etaix Illustrates Tati) by Francis Ramirez and Christian Rolot (ACR, Courbevoie, France, 2007). It houses countless Etaix designs and sketches for settings, characters, dress and potential gags.

Jerry Lewis — with Apologies to Robert Benayoun (1926-1996)

French Film critic Robert Benayoun’s fascinating diary-style book Bonjour Monsieur Lewis (Eric Losfeld, Paris, 1972) offers a wonderful account of many things Jerry Lewis, not least one of the earliest meetings between Lewis and Pierre Etaix in Paris in 1965 — shortly after their first meeting quickly arranged at the Ritz (according to one French report) after Lewis had seen Yoyo.

There are slight variations in different accounts of this “first meeting” story. Benayoun, a longtime friend and champion of Lewis the artist, was actually there (at least for what seems to have been a second meeting between the comics) and should know. However, even he dates the circumstances incorrectly as August 1965. It must have been in April, for as Scheuer confirms above, Etaix and Lewis had already become friends and were planning a film together by 18 May 1965 (edition date of Scheuer’s article). Also, a contemporary edition of the U.S. trade journal Film Daily records Lewis flying from the U.S. to Paris on April 7 for his location work there as an actor in the film Boeing Boeing (dir. John Rich, 1965).

According to Benayoun, while accompanying Lewis around Paris during the Boeing Boeing shoot, he indicated a film poster for Pierre Etaix’s Yoyo, then playing in Paris, probably at the Marbeuf Cinema to judge from contemporary newspaper advertisements. Benayoun told Lewis that Etaix was the only contemporary French comic imbued with the circus tradition, even casting clowns regularly in his films, and he was the only Frenchman then firmly in the line of the great burlesque comics from Stan Laurel to Buster Keaton. Excited, Lewis demanded to see the film at once and, at screening’s end, after 90 or so minutes of falling about laughing, Lewis turned to Benayoun and said: “The man’s a genius!” Immediately a meeting was arranged (according to another account) with Etaix at the Ritz.

Benayoun describes what appears to be their second meeting a few days later at the Cinémathèque Francaise then hosting a press conference for Lewis. Etaix, who was present, knew no English, Lewis knew no French, and so, writes Benayoun, “in front of my colleagues the two comics began the richest, most hilarious, most moving of dialogues without uttering a word.” Lewis scrupulously imitated a classic strip-tease scene from Yoyothe simple unlacing of a bored millionaire’s boot to some racy accompanying music in the film). Etaix mimicked a well-known scene from Lewis’s The Ladies Man (1961). Soon the duo re-enacted scenes from their jointly planned film, like “two spies swapping military secrets in a public library” or “mathematicians bombarding each other with formulae on a blackboard” using minimal sounds, a word here or there, the action all perfectly “readable.”

Yet the television reporters present, while savoring the dumb play between two comic titans, failed to record any of what Henri Langlois, also present, described as one of the rarest pearls (ever displayed) in the Cinémathèque. “Contemptuous of Etaix,” says Benayoun, the TV reporters wanted only Jerry and lost the moment.

At a later press interview in France, records Benayoun, Lewis would admonish reporters with: “In France, you have someone named Pierre Etaix, who for me is cinema in its purest sense. This little man is a giant; the French would do well to appreciate him right now, before waiting till he’s dead. This discouragement might force him out of the business, which would be a catastrophe for the art of comedy in general!”

Bresson

Simply writing about Pierre Etaix, his comic pedigree, and his antecedents threatens to engulf any researchoholic in centuries of show business yarns, embracing the cinema, circus, music hall, theatre, and multiple forms of illustration. His own apartment in Paris exudes just this, as do his interviews and regular appearances on radio and television (throughout those years when he had “disappeared” too). Just two early influences are briefly noted here, including Robert Bresson, whose first film, the short Les Affaires Publiques (1934), was a Mack Sennett-like comedy with shades of the Marx Brothers’ hit Duck Soup (dir. Leo McCarey, 1933).

At a stretch, one could dig something “Bressonian” out of that comedy that starred the clown Béby (about whom Jean-Pierre Melville would film a portrait years later). Contemporary reviews (I’ve read seven — it was well covered) were mostly of “the Americans do it better” variety but not in what is by far the most interesting review — that of Germaine Decaris’s full-page coverage of this film in La Lumière (1 December 1934).

Decaris is described in Nouvelles Littéraires (10 December 1932) as “the most original personality among the younger film critics.” She and “Intérim” of Nouvelles Littéraires are the only two critics I have so far found to have reviewed the Préverts’ L’Affaire est dans le sac (Sadoul, above) when it was first screened (the censor quickly banned it), comparing it to Ubu Roi. She regards Les Affaires Publiques as a wake-up call to a Europe then sinking into the hands of seemingly comic but highly dangerous dictators:

As for supporting worthwhile causes, French cinema — with rare exceptions — slinks away or, because it requires no effort to remain itself, plays dead. The young and audacious Mr. Robert Bresson, in this first film as director, could liberate our cinema from its grave. He allows it to breathe rather than talk only to say nothing, and we gladly breathe with him. Composer Jean Wiener seizes this rare opportunity to create music of agreeable humour, which is the best commentary one could demand for this farce that proves, yet again, how a grain of madness may contain much philosophy.

As for its plot, IMDB’s description (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0024815/) fills in some gaps for those unable to view a copy of this lengthy short.

The music of Jean Wiener (1896-1962) would feature in Etaix’s sixth feature film, L’âge de Monsieur est avancé (1987), a made-for-TV film adapted from Etaix’s hit play of that title successfully staged in the autumn of 1985 at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées Theatre. Wiener had first composed film music for the feature La Femme de nulle part (The Woman from Nowhere, 1922), written and directed by Louis Delluc.

However, Etaix met and keenly worked with Bresson, less interested in the director’s dormant interest in Groucho or Mack Sennett than in his rigour as a film artisan, the Bresson we know and love from classics like Pickpocket (France, 1959), starring Martin LaSalle as the drifter who becomes a pickpocket under the tutelage of a “first accomplice” (played by actor-magician Kassagi).

As Bresson told L’Express (23 December 1959), his film was above all an attempt to interiorize the main character (LaSalle): “While filming the external gestures of this cynic, I simultaneously tried to film his [moral] struggle within.” One problem in an otherwise untroubled production lay in finding case materials on the profession beyond out-of-date reference books such as Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist or the life story of celebrated 18th-century pickpocket George Barrington.

Luckily, Bresson found a real (reformed) Tunisian pickpocket in Kassagi, a well known performer in Paris club and music hall venues. As Kassagi would tell Jean Monteaux of the weekly Arts (11-17 Dec., 1963): “I was a thief; but I’ve no shame; shame happens only when you’re caught and I never was,” He described the dexterity he acquired with his hands while growing up in Tunis among other professional thieves and how a natural interest in the profession of prestidigitation (he stole a book on the subject) led him to become a straight performer. Thus Bresson cast Kassagi as “1st Accomplice,” hiring him too as “Technical Consultant for the Hand Movements of Thieves.” Etaix, a fellow music-hall performer, knew Kassagi and explained his own first credited film role as “2nd accomplice” in Bresson’s film:

PE: “I had known Robert Bresson, who came to see Tati from time to time, during production [of Mon Oncle]. One day he spoke to me of the preparation of his film with Kassagi, a friend whom I knew in music hall — he was a magician. After some discussion, Robert Bresson asked me how come I knew Kassagi. I also did a little prestidigitation, that is, magic and manipulation — “Ah bon? That’s interesting” — he told me he would like an accomplice for Kassagi in the film. Like that! It intrigued me very much to see how Bresson worked much more than just appearing as an actor, especially in his case because he controls everything and leaves nothing to “interpretation.” I had seen three of his films — and another when we shotPickpocket at the Studio Victorine in Nice; it greatly excited me; he was unusual, I was terribly impressed by his work and was curious to see how he shot it. It was instructive because I saw that this man had such a “souci” of perfection that it required an enormous number of shots — with people who were not [professional] actors — he employed about 50 or 60 takes for every one used. Enormous. Sometimes he had 60 to 70 takes. He told me he did one with “only” 44.

Q: Had you worked with Kassagi?

PE: No, we knew each other [around the traps] because he had a magic act; I had a comic act in music hall. So though (unlike Kassagi) I never practised the art of pickpocketing(!), I could give that impression because I had learned the art of manipulation.

1961: Jacques Tati Live … and Etaix

Two years after walking away with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film (Mon Oncle), Jacques Tati returned to his roots in a big way, at the Olympia, one of the oldest and largest music-hall venues in Paris.

This was 1961, with Tati nearing his mid-fifties. Why did he do it?

As Tati would tell Michel Mourlet (Nouvelles Litteraires, 28 Dec., 1967): “Ah, the music hall. It’s a complete programme in one. Everyone is happy. When shooting a movie you never know the outcome. You have to suffer enormously before hearing ten people laugh in a cinema. In a music hall, the reward is immediate.”

He and “Bubu” Coquatrix were childhood friends, and in 1925 (according to France Soir) even co-won a Charleston dancing competition before Coquatrix went on to become a major bandleader, musician, and impresario, while Tati ventured into amateur revue, birthplace of his trademark sporting impressions, then into professional music-hall along with some first short film essays. Coquatrix had re-established the Olympia as a great music-hall/concert venue in 1954 to revive its “live” heyday of the very early 1900s.

Unlike his feature films, famous for their years of detailed preparation, the show, scheduled for early April 1961, had to be conceived quickly, while agents for Tati-Coquatrix scoured the music-hall venues big and small for acts to incorporate into the show. One of its features would be screens enabling a fusion of live and filmed events and/or performers, in the manner of the world’s first great screen comic, Max Linder, who had made “cinema/theatre” his own at the same Olympia back in 1910 and then across Europe. Stage décor featured the controlled chaos of a fairground like that in Tati’s first feature, Jour de Fête (France, 1949; and screened in the second part of the program). There would be artists with “numbers,” like jugglers, but the numbers would be done while the performers also functioned as other characters, or their acts might be cut short or be engulfed by other acts going on onstage or in the auditorium — or onscreen. In short, individual music-hall artists and clowns — at a time when their acts were rarely in demand and mostly enjoyed tepid applause at best — were integrated into Tati’s breathtaking, if temporary, rejuvenation of variety or vaudeville as vital components of French music hall as they once were. George Loriot, a clown with whom Tati had worked onstage in 1936 at the l’Européen came out of retirement at 76 to reprise his act.

The show was set for April 6, then the 13th, then the 20th while the complexities of integrating the acts, filming necessary scenes for the onscreen elements, delayed the first dress rehearsal preview to Thursday, April 20. But on the day before, Tati, demonstrating his postman cycling technique to another performer, accidentally pedaled the bike forward and fell 3 metres into the orchestra pit. Coquatrix urgently called Edith Piaf’s doctor for Tati; painkiller injections, body manipulations, and an enforced rest for the star ultimately delayed the official premiere until close to the end of April.

Launching a Film Career — Etaix at the Olympia

Q: How were you involved with Jacques Tati’s production of Jour de Fête at the Olympia? What of your reported rupture with Tati?

PE: I will explain that. When Tati was preparing Jour de Fête at the Olympia, I was performing a “number” in music hall. Tati knew about it, but because we had had a separation that was very painful for me, he couldn’t accept that I might actually perform with him, much as I wanted him to propose it. At the beginning I did not especially want to work in cinema. I had met a marvelous clown named Nino Fabbri and wanted to play in the circus with him. In parallel, I had my number at the music hall — I know that Tati often sent agents to see acts; I saw them [while performing], but Tati did not want to ask me to do this number in his show — eventually, one day —the day before the premiere, he asked me!

Q: The day before?!

PE: At the time I was suffering with a bad toothache and went to fix myself up at a dentist — a friend, who was in the Avenue de l’Opéra — and when passing the rue Caumartin I heard the show’s rehearsal in progress and said to myself — it’s silly — I would love to participate in this show — but knew it was not possible because Tati would not speak to me. But, one day, in front of the artistes’ entrance, an assistant there said to me go in and say hello to Tati, it would give him great pleasure — and maybe there would be a place for me. Perhaps a fortnight later, another assistant was there in front of the door and I said is Tati in, yes, may I go in and say hello? This one, who was au courant, said no, he was too busy, but go into the theatre anyway but don’t disturb anyone, stay at the back and don’t move. I said of course and installed myself in the back part of the theatre. Curiously, at that moment, Tati was onstage, asking his secretary, have you telephoned Etaix? She said yes, but they told me he had left, that he had a rendezvous — I said, no I’m here! He looked astonished and said “You are so quick!” [Laughs]

So, from that moment, he said to me, you’re doing a number in music hall? I said yes. What you do, is it funny? I said, well, you have to see it. He said no, I don’t have time. I said, I’m not asking you for anything, monsieur, but you asked me if it was funny. He said anyway, do you have a few minutes? Wait here. Then I waited. His attention was no longer on me; he continued his business. In a few moments Coquatrix arrived and Tati said to Coquatrix, May I present Etaix? Ah, said Coquatrix, people have spoken to me about you; would you care to do an audition? Yes, yes. Then come and do an audition this evening. But I said this evening I perform in cabaret. What time is your cabaret? About one o’clock in the morning? Then come at one in the morning. I said no, I perform at one. (And it was not true; at that time I was not performing in cabaret, I no longer had a contract — a bluff because I then had such stage fright and said all that.) Then he said to me, well, come after you have done your number. But it is much much later! Well, come at three or four, it doesn’t matter; we’ll do it then. Oh, this was terrible. This was six in the evening when I was there. So I came back here (home), prepared my material, waited till one in the morning with my valise and my musical instruments, went down to the Olympia, and there he was waiting for me. Good, so go ahead, do your number. And there were just the two of them in the theatre — Tati and Coquatrix; I just had a pianist to accompany me — it was terrible, terrible. I know that I messed up some effects and did some things badly because I had terrible stage fright, of course. When it was finished they both came on stage and Tati said to me, good, c’est formidable, your piece is very funny — I said, no it wasn’t. No, no, no [he said]. If I say [it’s good], you have to believe me! And Coquatrix said to me, in any case, whatever happens, you are in the program!

The day of the premiere, the next day, Tati gave me the best place in the program — ah yes, really, in the middle of the first part of the program. And that was so good, just a little before him. And it went well, it’s a very happy memory for me — the people laughed a lot — even more so because I had not experienced such laughter before for a simple reason, you know, because before this I had always worked in conditions suited to a beginner, I had always worked in difficult conditions. That is, they left me very little space on the stage and so on. Whereas here I had the entire stage of the Olympia. It was amazing, and I had the best spot! And of course the people who came to see Jour de Fête all came to see Tati expecting to be amused, and of course they laughed a lot. The number that I chose proved very (risible), it was good, very comic — I heard laughter like I had never heard before!

Q: Especially after the audition experience.

PE: Yes completely unexpected. I was so happy. Moreover, on the first night all the numbers followed one after the other; the audience did not cheer any act. Then they cried out, tapping their feet, and Coquatrix in the wings pushed me back onstage to take a bow — an incredibly happy time.

Services to the Cinema

While the new exposure attracted offers for Etaix to take his act abroad, the significant visit, near the end of the several weeks run in June, was that of film producer Paul Claudon. At this stage, Etaix and fledgling screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière had become fast friends, finding they liked the same classic screen comics, especially from Hollywood’s early comedy golden age, and both had even prepared scripts and film exercises. The two also collaborated on “novelisations” of Tati’s films, Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1958, for publisher Robert Laffont) and Mon Oncle (1959, Robert Laffont) – as written by Carrière and illustrated by Etaix.

Claudon liked Etaix’s performance and shared his and Carrière’s love of “old” film comedy – leading to the Etaix/Carrière co-scripted and co-directed shorts Rupture and Happy Anniversary made later in 1961. Then they went on to do four comedy features (listed above) co-scripted by Carrière and Etaix, who solo-directed and starred in the films.

Etaix’s film and other activities from the 1970s until today also have great significance and could (will) fill a book. Unlike Chaplin’s 1964 My Autobiography, which could have told us so much about comedy and the people with whom he worked (he failed to mention such inspirations, friends, and collaborators as Max Linder, Buster Keaton, Robert Florey, and Robert Aldrich, among others), part of Etaix’s life has been spent extolling models he never met — Keaton, Linder, the great Swiss clown Grock, and many others, as well as those he had met and those to whom he often pays discreet homage in his films as unobtrusive watermarks therein.

As for cinema, Etaix has served it for 50 years in two ways: through his films and through public discourse, the latter including several books of his own and prefaces for others’ books, posters, and countless TV/radio appearances ranging over the topics of cinema, clowning, and comedy.

References

“The Story Behind the Two Foundations’ Restoration of the Eight Etaix Films.”

My view that Etaix’s work contains some of the best screen comedies ever made plus something more on the films themselves appears via online links courtesy of China’s Shenzhen Daily and Australia’s Filmink (monthly) magazine.

This article is part of a work in progress, my forthcoming book Etaix: Adventures in Cinema.

  1.  La Carton à Chapeaux by Pierre Etaix (Paris: Gilbert Salachas, 1981). []
  2. For this early “formation” list, I am grateful to Odile Crépin-Etaix for her stupendous, as-yet unpublished three-volume thesis, Le clown cinématographique des origines à Jerry Lewis et Pierre Etaix — thesis director, Madame Claudine Eizykman, Université Paris VIII, Vincennes Saint-Denis. []