|Spanish poster, Arch of Triumph
Editor’s Note: This is a section of a forthcoming biography of Charles Boyer currently being researched and written by Paris-based expatriate Australian author, John Baxter. John is an all-round writer, scholar, critic and film-maker who has lived in Paris since 1989 with his wife Marie-Dominque Montel and daughter Louise. His Wikipedia entry details the many books he has written which include the first ever critical volume devoted to the Australian cinema as well as studies of Ken Russell, Josef von Sternberg, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, George Lucas, Robert De Niro and Luis Bunuel. His most recent book, one of a number of studies of Paris is A Year in Paris, described by the New York Times thus "In “A Year in Paris,” (Baxter) strings together the beautiful beads of the French everyday, all held together by the invisible act of imagination that makes a country cohere and endure." John Baxter welcomes comment and would be pleased to receive any material or thoughts on Charles Boyer which readers may wish to offer.
A DYING FALL: ARCH OF TRIUMPH.
As an emblem of misery, it would be difficult to find one more despairing than the opening shot of Lewis Milestone’s 1948 adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Arch of Triumph.
The rain that drizzles out of the Paris night may fail to extinguish the flame burning on the tomb of France’s Unknown Soldier but a scatter of sodden wreaths around the grave and the looming bulk of the Arc de Triomphe mock its heroics. On the soundtrack, a portentous reprise of the first few bars of La Marseillaiseunderscores the message that, although France in 1938 may not yet have suffered military defeat, its moral defeat was already well-advanced.
|Charles Boyer as Ravic, Arch of Triumph
Any filmgoer watching these first scenes and knowing nothing of the film’s theme might reasonably anticipate, from the setting of dark wet streets and desperate men, a crime drama of the kind critics would soon characterise as film noir. Boyer, however, has none of Humphrey Bogart’s arrogance, nor the feral menace of John Hodiak or the belligerence of John Garfield. Instead, his affectless passivity and refusal of emotion suggest the philosophy to which, in Paris, Jean-Paul Sartre was even then giving the name Existentialism. Arch of Triumph is not so much film noir asfilm nul.
|Louis Calhern, Charles Boyer, Arch of Triumph
A gifted surgeon living illegally in France but unable to work there, Ravic moonlights for French doctors, performing the operations they find too complex or unprofitable. The fees pay for his room in the ironically named Hotel International, a hive of the stateless. His neighbours include a former Russian colonel (Louis Calhern), now doorman at a nightclub (and Ravic’s only friend); a clique of Spanish fascists, eager to return home to fight with Franco, and a miscellany of Czechs, Germans and Austrians, alike only in their misery. Memory drags on them like a ball and chain. One man can think only of having had his fingernails torn out. Another is feared as a harbinger of death; each time he moves to a new city, disaster strikes the one he leaves. Ravic too struggles with memories of seeing his wife tortured to death. The prospect of wreaking revenge on her murderer is the only thing in his life that passes for an emotion. In pursuit of a sinister verisimilitude, Milestone cast these roles with such veteran German and Russian actors as Willy Kaufman and Emil Rameau, themselves refugees from Hitler’s Europe.
|Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, Arch of Triumph
Into this community drifts Joan Madou, whom Ravic meets as she tries to jump into the Seine from the ancient Pont Neuf bridge. Against his better judgment, he helps her, finding himself, despite the warning of friends, increasingly involved in her aimless self-destructive life.
Arch of Triumph catches Boyer at a crossroads in his career. The performer who, at thirty, had electrified the Paris stage with what admirers called his regard de Venus – bedroom eyes – was, at fifty, balding, a little plump, and slightly cross-eyed. Of only average height, he had ceased to be credible as the romantic figure of such films as The Garden of Allah and Algiers, made a decade or more before. Anyway, the market for these was dwindling in the chill of post-war austerity.
After a shaky start in Hollywood, Boyer enjoyed a successful and varied Hollywood career in a variety of genres; suave gangster in Algiers, the emperor Napoleon in Conquest, a murderous Edwardian bourgeois in Gaslight, a playboy in Love Story and History Is Made At Night. However, his credibility as a leading man was under threat. For stars such as Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, grey hair and wrinkles added to their authenticity as men of action. But for Boyer and other romantic leads, particularly if they were foreign, age led inexorably to character roles as priests, croupiers, and the occasional ageing head of state. Boyer would play all of these in time, but for the moment he was ready to fight to keep his name above the title.
Arch of Triumph seemed an ideal vehicle to do so. Remarque’s novel had been a best-seller, his biggest since All Quiet on the Western Front. Moreover, he was writing the screenplay. The production company, Enterprise Pictures, was a new independent group committed to tough realist films, two of which, Body and Soul and Force of Evil, had already won acclaim for the company’s biggest star and principal investor, John Garfield.
Nor did Boyer need to research the Paris of 1938, since he had been acting there in Orage for Marc Allegret at the time when Arch of Triumph is set. Some technicians and actors of that film would relocate in Hollywood in 1940, helped by the French Research Foundation, set up by Boyer to promote French interests in wartime America.
Since Ravic is Austrian, Boyer took lessons from Dr. Simon Mitchneck, an expert in accents, “My job,” said Mitchneck, “was to rid him not only of his own very famous accent but of certain American undertones he had picked up in Hollywood.” Though, to the casual listener, he sounded much the same, those who knew Boyer noted a cynical, even bitter edge to his murmuring baritone, suggesting a mature man who had put casual seduction behind him.
But the film industry was not about to relinquish a romantic hero without a struggle. As costs mounted, Enterprise attempted to shoehorn Remarque’s grim story into one of the standard Hollywood categories. They turned the relationship between Ravic and Joan into a bitter-sweet love story with more than a few echoes of Casablanca. In hopes of repeating its success and that of the 1944 Gaslight, in which she played opposite Boyer, winning a Best Actress Academy Award, Enterprise hired Ingrid Bergman to play Joan.
They also cut the projected running time from four hours to two. Boyer andRemarque fought the changes, as did young novelist Irwin Shaw, who worked on the project for five months without credit. When Remarque and Shaw resigned, Harry Brown, later to pen A Place in the Sun but in 1948 a newcomer, performed the surgery in collaboration with Milestone.
The revisions radically altered Remarque’s vision. He had written Joan as a fellow victim whom Ravic only half-heartedly discourages from killing herself. Romance is the last thing on his mind. “He did not listen to what Joan Madou said,” writes Remarque in the novel. ”He knew all about that and no longer wanted to know about it. To be alone – the eternal refrain of life. It wasn’t better or worse than anything else. One talked too much about it.”
All set to dump her, Ravic becomes entangled in her life not out of love but from expediency. Learning that she has left the body of her lover in their hotel room, and realising, as she doesn’t, that by sheltering her he risks being implicated in a police enquiry, he hustles her back impatiently to her hotel, establishes that the lover died of natural causes, faces down the greedy proprietor, retrieves Joan’s luggage, encourages her to empty the dead man’s wallet, sends for a doctor to sign the death certificate, and slips away just as the police arrive.
|Charles Boyer as Ravic, Arch of Triumph
In these scenes, Boyer is in his element, peremptory, commanding, effective, but they are the exception. The expanding romance pushes other themes aside, in particular Ravic’s revenge on Ivan von Haake, the Nazi officer who tortured his wife to death and left him with a scar on his cheek. The protracted murder of his torturer, von Haake, would have climaxed the four-hour version, with Ravic luring the German out of Paris with promises of sex with Joan, then brutally despatching him, leaving behind his naked and mutilated body. Enterprise was warned that the Breen office would look unfavourably on such an episode. The censor finally accepted a drastically truncated version, and rewarded the studio for its cooperation by allowing Ravic to go unpunished for the murder, which they chose to view not as private revenge but as an act of war.
Of the revenge sub-plot, only fragments remain, notably a café encounter in which von Haake, not recognising Ravic as one of his many victims, enlists him as a pimp to secure Joan for sex. He then suggests Ravic become an informer on the emigré community. His slightly indignant refusal convinces the Nazi that Ravic is a man of honour, probably, like himself, a former member of a Prussian corps or military fraternity, and his scar the result of a duel. Unfortunately, the subtleties of this slyly cynical encounter would be over the head of all but the most sophisticated filmgoer.
|Charles Boyer, Charles Laughton, Arch of Triumph lobby card
Shortly before the end of location filming in France, Michael Chekhov, who was to have played von Haake, became ill, to be replaced by Charles Laughton. As Bergman was by then acting on Broadway, new scenes had to be shot in Hollywood on expensively recreated sets, including a ten feet high four-ton plaster model of the Arc de Triomphe. After its use in a fund-raising parade for war orphans and failed attempts to install it in a New York park as a symbol of Franco-American relations, Enterprise broke it up at a loss of $35,000 without it having appeared in the finished film, since the censor insisted on cutting almost all the scenes in which Ravic entraps and murders von Haake.
The widely-reported problems of disposing of this enormous object added to the air of improbability that accompanied the film’s release. Reviewers commented on its variety of accents, with the French Boyer playing an Austrian, Swedish Bergman an Italian, British Laughton a German, and American Louis Calhern a Russian. Milestone’s gloomy direction also attracted criticism. Writing in the New Yorker, John McCarten noted that “almost every time the characters...get low in their minds, it starts to rain. Since they’re a grim bunch, the film is one of the moistest that have come along in years.” He acknowledged the effectiveness of Boyer’s performance but agreed that it showed up the inadequacy of Bergman’s. “In their scenes together, [Boyer] tends to make Miss Bergman look very brash and immature, for his effective underplaying reduces her bouncy histrionics to the level of girlish antics.”
In retrospect, Arch of Triumph reflected a malaise that was already insinuating itself into world politics, leading to the Cold War, the Iron Curtain, and, in the United States, the anti-Communist hysteria with its witch-hunts and blacklists. Its financial and critical failure hastened the demise of Enterprise Pictures, and blighted the Hollywood careers of both its stars. Within two years, Bergman would launch her controversial relationship with Roberto Rossellini and work increasingly in Europe, while Boyer, after three more small-budget Hollywood films, returned to France, and thereafter worked only sporadically in America.
Neither was to know that, by relocating in Europe, they had prolonged their careers, cutting ties with a Hollywood that would soon be brought to its knees by the rise of television and the enforced dismantling of the studios’ production and distribution empires. In particular, Boyer would achieve one of his greatest successes in 1953 in Madame de..., playing not a romantic hero but an ageing general deceived by his philandering wife – a film made in France for German director Max Ophuls, who was retreating, like Boyer and co-star Danielle Darrieux, from an unsuccessful Hollywood career. In fact, the cast and crew of this film resembled in many respects the polyglot society which Arch of Triumph so signally failed to depict.