Opinion: Why “Children of Paradise” is the Most Miraculous Movie Ever Made

Joel Eisenberg

The epic 1945 classic was filmed during the Nazi Occupation of France, with a cast including 1800 extras.

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“Les Enfants du Paradis” (“Children of Paradise”) Movie PosterPathé

Author’s Note

Attributions of sources are referenced throughout this article, and include Wikipedia.com, RogerEbert.com, Edward Baron Turk’s “Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema,” TCM.com, RottenTomatoes.com, and IMDb.com.

Introduction

Filmmaking is a tough enough hill to climb. Creating salable material, attracting talent and raising funds do not come easy. Most anyone involved in the film game can share one personal horror story after another.

However, if that Sisyphusian uphill battle encompassed a Nazi occupation during a world war, undercover resistance agents among the 1800 extras using the film shoot as cover — while interacting with pro-Nazi collaborators and Vichy sympathizers placed by the authorities on the production — what ensues is an entire other degree of “difficulty.”

The following is a true story.

Development

As the late Roger Ebert so eloquently stated in the opening of his 4-Star 1992 review of the film, “All discussions of Marcel Carné’s ‘Children of Paradise’ begin with the miracle of its making.”

See here for Roger’s review, on RogerEbert.com.

Wikipedia.org expounds on the film’s history: The film’s director, Marcel Carné, was born in 1906 in Paris. He started his film career as a journalist and critic, which were his primary sources of income from 1929–1933, and directed his first short, “Nogent, Eldorado du dimanche,” in 1929. In 1936, Carné took over the directing reins of the feature, “Jenny,” from the man who had become a frequent collaborator, Jacques Feyder. “Jenny” triggered a new collaboration with its screenwriter (and surrealist poet) Jacques Prévert.The two men were instrumental in the poetic realism French film movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

According to Edward Baron Turk’s acclaimed book, ”Child of Paradise: Marcel Carné and the Golden Age of French Cinema,” the inspiration for a new project sprang from a meeting between Carné and actor Jean-Louis Barrault, who pitched a film based on French personalities Frédérick Lemaître, an actor famed for his work on the Boulevard du Crime — the populace’s slang term for Boulevard du Temple due to the innumerable crime melodramas portrayed in its various theaters — and Baptiste Debureau, a renowned mime. The project evolved into the tale of a woman, Garance, who was torn between four lovers: those based on Debureau and Lemaître, and also the notorious French swindler Pierre Lacenaire and the fictional Comte Édouard de Montray, based on the Duc de Morny.

Prévert, however, was hesitant. Per Wikipedia: His brother once said, “Jacques hated pantomime.” The Germans were then occupying the whole of France, and Prévert is rumored to have said, “They will not let me do a movie about Lacenaire, but I can put Lacenaire in a film about Debureau.” The project was a go. Carné worked in the Vichy zone where he subverted the regime’s attempts to control art; several of his team were Jewish, including Joseph Kosma and set designer Alexandre Trauner.

The new film would be called “Les Enfants du Paradis” in French, referring to the poor audience members who sat in a theater’s upper balcony.

According to IMDb.com: The title is the French equivalent of the term used in English theatres, “The gods.”

The vision of the film was epic, and would portray both the world of Parisian stage of the 1800s and its underworld of pickpockets, “the decadent rich” as Ebert said, murderers, and swindlers. Characters and scenes would be loosely based on real people and events. “Les Enfants du Paradis” would take place during the 1830–1848 July Monarchy, centered on the area around the true life Théâtre des Funambules, the figurative centerpiece of the Boulevard du Crime.

Production

For me, the casting was a key to the success of this project. The role of Garance was played by Arletty (single name, born Leonie Bathiat), who mesmerizes men from innocent to cutthroat. Baptiste, the mime, was brilliantly portrayed by Jean-Louis Barrault. Frédérick Lemaître was assumed by Pierre Brasseur, Lacenaire by Marcel Herrand, and the Count Edouard de Montray by Louis Salou.

As for the production itself, per the collective of my sources as listed above, the “miracle of its making” was due in part to the following complications during the Nazi occupation:

  • Financing for the film fell apart weeks following the commencement of production. “Les Enfants du Paradis” was originally a French-Italian production that was shooting in Nice. During the August 1943 Allied conquest of Sicily, the Nazis discovered the film’s producer was Jewish. They forbade him from working on the project, and production was paused for three months.
  • Pathé, the French film group, assumed the financing. The costs by this point were becoming untenable.
  • Large sets had to be rebuilt following a destructive storm. The production moved to Paris, where the electricity in Paris Studios was inconsistent at best.
  • Production was delayed a second time following the Allies landing in Normandy. A popular theory is production was deliberately stalled until the French Liberation.
  • During the 1944 libration of Paris, Robert Le Vigan, who played informer and thief Jéricho, was sentenced to death by the Resistence as a Nazi collaborator. He was replaced by Pierre Renoir, and most of the existing scenes had to be reshot.
  • Many members of the French Resistance worked on the crew and were, by necessity, concealed.
  • Carné hired a Jewish designer and composer. They were specific targets of the Nazis, and they worked while in hiding.
  • The main set representing the Boulevard du Crime was a quarter-mile of street frontage — the largest set in the history of French cinema— and vastly populated, a miracle in itself as transport, costumes, and film stock were in exceedingly short supply.
  • Two Jews, composer Joseph Kosma and production designer Alexandre Trauner, worked through intermediaries while in hiding.
  • “Les Enfants du Paradis” was the most expensive film ever made in France to that time.
  • The film was in production for 18 months.
  • Nazis banned all films over 90 minutes, so “Children of Paradise” was initially two films. Director Carné correctly figured he could put them together once the war was over. The film was completed shortly before D-Day, and opened in Paris soon after the liberation.

Release and Reception

“Les Enfants du Paradis” was released on March 9, 1945 with a running time of 190 minutes. The film was an immediate smash, and contained one of the most famous opening shots in cinema history, tracking the Boulevard in all its glory, including a cast of thousands.

The film is globally renowned as one of the finest ever made, and was called “The Greatest French Film of All Time” at the Cannes Film Festival, per TCM televised introductions. American subtitled versions called it the French “Gone with the Wind” in its publicity. In a 1995 poll of 600 film critics and filmmakers, “Les Enfants du Paradis” was voted the “Best Film Ever.” Per IMDb.com, the film was nominated for an Oscar in 1947, for Jacques Prévert’s Original Screenplay. It lost to “The Seventh Veil,” written by Muriel and Sydney Box.

The film to me is also one of the greatest I’ve seen, and in my personal Top 10 list.

You would be doing yourself a favor to see “Les Enfants du Paradis” if you have not as yet. Filmmakers especially should watch the film as a classic example of triumphing over great odds to create resonant art.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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