Discouraged after the mangled English-language release of ELENA ET LES HOMMES/’56 (aka- PARIS DOES STRANGE THINGS), Jean Renoir wrote this 3-act play about a Paris theater company struggling thru the Nazi occupation. But it wasn’t performed until Norman Lloyd (the actor Hitchcock dangled off the Statue of Liberty in SABOTEUR/’42) produced & directed it (on video tape) for PBS/L.A. (In basic 'Golden-Age' TV style.) The premise sounds promising: While continuing to perform a boulevard drama on-stage, the cast & crew of a small theater company play out a real-life boulevard farce backstage. Feydeau would have recognized the situations: a vain leading lady & her dresser juggle a past lover who hopes to rekindle their affair; a star-struck virgin who finds himself stuck in a closet; her current lover, the manager who’s forced to escort a couple of interfering inspectors while he’s cuckolded; and an old gossipy actor who can’t keep his mouth shut. But this farce is happening in wartime, so the gags stick in your throat, the comedy curdles & turns tragic. Alas, Renoir the playwright is no Renoir the filmmaker. He’s hemmed in by his single-set structure, he can't take adavantage of the mirror effect of play reality vs backstage reality and he loses the sense of urgency from our virginal resistance fighter? If he’s fleeing the Gestapo, why does he hang around for an autograph? Perhaps a more nuanced actor than Michael Sacks could have made this work, but there are compensating perfs from Leslie Caron as the actress; Carmen Zapata as her dresser; Anthony Zerbe as the opportunistic theatre-manager; and Mel Ferrer, unusually good as the German General who is Caron’s ex. There’s a whiff of GRAND ILLUSION’s Rauffenstein (the von Stroheim character) about him. NOTE: No poster from this tv production, but here's a recent one from a stage revival. And in the original French!)
WATCH THIS, NOT THAT: François Truffaut probably never saw this, but he was very close to Renoir and must have known of this play since it’s the likely inspiration for THE LAST METRO/’80, his marvelous WWII Nazi-occupation backstager. Jean would have approved.