One of the greatest comedy performers of his generation, Fernandel enjoyed a phenomenally successful on screen, appearing in over a hundred films across four decades.
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With his distinctive horse-like features and larger than life personality, he was a natural comedian and was destined to be one of France's most iconic entertainers, not just a funny man but also a talented and versatile actor.

In common with many screen giants of his era, Fernandel came from a modest background and achieved success through hard work and incredible good fortune. His real name was Fernand Joseph Désiré Contandin and he was born in Marseille on 8th May 1903. He had two brothers and a sister. Both of his parents had a passion for the music hall and would often perform, in an amateur capacity, comedy and musical numbers at concerts, although his father was an accountant by trade. Immediately fter he left school, the young Fernand was given a job in a bank, but soon managed to get himself fired.

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It was not long before Fernandel realised that an ordinary middle-class life was not to his liking, so he started to forge a career as a performer, appearing in café-concerts as a comic singer. To make ends meet, he found work doing odd jobs around Marseille, including short stints as a docker and employee in a texile house. In 1925, aged 22, he married Henriette Manse, the sister of his best friend. They would have three children: Josette, Janine and Franck. Fernand was so attentive to his wife that his mother-in-law referred to him in amusement as Fernand d'elle. The term so appealed to the young comic that he decided to adopt it as his stage name, Fernandel.

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After his military service in 1926, Fernandel quickly resumed his precarious career in comic theatre. In 1928, he went to Paris and made his mark at the Bobino, in a performance that led him to win a series of contracts that rapidly established him as a music hall comic. Watching one of Fernandel's shows was Marc Allégret, a film director who, impressed by what he saw, offered him his first screen roles in a series of comedy shorts and then his first part in a feature film, Le Blanc et le Noir (1931). The great cineaste Jean Renoir then offered Fernandel a more substantial role in his comedy On purge bébé (1931).

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By appearing in a series of lacklustre low budget comedies (including many shorts), Fernandel made a quick and successful transition from music hall to the big screen. His talent as an actor became apparent when Marcel Pagnol, a playwright who soon become a distinguished filmmaker, cast him in several of his films, Angèle (1934), Regain (1937), Le Schpountz (1938) and La Fille du puisatier (1940). Fernandel soon established himself as one of France's best loved comedians, through his appearances in films such as Le Rosier de Madame Husson (1932), Les Gaietés de l'escadron (1932), Un de la légion (1936) and François Premier (1937).
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In several of his comedies, Fernandel was able to put his vocal talents to good use, and many of the numbers he sang in these films were released as hit records, including Barnabé and Ignace.

At the outset of WWII in September 1939, Fernandel enlisted in the French army, although he managed to provoke a riot on his first tour of duty. He resumed his film career once France had signed an armistice with Germany in 1940. Over the next decade, Fernandel continued to draw large audiences, although virtually all of his films from this period were mediocre and are now largely forgotten. It was during this period that Fernandel took to directing his own films. He directed just three films: Simplet (1942), Adrien (1943) and Adhémar ou le jouet de la fatalité (1951).

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It was not until the 1950s that Fernandel came to fruition as an actor, finding international fame through his portrayal of the Italian priest Don Camillo in a series of films based on the novels of Giovannino Guareschi. The series began with Julien Duvivier's Le Petit Monde de Don Camillo (1951) and ended with Don Camillo en Russie (1965). The success of the Don Camillo films provided a welcome boost to Fernandel's career and led him to be used by more serious filmmakers. Jean Becker cast him in Ali Baba et les Quarante voleurs (1954), Claude Autant-Lara extracted from him what is widely considered his best performance in L'Auberge rouge (1951). And Henri Verneuil made good use of his abilities as a straight and comedic actor in several films, including the fondly remembered La Vache et le Prisonnier (1959).

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In 1963, Fernandel went into partnership with another icon of French cinema, Jean Gabin, forming the film production company Gafer. Fernandel made four films for Gafer, appearing just once with Gabin, in  L'Age ingrat (1964). By the 1960s, Fernandel's career was on the decline and virtually all of the films he appeared in throughout his last decade were of low quality and ill-received, shunned by both the critics and the cinema-going public. It was whilst filming Don Camillo et les contestataires in 1970 that the comic actor succumbed to a cancer-related illness that would force him into an immediate retirement at the age of 66. After a long and exhausting period of medical treatment, he died from a heart attack on 28th February 1971, in his Paris apartment.

Fernandel was a unique talent, a man with an unerring ability to make people laugh, loved by people of all ages throughout the world. Many of his films are still widely watched today and he continues to amuse and delight with his unique comedic style. He was publicly recognised for his work, receiving such honours as the Knight of the Legion of Honour (in 1953) and the Grand prix de l'Académie du disque for his narration of Les Lettres de mon moulin (in 1968). His friend Marcel Pagnol summed it up best when he described Fernandel as the man who knew how to make people laugh, even those who have more reason to cry.
© James Travers 2002-2015
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