Pierre Fresnay



Pierre Fresnay photo
A great actor of stage and screen, Pierre Fresnay was born Pierre Jules Louis Laudenbach on 4th April 1897 in Paris, France. Through the influence of his uncle Claude Garry, a popular actor at the time, he decided on acting career at an early age, against the wishes of his parents who had hoped he might pursue a university career. His first acting job was a small part in Réjane's 1911 stage production of L'Aigrette, for which he adopted the stage name Pierre Vernet, which he changed to Pierre Fresnay seven years later.

In 1915, at the age of 19, he entered the Comédie Française to train as an actor, the same year that he made his film debut in the patriotic piece France d'abord. In 1917, he enlisted with the French army, just after marrying the actress Rachel Berendt (the couple would separate two years later).

After the war, Fresnay was formally admitted to Comédie Française, although he soon grew tired of what he saw as dull routine and unacceptable compromises. This led to his very public resignation in 1926, which landed him in court in 1928 and very nearly resulted in him being banned from appearing on stage in Paris.

Pierre Fresnay photo

The following year, he divorced his second wife, Berthe Bovy, whom he had married in 1923. Fresnay's third union, with the actress Yvonne Printemps was to be more successful. After their marriage in 1934, the two appeared together frequently on film and stage.

Throughout the 1920s, Fresnay pursued a successful career as a stage actor, appearing in countless popular stage productions, most notably Marcel Pagnol's Marius (1929), which ran for over 500 performances. He also appeared in a number of films, but cinema had far less of an appeal for him. In fact, throughout his career, he maintained that he was a stage actor first and a film actor second.

It was not until Fresnay took the lead role in the film adaptation of Marius (1931) that he became noticed as a film actor. He subsequently won praise for his appearances in Fanny (1932), La Dame aux camélias (1934) and César (1936), and Alfred Hitchcock gave him a part in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). With La Grande Illusion (1937), Fresnay established himself as one of the most important French film actors of his era, standing alongside such other greats as Jean Gabin and Raimu.

Pierre Fresnay photo

With the collaboration of an unknown script writer, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Fresnay directed his one and only film Le Duel (1939), a mediocre effort which was soon forgotten with the outbreak of World War Two.

With France under Nazi occupation, Fresnay agreed to work for the Franco-German film company Continental, which was closely vetted by the Germans. Despite Fresnay's declarations that he did this to help save the French film industry in a period of crisis, the move damaged his popularity with the public. After the war, he was detained in prison for six weeks for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, although he would be released through lack of evidence.

Whilst working for Continental, Fresnay appeared in a number of high quality productions, including a number of films written or directed by his close friend Clozout. These included the comedy thriller Le Dernier des Six (1941), where Fresnay played the part of Inspector Wens, a role the actor reprised for Clouzot's directoral debut in L'Assassin habite au 21 (1942). Fresnay later starred in Clouzot's most controversial film Le Corbeau(1943), which created such an uproar that its director was temporarily banned from making films.

After the Liberation, Fresnay's film career was noticeably less distinguished than before the war, perhaps as a direct result of his perceived ambivalence towards the Nazi occupation. For the remainder of his film career, he would appear mainly in lesser roles in comparatively minor films. He did however score a number of successes, and won awards for his roles in Monsieur Vincent (1947) and Monsieur Fabre (1951). But, after appearing in a number of serious roles in films such as Dieu a besoin des hommes (1950) and Les Fantatiques (1957), he ended up in lesser comedies such as Gilles Grangier's Vieux de la vielle (1960), which were less to his taste.

Disillusioned with film, Fresnay took the decision in 1960 to quit and to devote his energies exclusively to the theatre. His most notable stage appearances were in Valéry's Mon Faust (1962) and Diderot's Le Neveu de Rameau (1963). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Fresnay made a number of appearances on television, most notably in a television adaptation of  Le Neveu de Rameau (1968). Pierre Fresnay died on 9th January 1975 at the American hospital at Neuilly-sur-Seine, near to Paris.

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