La Comédie du bonheur (1942)

aka: Comedy of Happiness
Comedy / Drama


La Comédie du bonheur photo
When the wealthy banker François Jourdain acquires a taste for spendthrift philanthropy, his relatives have him committed to a psychiatric clinic, in the hope of saving what remains of their inheritance. Jourdain has no difficulty escaping from this prison-like institution and is soon back in Nice, with the intention of benefiting humanity with a few well-placed wads of cash. At a boarding house he comes across a collection of miserable individuals who could benefit from his good will. Without delay, Jourdain hires a troupe of actors to take up residence in the boarding house, with the aim of brightening the lives of its gloomy inmates. As the lead juvenile Félix begins courting Lydia to improve her self-esteem, his wife Anita uses her feminine wiles to convince Fédor, a suicidal Russian émigré, that life is worth living. Déribin, the leader of the troupe, has the most challenging task of all, to tame the embittered old spinster Miss Aglaé. Meanwhile, Jourdain's family have offered a 50,000 franc reward for anyone who can find their wayward uncle before he squanders their entire fortune...
© 2013

Film Review

Film poster
When it was released in France in the summer of 1942, audiences could have been forgiven for thinking that La Comédie du bonheur was a subtly subversive piece of satire. The benevolent madman who pays a group of actors to improve the morale of a miserable household by feigning happiness could too easily be likened to Marshal Pétain, the patriarchal Prime Minister who took advantage of the Nazi Occupation to instil his own, somewhat out-dated, notions of virtue into the French nation. In fact, the film was made in Rome in 1939, before the Nazis had even invaded Poland, and is based on a well-known play, The Chief Thing, by the avant-garde Russian dramatist Nicolas Evreinoff. When he wrote his play in 1921, Evreinoff was more preoccupied with the meaning of theatre and its relationship to everyday life than with mundane politics. The fact that the film it inspired can so easily be read as a wry commentary on the Occupation is just one of those curious coincidences to which cinema appears to be inordinately susceptible.

La Comédie du bonheur is among the last films to be made by Marcel L'Herbier, one of the great pioneers of French cinema who is remembered today for his silent masterpieces Eldorado (1921) and L'Argent (1928). Although L'Herbier continued to prosper as a filmmaker after the transition to sound, his work from 1930 onwards never lived up to the greatness of his early years and consisted mostly of unambitious fare for a mainstream French audience. La Comédie du bonheur is one such film, an enjoyable but not exceptional comedy which is somewhat weighed down by its own pomposity.

L'Herbier's direction shows more flair than is apparent in most of his later work, the film is attractively photographed and there are some enthusiastic contributions from a superb cast, but none of this is sufficient to make La Comédie du bonheur an enduring classic. The film's most interesting aspect is its carefree demolition of the fourth wall in the final act. The idea of a play within a play was certainly not new, but having the characters in the main story step out of the frame in the last reel and loop back to the opening (set in a modern television studio) for a chaotic denouement was, for the time, quite an innovation - Heaven knows what audiences made of this early example of 'meta-cinema'. It's as mad as it sounds. We should note, en passant, that this is the only popular comedy to which Jean Cocteau lent his name as a screenwriter.

The cast is even less believable than the plot. Michel Simon and Ramon Novarro in the same film?  How that came about is anyone's guess. After a glittering career in Hollywood in the 1920s, which saw him become the successor to Rudolph Valentino, the Mexican born Novarro fell out of favour by the mid-1930s, and this explains why he ended up accepting offers of work outside the United States. La Comédie du bonheur was Novarro's only appearance in a French film, and one of only two films he made away from Hollywood (the other being the 1942 Mexican drama The Saint That Forged a Country).  

Despite his status as a (former) screen legend and the fact that he gets to sing a few musical numbers, Novarro is not positioned as the star of the film. Instead, he forms part of a remarkable ensemble which includes theatrical diva Jacqueline Delubac, rising stars Micheline Presle and Louis Jourdan (both at the beginning of their glittering careers) and popular character actors André Alerme and Sylvie. The unambiguous star of the film is Michel Simon, delightfully funny in one of those 'sympathetic outsider' roles for which he was particularly well-suited. As Simon's amiable Monsieur Jourdain guides the destinies of the unhappy folk around him towards what he believes will be a happy outcome, you can scarcely conceive that a real-life madman in nearby Germany was bracing himself to accomplish a similar feat - with a somewhat less humorous outcome.
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The director Marcel L'Herbier also worked with the actor Micheline Presle on the films Histoire de rire (1941), La Nuit fantastique (1942) and Les Derniers jours de Pompei (1950).

Film Credits

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