'The Man with Many Faces' - Part II (1919-1939)

End of World War I.

My grandfather was still alive, still handsome and a war hero bedecked with medals and ribbons.

He resumed his acting career. Silent movies, of course.

In 1919, he met my grandmother whose sisters were also actresses. They got married after a whirlwind wooing and one year later, their first child was born. A son, my father.

There will be two other children, two girls. But I’ll talk later about his family life.

In 1924, he was offered the leading (male) part in a movie called ‘Salammbô’. The première took place in 1925 at the Opéra Garnier, in Paris.
(Grand-Père top left, just in case)

Why a silent movie at the Opéra?

Music played a great part in silent movies. The score of ‘Salammbô’ was written by Florent Schmitt, a very talented French classical composer, hence the Opéra Garnier.

The score was very beautiful. But the movie will disappear after its fifth performance. Too bad. You couldn’t win them all, Grand-Père.

But wait! In the 1990s, someone rediscovered the movie by accident. Should I say: ‘by chance’. Long story made short. The movie came to life again with its score - a two hours long symphony requiring 90 musicians and 80 singers in the chorus. First in Avignon and then back to Paris in October 1991, at the Palais Garnier... 66 years almost to the day after its  opening there.

We were lucky to get tickets (believe me, Rolla Norman did not open the doors of Garnier... Poor Mathô). Our son was almost 12 at the time and I thought it would be quite an experience for him to see his great-grandfather on screen. (Good excuse too because I had never seen my grandfather on screen either.)

The Opéra Garnier was beautiful, impressive as ever. The score was very interesting too, a true symphony. After all, Florent Schmitt has been compared to Richard Strauss...

The movie was so kitsch I felt like crying... It was utterly ridiculous. Not dated. Simply ridiculous. As ridiculous in 1991 as it had been in 1925. Hence its sinking into oblivion so easily.

My grandfather was gorgeous. Handsome. Dashing. Young. Much younger than me actually. Which is a strange experience! Swee'Pea was gaping at his great-grandfather except that we could see that he had a hard time grasping Mathô really was his great-grandfather. That they were sharing some genes.

Nowadays he claims he does not remember this experience at all. I understand... Who would want to be descended from a very kitsch and silent Mathô after all?

Well, me. Because Mathô looked and was a hundred times better than the Grand-Père I knew because he was... well, you’ll see. I’m not talking about age there.

So back to real-life Grand-Père.

The talkies were born in the States at last. Grand-Père being used to the stage survived this radical transformation.

Circa 1930, he went to Hollywood.

No kidding! He spent quite a few years there and then he decided to leave California to come back to France. Of course, I’m only giving you facts. He never talked about his past. Never ever.

When he came back, he went back to the stage, usually in great plays. Maybe this is what he was missing in Hollywood. I’m not sure he was missing his family.

He gave me this picture of him in one of my favorite plays. When you were famous, you got your own postcards made and sold whenever the movie or the play was popular. Nicer than downloads from the web! More real, I guess.

He added a note at the back just in case I’d forget who he was. Or this may have been a message to my posterity. It's hard to read but on the picture, he wrote an autograph exactly as if I had been a fan, not his granddaughter, I mean!

I’ve read that besides being on stage, he was making from two to four films every year. I know he was quite famous because I’ve seen some of my parents’ friends literally swoon when learning we were his grandchildren.

I guess this is when I truly understood that ‘all that glitters is not gold.’
Rising to fame doesn’t make you a better human being. This is not a universal law, of course. But it was quite true about my grandfather.

Of course, I was born a couple of years before he left the stage (willingly or not). He died when I was in my early twenties. I remember him as a very angry and bitter man. He was very arrogant and humiliating with his family. Had he always been like this, I don’t know. I’ve heard stories that tend to prove that it really was in his nature. Too bad.

The end of the thirties is coming and with it, the beginning of a new war, bloodier and more horrendous than the last one.

Grand-Père loved wars. (Hopefully, it’s just a figure of speech.) But give him a war and there comes our hero, a little bit older but so dashing again!

(to be continued)

*Good Luck, and Good Night*

1 comment:

Myrna said...

These two posts have been so interesting. And I think that JC has inherited some of the Rolla Normand dashing good looks. I am going to look for that Schmitt symphony! So interesting! (I remember getting the funeral announcement for your grandfather, in two envelopes just like a fancy wedding invitation. I had never seen that kind of announcement for a death before. Farm girl.)