L'Herbier, Marcel

(1888-1979)
   Director and producer. Born into a prominent bourgeois family, Marcel L'Herbier studied law and then sought to pursue a career in music or literature. He ultimately decided on literature, partly through exposure to the literary world as a result of a circle of influential friends that included the poet Maurice Maeterlinck. He published a novel and a play before serving in the army in World War I.
   It was in the army that L'Herbier was first exposed to film, as he was assigned to the Service Cinématographique de l'Armée, the military's film production service. Nonetheless, it is reported that he remained unimpressed with cinema until the actress Musidora took him to see Cecile B. DeMille's Forfaiture (1915). This apparently transformed L'Herbier's life, and he decided to devote himself entirely to the cinema.
   L'Herbier made two independent films, Phantasmes (1917), which remained unfinished, and Rose-France (1918), before signing on at Gaumont in 1919. While at Gaumont, he made eight films: Le Bercail (1919), Rose-France (1919), Le Carnaval des vérités (1920), L'Homme du large (1920), Prométhée . . . banquier (1921), Villa Destin (1921), Eldorado (1921), and Don Juan et Faust (1922). In 1923, he founded his own production company, Cinégraphic, for which he made an additional six silent films: L'Inhumaine (1924), Feu Mathias Pascal (1926), Le Vertige (1927), Le Diable au coeur (1928), his great film L'Argent (1928), and Nuits de princes (1929). In addition to L'Herbier's own films, Cinégraphic also produced two films by Jacque Catalain, Le Marchand de plaisirs (1922) and La Galerie des monstres (1924). Catalain also starred in a number of L'Herbier's own films.
   As a silent-film director, L'Herbier was a master. An artisan of the visual image, he demonstrated evident avant-garde tendencies, probably as a result of his literary background, and almost certainly as a result of a connection to Louis Delluc (Delluc's wife Eve Francis appears in a number of L'Herbier's films). His films tend to be expressionistic and highly dramatic, and in true avant-garde form, images often convey elements such as emotion, mental state, and even moral state, which typically lie outside of the visual realm. L'Herbier is also often credited with bringing the early cinema to maturity visually, expanding the potential of elements such as lighting, costume, frame, and image to convey symbolic meaning. He was a master of literary adaptation, adapting works by Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola, and Luigi Pirandello, among others, and maintaining in his adaptations something of the poetry of these literary works. In addition to directing, he wrote the screenplays for most of his films.
   L'Herbier transitioned to sound cinema at the end of the 1920s. His first sound films were L 'Enfant de l'amour (1930), La Femme d'une nuit (1930), Le Mystère de la chambre jaune (1930), Le Parfum de la dame en noir (1931), and L'Épervier (1933). In general, these films relied heavily on the same visual style as the silent films, although this seems sometimes out of place in a sound film. The acting is, as in many early sound films, a bit stilted. In general, these are not considered among L'Herbier's best. The exception to this is Le Parfum de la dame en noir (1931), a film that fully incorporated sound into an avant-garde poetics.
   By the middle of the 1930s, L'Herbier seemed to have found his stride. He retained much of his expressionist lighting and use of décor, but was able to work these elements into the developments in narrative form that the addition of sound brought on. Films such as Le Bonheur (1934), which starred Charles Boyer and Gaby Morlay, La Route impériale (1935), Veille d'armes (1935), Les Hommes nouveaux (1936), starring Harry Baur and Gabriel Signoret, La Porte du large (1936), La Citadelle du silence (1937), La Tragédie impériale (1938), starring Baur and Marcelle Chantal, Adrienne Lecouvreur (1938), starring Yvonne Printemps and Pierre Fresnay, and Entente Cordial (1939), were largely critical and popular successes. Many of these films are considered some of the best films made during the decade.
   In the 1940s, L'Herbier continued to make films. Histoire de rire (1941), La Nuit fantastique (1942), L'Honorable Catherine (1943), one of Edwige Feuillière's best films, and La Comédie du bonheur (1943), were all successes, as were postwar pictures such as La Vie de bohème (1945) and L'Affaire du collier de la reine (1946). During this decade, L'Herbier turned more to comedy in his films, where drama had been his preferred form in earlier days.
   It was during the 1940s that L'Herbier also devoted a great deal of time to developing the cinema as an art form. He founded the Institut des Hautes Études Cinématographiques (IDHEC) film school in 1943, under the direction of the Nazi occupying forces, and he served as its first director. He also served on the boards of numerous technical associations. L'Herbier had long written and theorized on the cinema in various newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets, but in 1946, he published an anthology of writings on the cinema titled Intelligence du cinématographe. He also founded the film section of Le Monde in the 1950s, a period during which he began experimenting in made-for-television films. If some of his films seem a bit stuffy or overly obtuse to a contemporary audience, L'Herbier is still considered and remembered among film critics and filmophiles as one of the great directors of the silent-film era and of the prewar sound era, as well as an important figure in the evolution of film itself.

Historical Dictionary of French Cinema. . 2007.

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