The Marcel Marceau Centennial

Born 100 years ago today, the giant of 20th century French mime Marcel Marceau (Marcel Mangel, 1923-2007).

Now, it probably won’t surprise you to learn that the born-again Francophilia I keep crowing about…it halts decisively just short of the French mime quarter, averts its gaze, waits for the parade to pass. I still have my American biases hither and yon. This would be the wrong time and place to abuse Marceau’s chosen art form though, wouldn’t it? He commands respect as a great artist, it’s just the form that gives us the Screaming Mimis — the Silent Screaming Mimis.

Marceau was a French Jew, raised in Strasbourg in the then-contested region of Alsace-Lorraine. His parents were from Poland and Ukraine. When the Nazis took the region they fled west, but eventually the father was captured and taken to Auschwitz, where he died. Marceau joined the French Resistance, and, after liberation, the official French army. There, on account of his command of English and German as well as his native tongue he served in a liaison capacity to the Americans.

Marceau’s artistic hero throughout his life was Charlie Chaplin. After the war, he studied with  Étienne Decroux and Jean-Louis Barrault and his genius was recognized almost immediately. In 1946 he appeared in one of Alan Resnais’s first short films La Bague, and starred as Arlequin in Barrault’s production of Baptiste. Other early performances included stage adaptations of Kafka’s The Trial and Camus’s The State of Siege. By then he had already created his mime character Bip the Clown and was presenting solo evenings of mime, as he would throughout his life, although he would also later star in such things as an adaptation of Gogol’s The Overcoat (1951),  Le Pierrot de Montmartre (1952) and Don Juan (1964).

Marceau’s first U.S. tour was in the mid 1950s, whence he played to sold out houses across the country. He was also a staple of such television variety programs as The Ed Sullivan Show, The Max Liebman Spectaculars, The Dinah Shore Show, The Victor Borge Show, The Red Skelton Show (the two became friends and collaborators), The Hollywood Palace, The Joey Bishop Show, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Merv, etc.

Americans also know him from three movies, each of them outre in their own way: Roger Vadim’s Barbarella (1968), in a non-silent role; Mel BrooksSilent Movie (1976) in which he speaks only one word, “non”; and, best of all, the jaw-dropping Shanks (1974), William Castle’s last picture as director. I first saw the anomaly about a year ago and it is now one of my favorite movies. Imagine, if you will, a William Castle horror movie with all his signature touches, but made in 1974, starring Marcel Marceau in dual roles as a deaf-mute puppeteer AND the dead mad scientist he animates with his own electric device. There’s also a biker gang, and Castle himself has a cameo in the film.

I’d like to have seen much more like that from him, or some films in the vein of Tati, who was also trained as a mime. But Marceau had one very specific thing that he did and excelled at. As the Stones put it, “It’s the singer, not the song”. The form is not to everyone’s tastes, but on that topic, for the moment, we remain…mute.

For more on variety entertainment, including tv variety, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on pantomime read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.  And please keep an eye out for Vaudeville in Your Living Room: A Century of Radio and TV Varietycoming out from Bear Manor Media this November!