Marcel Mouloudji, variously described as “le chantre d’un romantisme des faubourgs tres pur” (the minstrel of urban romanticism at its most pure); “un titi parisien” (a Parisian street urchin); “le poete du pave” (the poet of the streets); with, in the words of Bernard Dimey, “sa voix canaille et melancolique” (his street-cred voice tinged with melancholy), was, in fact, a glorious touché-a-tout (jack-of-all-trades). In many ways, I can identify with his many-sided existence of theatre, film, painting; literature and, of course, chanson – something Marcel himself described as “une carriere de dents de scie” (a career like saw’s teeth).
But it was passion that drove him – plus a series of extremely lucky encounters.
Often referred to as the first ‘beur’ (French reverse slang word for a second-generation Arab immigrant) Mouloudji was born in Belleville in 1922 to Said Mouloudji, a Kabyle from Northern Algeria, and Eugenie Roux, an extremely devout Catholic from Brittany. His father, a builder, although illiterate, was a Communist who sold L’Humanite in the streets on Sundays; his mother succumbed to alcoholism and mental illness. It was a harsh existence, with the family moving from one cramped room to the next in the 19th arrondissement, while the two boys sold newspapers, rotten fruit and postcards to help make ends meet. To please his mother, Marcel went to church; for his father, he joined the Red Falcons, a Communist youth movement. It was while singing at one of their meetings that he was spotted by Sylvain Itkine, a film director who hung out with the notorious Groupe Octobre – a Communist clique which nurtured some of the greatest names in French cinema and literature. Through Itkine he met Jean-Louis Barrault, the future star of Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), who gave him a bit-part in one of his plays; and through him, Jacques Prevert, the poet and scenarist, who introduced him to Marcel Carne, who promptly cast him as a street singer in his first feature film, Jenny (1935).
Marcel Mouloudji with Jacques Prevert
Despite this good fortune, Mouloudji believed in pushing the envelope. “Meme quand on est enfant, il faut forcer le destin” (Even as a child you have to give fate a helping hand).
Between 1936 and 1938 Mouloudji’s cinema career took off, with roles for eminent directors like Christian-Jacque. By the age of 16 he was a film star. With the outbreak of war he fled with the rest of the Groupe Octobre to the South of France; but returned shortly to Paris where he nimbly avoided STO (service de travail obligatoire) by taking odd jobs as a scene shifter . . . and designer of cartons for fruit gums.
But . . . being Mouloudji, he soon stumbled into Saint-Germain-des-Pres with, at its heart, the Café Flore, where the high priests of existentialism, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, held court. Amazingly, they took him under their wing and encouraged him, at the age of 20, to write his memoirs. The result, Enrico, was awarded the Prix de la Pleiade in 1945. In a later interview, he said, “Je suis sorti du monde ouvrier en 1935, et je suis entre, brusquement, dans un monde d’artistes, d’intellectuels. Je ne connaissais pas grand-monde, mais j’avais une telle envie de sortir de cette condition. . .” (I’d come from a working-class background in 1935, to suddenly find myself in a world of artists and intellectuals. I didn’t know anyone, but I was determined to make it). Even in that hotbed of unconvention, he managed to be his own man: claiming to prefer The Three Musketeers to La Nausee.
Cinema was Mouloudji’s main occupation until 1950, although in 1947 he discovered painting. But the work dried up, and his wife encouraged him to take up singing again. In 1951 came the breakthrough, as at 29 he achieved public recognition for ‘La complainte des infideles’ a song in the film La Maison Bonnadieu, and was invited to record others, all by major writers. ‘Rue de Lappe,’ by Francis Lemarque; ‘Si tu t’imagines’, by Raymond Queneau, and ‘Barbara’ by Jacques Prevert, all heavyweights of the chanson repertoire, brought Marcel to the attention of Jacques Canetti, the fabled artistic director of Philips, who had been instrumental in the careers of Georges Brassens and Edith Piaf.
Rue de Lappe Marcel Mouloudji
Struck by with the bittersweet soulfulness of Mouloudji’s voice, Canetti had him record ‘Comme un coquelicot’ (Like a poppy): a song written by none other than Edith Piaf’s mentor Raymond Asso – described by one journal as “une chanson d’amour et de mort” (a song of love and death). The effect was electric, bringing huge success and a career landmark; winning the Grand Prix du Disque in 1953, the Prix Charles Cros in 1952 and 53, and making him a star overnight. Even Georges Brassens quipped in one of his songs, “Si tu m’offres des fleurs, surtout pas des coquelicots” (If you give me flowers, make sure it’s not poppies). To cap this, he starred in Nous sommes tous des assassins (1952), a major feature film by Andre Cayatte – bringing him equal recognition on screen and in chanson.
Comme un coquelicot Marcel Mouloudji
Like a Poppy
Forget-me-nots and roses mean something / But to like poppies, and only poppies, you have to be stupid / Perhaps that’s right; but when I’ve explained I think you’ll understand / The first time I saw her she was sleeping half-naked / In the summer sunshine, in the middle of a cornfield / And beneath her white top where her heart beat / The sun gently made a flower grow / Just like a little poppy / A little poppy.
It’s strange how your eyes shine when you remember the pretty girl / They shine so brightly, a bit too brightly / For poppies / Perhaps you’re right / But, when I took her in my arms / She gave me such a beautiful smile / And then, without a word, in the summer sunshine / We made love / And I placed my lips over her heart so passionately / That in place of the kiss there grew a flower / Just like a little poppy.
It’s just a fancy / Your little story / And I swear not worth a tear / Nor this passion for poppies / But wait, you haven’t heard the end. / Another loved her, whom she did not love / And the following morning when I saw her / She was lying asleep, half-naked / In the summer sun / In the middle of a cornfield / But on her white top / Just where her heart was / Were three drops of blood / Which looked like a flower / Just like a little poppy / A little poppy.
In 1954 a song written by Mouloudji and Georges Van Parys and performed in the film Secrets d’Alcove, starring himself and Jeanne Moreau, Un jour, tu verras, became equally part of chanson legend.
Un jour, tu verras Marcel Moulouji
In 1954 Mouloudji, a militant pacifist, recorded ‘Le Deserteur’, an anti-war song by Boris Vian. He made the mistake of performing it in public on the day of the fall of Dien Bien Phu, the scene of a massive French defeat in what was then Indo-China. The resulting scandal, and censorship of the song by the national media proved a blight on his career – as did the rise of a brand new musical phenomenon: the ‘ye-ye’.
Le Déserteur Marcel Mouloudji
For a decade, his career languished. He toured incessantly and wrote prolifically, but was largely ignored; although a faithful nucleus awaited his every public appearance, including at the Olympia in 1975. From 1976 onwards, he is missing from histories of chanson, except for an album with the genius of the accordion, Marcel Azzola, Et ca tournait!, celebrating musette – the distinctive dance music imported to Paris from the Auvergne.
In 1992, aged 70, Mouloudji partially lost his voice following an attack of pleurisy. But still released a new album, and worked on a new book about his life in chanson, Le Coquelicot. In April 1994 he gave a final recital in Hauts-de –Seine near Paris. He died on 14th June, his mind brimming with new projects.
Place Marcel Mouloudji, in the 19th arrondissement, is named after him.
Copyright February 2016 Pat Harvey