Described by Marilyn Monroe as “the most exciting man in the world”, and by French writer Pierre Saka as ‘the fiancé girls would like to have and the young man boys would like to be’, Yves Montand rose to fame after the war with what came to be regarded as the personification of gallic charm. According to the New York Times of 5.9.82, ‘His songs, which come out of the music-hall tradition of Piaf and Chevalier, have an arresting simplicity and a knowing, ironic seductiveness. With his special kind of romanticism, his nonchalance and his intensity, he created his own persona and a brand of eroticism that have resisted changing fashions’.
He was born Ivo Livi in Monsumano Alto, a small village near Florence, on October 13th, 1921. His father, a broom-maker, was forced to flee Italy when the Fascist regime set fire to his factory because of his Jewish origins and Communist views, settling in Marseilles, just the other side of the Pyrenees, where he was joined by his family in 1924. Although hard up, the immigrant family was a happy one, with young Ivo developing a passion for music, especially jazz, and American cinema, particularly the films of Fred Astaire – an influence which was to last all his life. Naturalised Yves in 1932, he tried his hand at numerous jobs, including being an assistant in his sister’s hairdressers, which was held in a garage, and being a steelworker, before finally bowing to his true desire: to become a singer.
Fired by his heroes Maurice Chevalier and Charles Trenet (whose songs he described as ‘refreshing and marvellous’), he took his first steps towards the realisation of his dream, appearing at amateur performances in local bars, and adopting a stage name. Rumour has it that his mother’s words, “Yvo! Monta!”, when calling him to dinner, provided the inspiration for this. He took singing lessons, practised hard, and approached a local impresario, Berlingot, who in 1938 secured him an engagement at the Alcazar, Marseilles’ famous variety hall, as supporting act for Reda Caire. Swept up by the post-war craze for Americana, he talked the pianist at the Alcazar, Charles Humel, into writing Dans les plaines du Far-West, which he sang complete with cowboy costume, and which became his first great success.
But war intervened, and Montand was forced to lie low, working as a docker and at various other jobs to survive, before deciding that his only real chance of success, as well as of evading STO, (service du travail obligatoire), lay in making a break for it to Paris. On February 18th, 1944, billed as “la nouvelle recrue de la fantaisie” (the new variety star), he landed a contract at the famous ABC Music-Hall with an act laden with Americanisms, which turned out to be an enormous hit. As the Occupation drew to a close, his career seemed to be taking off.
It was as supporting act at the Moulin Rouge (1945) that he came to the notice of Edith Piaf. Unimpressed by his performing technique, ‘the little sparrow’ nevertheless fell under his spell, and proceeded to take him under her wing (no pun intended!). It was a tough apprenticeship. She worked him hard, instilling the perfectionism which was to typify the rest of his professional life. Away with cowboy outfits: Piaf stressed that ‘chanson’ was ‘un art eternel’ – not an American post-war fad. As Montand said later, ‘Learning from her saved me five years’ work’.
She kick-started his film career, too, as he took a minor role alongside her in Etoile Sans Lumiere (1945), which led to Les Portes de La Nuit (1946), one of the less successful efforts of the great director Marcel Carne; then, in 1952, to Le Salaire de la Peur, (Henri-Georges Clouzot), generally regarded as one of the high points of French post-war cinema.
Etoile Sans Lumière, 1945
In 1951, at the Theatre de l’Etoile in Paris, Montand unveiled what he has become best-known for: “le one-man-show”. Breaking with the music-hall tradition of a star turn with supporting act, he devoted a full two hours to his repertoire – drawing upon a hand-picked array of top lyricists, composers and poets – garnished with carefully-polished dance and mime routines which he had spent hours rehearsing in front of the mirror – plus, the oh-so-not-cowboy maroon shirt and pants for which he became famous.
He was fastidious in his choice of songs, refusing all pressure from publisher or record company. “Il faut que je les aime – si je ne l’aime pas je ne la chante pas – a n’importe quel prix” (I have to love the song. If I don’t love it, I won’t sing it – however much they pay), and, despite his working-class origins, declared that he sought an ‘educated public’ – not the masses. Hence the choice of Jacques Prevert (Les Feuilles Mortes), Pierre Barouh (A bicyclette) and singer/songwriter Francis Lemarque, who said “Il a bouleverse ma vie” (he overturned my life), and wrote the world-famous A Paris especially for him.
He assembled a coterie of peerless musicians as accompanists: among them his devoted pianist, Bob Castella; the brilliant guitarist Henri Crolla (cousin of Django Reinhardt); and the legendary accordionist Marcel Azzola. It was said that he achieved a unique blend of American swing and French ‘musette’ (accordion music) – quite an achievement!
From Jacques Plante, author of the trademark Charles Aznavour song, La Boheme, Montand chose Les Grands Boulevards.
For many years, Yves Montand shared his father’s avid Communist views, and these coloured an increasingly successful film career, with internationally-acclaimed hits like Z (1968), directed by Costa-Gavras. As Yves said, “We decided to make political films that some people objected to”. This political fervour was shared by his long-time spouse, Simone Signoret, who often travelled with him to Communist countries.
Yves Montand and Simone Signoret
Disillusioned with Soviet Russia following the Hungarian uprising of 1956, he repudiated Communism but remained passionately politically committed, organising, for example, a concert in aid of Chilean refugees in 1974. He liked to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald: “You should be aware that things are hopeless, yet still be determined to change them”.
After a long gap, Montand returned triumphantly to the Paris Olympia in 1981, a three-month stint for which people fought for tickets and which attracted a total audience of 85, 000. Finally, he toured Japan, Brazil, Canada and the US before returning to his film career, and two final masterpieces, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources, based on the novels by Marcel Pagnol, both released in 1986.
Trailer, Jean de Florette (1986)
Yves Montand died on 9.11.91 at Senlis, Oise, one day after completing his last film.
Copyright April 2016 Pat Harvey