Born on September 3, 1894 to a Polish Jewish tailor in the Paris district of Grenelle, Marie Dubas was an actress turned singer whose mastery of gesture and stage presentation made a deep impression on the young Edith Piaf. The two women, who knew each other, shared the same sentiment: that being on stage in front of an audience was the only time they felt 100% alive. As someone said of Marie Dubas, “Il faut que le rideau lui tombe sur la tete pour qu’elle s’arrete” (The curtain would have to fall on her head to make her stop).
Anna Marie Maroussia showed a precocious talent for acting, and at the age of 14, appeared successfully alongside actor Charles Vanel at the Theatre de Grenelle. After lessons in singing, dancing and acting at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique, her career took off, and she forged a reputation for operetta and musical comedy, appearing in works by the likes of Sacha Guitry (L’Amour Masque/Masked Love) and Franz Lehar (La Danse des Libellules/Dance of the Dragonflies). In 1926 a defective vocal chord put a stop to this, and changed her voice for good.
Depressed, she floundered for a while until, inspired by her idol, the great diseuse (performer of comic monologues) Yvette Guilbert, she hit on a new direction. Convinced, like Guilbert, that humour and irony could be used to express the deepest problems, she started to tour the night-clubs of Montmartre with a new repertoire, la fantaisie (variety). In it, chanson could take on many forms: comedy, mime, dramatic realism, monologues, folklore, classical melodies or songs for children – all in the same act. The new formula proved a winner. In 1927 she appeared at L’Olympia with spectacular success; establishing her unshakeably as top of the bill in such places as l’A.B.C., Casino de Paris and Bobino, and earning her the title ‘Queen of Music-Hall’. Such was her popularity that in 1932 she pioneered the recital, becoming the first woman – maybe even the first singer – to perform alone, with only a piano and no microphone, for two hours. Maurice Chevalier did the same thing – but not until 1946!
Musicians and poets queued to write for her, but two cases are worth special mention.
Twenty years previously, the poet Francis Carco had written Le doux caboulot /The little inn) while sitting on the terrace of Le Lapin Agile (The Agile Rabbit), Paris’ famous cabaret. Marie Dubas begged him to have it set to music, and Jacques Larmaniat wrote a gentle waltz, a mixture of gaiety and pathos. The result became the lynch-pin of her repertoire, becoming a classic to be taken up eventually by Jean Sablon, Lucienne Boyer, Yves Montand, Juliette Greco and many others.
Marie Dubas: Mon Legionnaire
He had large pale blue eyes /Which sometimes flashed/Like lightening / He was covered in tattoos /Which I never really understood / On his neck: ‘Not seen; not taken’ Over his heart the word: ‘Nobody’/ On his right arm, a single word: “Reason’
Chorus I don’t know his name, I know nothing about him/ He made love to me all night long / My legionnaire! /And, leaving me to my fate /He was gone by morning /Full of light! / He was slim and handsome/And smelled of the hot sand / My legionnaire! His forehead shone like the sun /Filling his golden locks / With light!
Happiness lost, happiness fled/I still think about that night/And long for his touch/Sometimes I weep and think/That when he lay on my heart/I should have screamed with happiness!/But I didn’t dare say anything/So frightened was I that he would smile!
They found him in the desert/With his beautiful eyes wide open / As the clouds scudded across the sky/ He showed his tattoos/And said with a smile/Pointing to his neck, ‘Not seen, not taken’/Pointing to his heart, ‘Here, no-one’./He did not know. . . And I forgive him./But I still dreamed that fate/Would one day bring him back to me/My legionnaire! And that we would leave together/For a wonderful country/Full of light!
He was slim and handsome /And now sleeps beneath the hot sand/My legionnaire!/ His forehead shone like the sun/Filling his golden locks with light!
In 1936, Raymond Asso, who at that time had written nothing, but who went on both to write for and mentor Edith Piaf, and who had been in the Foreign Legion, and Marguerite Monnot, who became Piaf’s life-long friend and the composer of some of her best-known songs, including Hymne a l’amour (Hymn to love), combined to write Mon Legionnaire and Le Fanion de la Legion, and offer them to Marie Dubas. She made them an instant hit, and Piaf hastened to adopt them into her own repertoire; with the results we know.
As Marie Dubas’ son, Francois Bellair-Dubas, said in an interview, his mother subscribed to a saying of the Comedie-Francaise, that ‘if you do not add to the text, you detract from it’. She exploited the multiple facets of her talent, moving effortlessly from singing, to dancing, to mime, to caricature, to pathos. She filled the stage with a vitality and exuberance which was not lost on the young Edith Piaf, who attended her performances constantly and declared her to be her main inspiration – particularly with regard to gesture, which the younger star made so singularly her own. Indeed, this emphasis on the visual aspect of a singer’s performance had one unfortunate consequence in that Marie Dubas agreed only reluctantly to any form of mechanical recording; hence the comparatively rare examples of her work.
Such was her fame that she was invited to tour the United States in 1939, until the outbreak of war and 3 October 1940, when the Vichy Government issued its first directive against Jews, barring Dubas from appearing on radio or on stage. Nevertheless she returned to perform in Free France until Nazi raids forced her to take refuge in Switzerland, performing in Geneva and Lausanne, and on the radio. In 1944, Radio Suisse Romande featured her song, “Ce soir je pense a mon pays” (Tonight I am thinking about my country”), an intense expression of her love and longing for France.
Finally, in 1945, she returned to Paris, to be greeted by the news that her sister had been shot and her nephew deported. Nevertheless, she sang at the A.B.C. that year, and continued to perform – although always refusing to record – until 1958 when she helped re-open the Olympia music-hall. She died in Paris in 1972.
As her son Francois said, Marie Dubas formed part of that group -Yvette Guilbert, Yvonne George, Marianne Oswald, Barbara- who, without being out-and-out feminists, nevertheless fought for the liberty of women. They admired each other, quoted each other, and two of them, Barbara and Marianne Oswald, visited Dubas in retirement. PH
Copyright June 2016 Pat Harvey