Marcel Pagnol (1895 – 1974) was a playwright, film-producerand novelist, at all of which he gained distinction.  He was born in the Provençal town of Aubagne, about eleven miles from Marseille. His father, Joseph, was an “instituteur”, the more modest rank of teacher as compared with the more qualified “professeur” of the lycées.  His mother, Augustine was a dressmaker. Marcel was the eldest child and he had two younger brothers, Paul and René and a younger sister, Germaine. Marcel’s youngest brother, René, was born in 1909 and so does not appear in “Le Château de ma mere”, which tells of two years in the lives of the Pagnol family - 1904 – 1905.

In 1900, Joseph Pagnol was appointed to a new teaching post at the École des Chartreux in Marseille and the family had to move from the country to the big city.  However the appeal of country life stayed with them and during the school vacation of the summer of 1904, the family rented the Bastide Neuve, – a house outside the very quiet village of La Treille, close to their former home and Marcel’s birthplace of Aubagne. This was to be the first of many breaks that Marcel and his family spent at this retreat in the hills of Provence, where the climate suited Mme Pagnol’s somewhat frail constitution.

(Photo Augustine Pagnol)

In June 1910, when Marcel was fifteen years old, his life was shattered when his beloved mother was taken ill with a chest infection and died at the age of 36.  For Marcel the cruel change in his family life was aggravated when his father remarried two years later in 1912. His bride, Madeleine, was only 24 and the situation distanced Marcel from his father.

Marcel was a student at the Lycée Thiers in Marseilles.   In 1913, at the age of 18, Marcel passed his baccalaureate in philosophy and started a degree course in literature at the University of Aix-en-Provence. This was interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, when Marcel was called up to join the Infantry.  In January 1915, however, he was discharged from the army, on the grounds that he was physically unfit for service.  He resumed his university course and graduated in English in 1916.

On 2 March 1916, he married Simone Colin in Marseille and in November of the same year, he graduated in English. He became an English teacher and taught in various colleges and schools in the Marseille region of southern France.

From his youth, Marcel had enjoyed writing and had completed a full novel.  He also wrote poetry. In 1920, he wrote two verse dramas. His literary career began in earnest, after 1922, when he moved to Paris, where he was appointed assistant master at the lycée Condorcet. The first years in the capital were years of relative poverty for him and his wife.

Marcel was now in the company of valued friends who shared his literary aspirations and  sometimes in collaboration with these friends, he tried his hand at writing for the Paris theatre. One of his plays proved a flop, but the reception for two others was encouraging enough for him to give up teaching in 1927.  In October of the following year, his play “Topaze” was staged  at the Théâtre des Variétés in Paris and achieved overnight success. The play had more than 800 performances in Paris. It was later to be translated into other languages and several film versions were made.

The story of “Topaze” was set in Paris, but for his next plays Pagnol drew on his roots in Provence.  His reputation increased with the popularity of his trilogy of Marius (1929), Fanny (1931), César (1936), in which he created comic characters that are now legendary.  The famous comic actor, Raimu, also from southern France, made a great hit playing the role of César.(Below shot from Marius 1931- Orane Demazis and Pierre Fresnay)


In 1926, Pagnol had attended a London cinema to see one of the first talking movies and had been very impressed by its potential.  He contacted Paramount Picture studios and arranged for his play Marius to be adapted for cinema. The director was Alexander Korda and the film was released in October 1931.  After this, Marcel Pagnol decided to concentrate on film production.

As a result of the success of his plays, Pagnol was now a rich young man. In 1932 Pagnol founded his own film company with studios in Paris and Marseille.  In 1934, he bought 24 acres of land in the Aubagne area, the countryside of his early years, with the intention of establishing a Hollywood of Provence.  He saw the advantage of the bright weather conditions for the outdoor filming.  It was in 1941, that he bought further property in the area for his film company.  This incorporated a country mansion, known as “La Buzine”.  In later life, this incident became the climax of his autobiographical novel :"Le château de ma mère".

His grandiose plans for a French Hollywood, however had to be abandoned with the fall of France in the Second World War. Filming was interrupted and Pagnol was distracted by his struggle to avoid his facilities being used for Fascist propaganda.  Eventually, he sold up to Gaumont but he still kept charge of production.

His move into film-making in the early 1930 had proved to be a brilliant and rapid success, surpassing that which he had known in the theatrical world. During the following years, Pagnol had a hand in producing a very impressive number of films.  In their production, he made an immense personal contribution. He was script- writer, script translator for foreign versions, head of studio and film director.  In addition, it was his responsibility to raise the finance.  He had the status to be able to attract into his films the greatest stars of the French theatre.

The Films of Marcel Pagnol
1931 Marius
1932 Fanny -    Topaze (First version) -      Direct au cœur
1933 L'Agonie des aigles -    Le Gendre de monsieur     Poirier -   Jofroi
1934 L'Article 330 -   Tartarin de Tarascon,  -    Angèle -     Le Premier Amour
1935 -Merlusse,  -    Cigalon -    Topaze (Second version)
1936 - César
1937 - Regain
1938 - Le Schpountz -    La femme du boulanger
1939 - Monsieur Brotonneau
1940 - La fille du puisatier, with Fernandel and Josette Day (pictured below)

1941 La prière aux Etoiles (unfinished film during the war) 
1943 - Arlette et l'Amour
1945 - Naïs with: Fernandel and  Jacqueline Bouvier, (who became Pagnol’s second  wife).
1948 - La Belle Meunière  with Tino Rossi and Pagnol’s wife, Jacqueline Pagnol.
1950 - Le Rosier de Madame Husson   with  Bourvil, Pauline Carton, and  Jacqueline Pagnol.   - Topaze (Third version)  -with Fernandel,  and  Jacqueline Pagnol.

1952 - Manon des sources (part 1)  with Jacqueline Pagnol(picture above), Raymond Pellegrin

1953 - Carnaval with Fernandel, Jacqueline Pagnol, Mireille Perrey
1954  - Les Lettres de mon moulin : L'elixir du père Gaucher -     
            Les Lettres de mon moulin : Le secret de Maître Cornille –
Les Lettres de mon moulin : Les trois messes basses
1956 - La Terreur des dames 
1962 - La Dame aux Camélias (téléfilm) 
1967 - Les Lettres de mon moulin : Le curé de Cucugnan

Honours won by Marcel Pagnol for his films
1939: Best foreign film for Regain -HARVEST - New York Film Critics Circle Awards
1940: Best foreign film for La Femme du Boulanger -The Baker's Wife - New York Film Critics Circle Awards
1950: Best foreign film for Jofroi - New York Film Critics Circle Awards

Marcel Pagnol’s achievements as a film maker were given national recognition on the 27th March 1947, when he was elected to the Académie Française.


Marcel Pagnol married Simone Colin in Marseille in 1916, in church, to Joseph's great displeasure. The couple split up in 1926 but official divorce was pronounced only in 1941 during German occupation of France.
An important woman in Pagnol’s life was the actress, Orane Demazis (pictured in the film list above), whom he met  in 1923 when he arrived in Paris. She was only 19 but she was already taking important roles in the Paris theatre. She worked with Pagnol, to create the character of Fanny in his film of 1932.  She later appeared in many more Pagnol films. In 1933, they had a son Jean-Pierre.
In 1930, Marcel Pagnol had an affair with Kitty Murphy (photo below), a young English dancer working in Paris. In the same year their son, Jacques Pagnol was born.

In the mid 1930s, Marcel Pagnol fell for the charms of a colleague at his Paris offices, Yvonne Pouperon.   They had a daughter, Francine, born in June 1936.
During the war years, Pagnol was in a relationship the film actress, Josette Day (pictured in the film list above), who appeared in his films, including his film of  1940  - La fille du puisatier.  She is most famous for her part in Jean Cocteau’s “La Belle et la Bête”, where she played Beauty.

Jacqueline Bouvier, was an actress whom he had known for six years previously, but their close relationship only started in 1944, in the final months of the German occupation.  They married in 1945 and they were together until his death. Their son, Frédéric, was born in 1946, and their daughter, Estelle, in 1951.

In these immediate post-war years, he was at the height of his success; he was honoured nationally and internationally; he was happily married and had two young children. In 1951 he and his wife bought a luxury home on the sea front at Monte-Carlo. Prince Rainier of Monaco was his neighbour and friend.  Unfortunately, as his life story had already shown, fate can suddenly turn and snatch from you those whom you hold most dear, destroying your happiness.. Pagnol had had this experience on three occasions; firstly by the death of his mother when he was fifteen; then when his great friend Lili was killed in action in the last months of the First World War; then when hisyounger brother Paul had died on the operating table after Marcel had paid for the best treatment available to restore him to health.. Pagnol concluded: "Such is human life. A few joys, very quickly wiped out by unforgettable sorrows. There's no need to tell the children."

The final tragedy in his life was indeed another unforgettable sorrow. In 1954, their little daughter, Estelle, died of a sudden illness at the age of two. Neither of the parents was able to deal with their cruel loss. Marcel Pagnol’s sense of devastation was so great that he could no longer remain in his native Provence and moved back to Paris.  There he immersed himself in his work, writing plays again.

He devoted a lot of thought and effort to his next play, giving his own individual interpretation of the story of Judas Iscariot. “Judas, pièce en cinq actes” had its première at the Théâtre de Paris on the 6th October 1955.  The reception for the play was unenthusiastic and Pagnol, who was accustomed to making a success of everything to which he turned his hand, was profoundly disappointed   He ruefully compared this public reaction, to his hard work with the instant acclaim that he had earned with plays that he had dashed off effortlessly in his youth.

A chance encounter with the editor of “Elle” magazine then came to distract him and led him into a new change of career- as a writer of novels. Mme Lazareff  of “Elle” happened to hear Marcel Pagnol tell a story from his childhood and she asked him to write it as a short story for her magazine.  He agreed out of politeness but as a dramatist had no intention of writing stories or novels. The lady pestered him and finally he agreed to write six pages.

As he began to write, the exercise gripped him.  Pagnol described what happened.:
Tout à coup, j’ai revu mes parents.  Je les ai revus avec cette impression curieuse d’être, moi infiniment plus vieux qu’ils ne l’étaient à l’époque où je les faisais revivre.  Par rapport à l’homme que j’étais devenu, c’étaient alors des enfants.  Cette pensée m’a inspiré.  Les six pages ont proliféré.
His long short story appeared in “Elle” and he was overwhelmed by letters of appreciation from the women readers.  Having found book writing easier than he thought, he carried on and finished up with a very long manuscript to take to the printer’s.  The latter told him that there was too much for one book and split them in two: “La gloire de mon père”  and  “Le Château de ma mère”. (Both 1957) These were followed by “Le temps des secrets” (1959 ) and the last book of his collection of childhood memories was “Le temps des amours”.   

In fact Pagnol left this last book, “Le temps des amours”, unfinished and instead worked on a new series of books.  His new venture was to turn the script of his successful film of 1952 “Manon des Sources” into a novel in two volumes.  The complete novel, published in 1962 was called: “L’eau des collines” and its two parts were: "Jean de Florette" and "Manon des Sources".  Pagnol’s golden touch had returned and he was now a best-selling author.

In the 1960s, Pagnol also wrote historical works.  For a long time he had had a passionate interest in historical research – his recent play had been a study of the life and character of Judas Iscariot.  He next sought to disentangle the longstanding mystery of the mysterious prisoner of King Louis XIV, who was made to wear an iron mask all his life.  Pagnol believed that he had found the answer and was convinced that this was the most important achievement of his life.  Using documents from the Vatican, he formed the theory that the man in the iron mask was actually the twin brother of Louis XIV.   He published two books on the subject: "Masque de fer" in 1964 and "Secret du masque de fer” in 1973.


Marcel Pagnol died on the 18th April 1974 in Paris at the age of 79.  He is interred in Provence, at the cemetery of La Treille.  On his gravestone are three inscriptions for Marcel Pagnol (1895 – 1974), Estelle Pagnol (1951-1954) and Augustine Pagnol, his mother (1873- 1910).  In another tomb lie his father, Joseph (died 1954) with his second wife and Marcel’s two brothers and sister. His great boyhood friend, David Magnan (Lili des Bellons in our book ), killed at the Second Battle of the Marne in July 1918 is buried not far away.

Three years after his death the final book of his childhood memories “Le temps des amours"  was published.

The film producer, Claude Berri, turned Pagnol’s two novels, Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources back into film. They were premiered in 1986 to international acclaim.

The film producer, Yves Robert, made films of Pagnol’s stories of his childhood: “La Gloire de mon père” and “Le château de ma mere”.  They appeared in 1990 and were very successful at the box-office.
La fille du puisatier was filmed again this time by the director, Daniel Auteuil


In addition to these films there have been numerous television productions of Pagnol’s works in recent years and even an opera Marius et Fanny in 2007. 


Jean-Charles Tacchella, a film producer, talks about the mood of happiness that he conveys to his audience, making them feel better people:

C'est cela la leçon de Pagnol : en sortant d'un de ses films, on était heureux. Parfois même on se croyait meilleur.

Jean Dutourd of the Académie Française, speaks of Pagnol’s  great achievements in literature and drama :

On le prenait pour un auteur de boulevard, on le prenait pour un auteur régionaliste, alors que c'était un grand homme, un grand écrivain, un grand dramaturge.

Perhaps his most outstanding feature is his humanity and a remark made by Pagnol reveals this.  He said:
Si j’avais été peintre, je n’aurais fait que des portraits.



David Yendley August 2012