French actor, dramatist and director, Sacha Guitry was born in 1885 in Saint-Petersburg where his father, actor Lucien Guitry, was under contract with the city’s French theater. Early on, Sacha knew he was going to be an artist. Therefore, his studies were mediocre.
His acting debuts were not too encouraging either. It is as playwright that Guitry obtained his first success in 1905 with two comedies, the one act play ‘Le K.W.T.Z’ and the full-length play ‘Nono’. Guitry’s career as dramatist was launched. In the following years, he became a particularly prolific and popular writer, mostly of spiritual, caustic comedies. In 1907, Guitry went back on stage to act in his own play ‘Chez les Zoaques’ and would perform in most of his subsequent plays.
In 1916, he directed his first film, ‘Ceux de chez nous’, a patriotic documentary illustrating the works of some French artists like Auguste Renoir or Auguste Rodin. In 1917, he wrote and played in the movie ‘Un Roman d’amour et d’aventures’ under the direction of René Hervil and Louis Mercanton, an experience that left him unsatisfied.
It is only in 1935 that he came back in the movie studio to direct and act in ‘Pasteur’, a biography of the famous scientific. The film, based on a play Guitry wrote in 1919, was a commercial failure, but during the shooting, Guitry fell in love with the process of filmmaking. From then on, he would continue to write and act in new stage plays, but making movie also became an important part of his life.
He followed ‘Pasteur’ with ‘Bonne chance’, a comedy written directly for the screen. In 1936 alone, Guitry released no less than four movies, including the film versions of two of his best known plays: ‘Faisons un rêve’ (written in 1916), and ‘Mon Père avait raison’ (written in 1919). He also directed ‘Le Roman d’un tricheur’, this time from a short story he published in 1934. Despite lukewarm reviews, the movie was well received by the public and was also successful in the USA. It is now considered his most innovative film.
In 1937, he wrote ‘Les perles de la couronne’, and co-directed it with Christian-Jacque. An ambitious and expensive historical fantasy featuring a prestigious casting, the film was both a critical and commercial success. Guitry continued in the same vein the following year with ‘Remontons les Champs Élysées’. The Second World War didn’t stop his activities. During the occupation, he notably directed and played in the historical film ‘Le Destin fabuleux de Désiré Clary’ (1942), the sentimental drama ‘Donne-moi tes yeux’ (1943) and the biography ‘La Malibran’ (1944).
It is well established that during that period, Guitry had occasional contacts with members of the occupying forces, though he worked only with French independents producers, didn’t allowed his plays to be performed in Germany, and had some problems with the German censorship. But he also managed to maintain a lavish lifestyle that was in sharp contrast with the life of deprivation that was the fate of most of his contemporaries.
It is possibly for that reason that, in August 1944, after the liberation of Paris, Guitry was arrested at his home following an anonymous denunciation. He was set free after two months in jail but though no official accusations were laid against him, he was forbidden to appear on stage or on screen. Finally, in 1947, he was cleared of any wrong-doings and allowed to resume his work. But his reputation was tarnished and in the years to come, he would frequently face the hostility of a certain press.
For his come-back, Guitry wanted to make a movie about historical figure Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, but his screenplay was rejected by the authorities. So, Guitry adapted his scenario for the theatre and took the title role. Many commentators accused him to indulge in a self-justification attempt, but the play was a success and Guitry was finally able to turn it into the movie ‘Le Diable boîteux’ (1948).
Guitry continued to be as prolific, writing new plays, reviving old successes, penning screenplays, directing movies. But the cheerfulness of the pre-war works was replaced by a more acerbic humor like in the film ‘La Poison’ (1951), a movie that attracted mostly negative reviews when it came out but is today considered one of his best films.
There was a change of mood in 1953 with the release of ‘Si Versailles m’était conté’, another high budget historical fantasy that obtained a great success. At that time, Guitry’s health was deteriorating, forcing him to give-up stage acting at the end of 1953. Despite his poor shape; Guitry, galvanized by the reception of ‘Si Versailles m’était conté’, wrote and directed two other historical dramas ‘Napoléon’ (1954) and ‘Si Paris nous était conté’ (1956). His general condition was so bad that, for that last film, he authorized the producer to use Henri-George Clouzot and Marcel Achard as back-ups, should he be in the impossibility to complete the film. Guitry finished his career with two comedies ‘Assasins et voleurs’ (1955), and ‘Les Trois font la paire’ (1957). He died during the summer of 1957.
Guitry’s movies are only part of his legacy. He also left us above 100 plays, countless ‘bons mots’ and the memory of a flamboyant, often controversial personality. His films were often held in low esteem by the critics. Some of those movies were shot really fast (11 days for ‘La Poison’, 8 days for ‘Faisons un rêve’ and ‘Mon Père avait raison’). Whether they are based on a play or not, dialogues are always paramount in his films, and when he adapted his plays, he never tried to hide their theatrical origin. Oddly enough, the films that were highly praised when they came out are not the ones best regarded today.