This week we go back to the summer of 1939 to sample one of the minor pleasures of Paris during those last few months of peace. I refer to the generation-gap comedy Monsieur Bobby, written by Pierre-Paul Fournier and Henry Turpin, which opened at the Theatre Michel in June and gave the actor Jean Bobillot, who played the title role, his first star part in the French capital.
The old-fashioned bourgeois couple Emile and Thérèse Le Berquier have left their Parisian home for a summer holiday in a country village, Arnay-le-Duc. They have brought with them their 19-year-old son, affectionately known as ‘Monsieur Bobby’. He’s a brilliant student who’s about to go to university, but his attitudes to life are poles apart from those of his parents: they could still be living in 1913, whereas he is very much 1939, and holds them in low esteem. If the play were written a generation later, he would no doubt dismiss them as ‘squares’.
While in the country, he has become involved with Armandine, described in memorable French as ‘une gamine vicieuse’, and played in 1939 by Liliane Roger:
She’s a scheming village girl, daughter of the local haberdasher and former mistress of Monsieur Dron, the local schoolmaster. Bobby is her willing slave and she intends to make him marry her, though when she tries to manipulate his jealousy of Dron, it nearly backfires: Bobby’s adolescent despair drives him to attempt suicide. Luckily for him, the ‘arsenic’ he takes is really only tooth powder!
His parents are understandably concerned and understandably disapproving, but they are powerless to influence Bobby. But all is not lost. The charming divorcee Gisèle Sorbier, a friend of the family, is visiting for the weekend. She was widely considered the play’s leading comic role, and was played in 1939 by the Comédie Française star Huguette Duflos. She has known Bobby since he was little and she is genuinely interested in his welfare, so when she hears from his mother what is going on, she decides to sort him out.
‘Leave me alone in the house with Bobby tomorrow night,’ she asks. Conveniently, the family has been invited to a ball being held by some friends in Besançon, around 150 kilometres away, which will mean an overnight stay. As soon as he finds out that his parents are going to be away, Bobby plans some company for himself, but he reckons without Gisèle. She gets him accidentally stuck in a closet so that it is she who answers the door when Armandine arrives. The divorcee is more than a match for the minx, who is sent away with une puce à l’oreille. There will be no night of passion for Bobby.
Or will there? Deprived of his intended squeeze, Bobby now attempts to woo Gisèle. She wasn’t expecting that, but manages to rebuff his advances and keep him out of her bedroom. (Definitely no night of passion for Bobby, then.) And with that rejection, one nail drives out another: he forgets Armandine, becomes infatuated with Gisèle, and takes to his room in renewed despair while Gisèle leaves in embarrassment, pretending an urgent appointment in Marseilles. The rest of the story winds out as Bobby’s father arranges an encounter with yet another girl, which snaps him out of it and teaches him not to be so single-minded about women: the awkward teenager has finally become a man.
But we’ve just overshot the key scene, which follows the abortive assignation with Armandine and the failed seduction of Gisèle. The morning after, the crafty coquette comes back to the house, planning to wind Bobby further round her little finger. The fact that she fails tells us how Bobby’s outlook is starting to change: the scales have fallen from his eyes, which means that at long last Armandine gets exactly what she deserves:
‘Une belle fessée,’ said the Parisian press – which also praised Jean Bobillot for managing to make it look a lot harder than it actually was. And no doubt Liliane Roger was grateful for that!