In the Spotlight: Louis de Funès

It's time for another 'spotlight article' and today we are going to talk about one of the greatest comedians of all time (at least in my humble opinion).He was born in Courbevoie, a suburb of Paris, at the start of the Great War (1914-1918) and is considered one of the most influential French actors of all time. I am, of course, talking about the amazing Louis de Funès. Watching his movies, takes me back to my childhood; especially the "Gendarmes" movies and "The Adventures of Rabbi Jacobi". Last week, one of the "Gendarmes" movies, was on TV and that sparked a flame for an article, long overdue. Let's talk about Louis de Funès".

As I mentioned above Louis de Funès was born in Courbevoie (France) on July 31th, 1914. His father was Spanish nobleman Carlos Luis de Funès de Galarza (a descendent from the marquesses of Galarza on his mother's side).  Louis' mother, Leonor Soto Reguera, was the daughter of a Gallaecian lawyer. The two fell in love while living in Spain, but their family was opposed to their marriage. Because of this, they eloped to France in 1904. Upon their arrival in France, Luis became a diamond cutter and ten years later their son Louis was born. FuFu (as he was known to friends) spent his youth in Paris. He wasn't very fond of school, but he had a great artistic mind. The young Louis loved drawing and playing the piano. He dropped out of school and during his teens he did a lot of jobs as a handyman. At one point, Louis gets a job, playing the piano in nightclubs. Although he studied playing the piano for a year, he can't read notes, but he makes up by showing great improvisational skills and facial grimaces that made people laugh. He later talked about his time as a pianist and mentioned that he had to play from 6.30 p.m. until 6.30 a.m., without even having time to pee. 

De Funès decides it is time to make use of his comical talents and he enrolls at the Rene Simon Acting School. During this year he studies acting during the day, while still working as a pianist in the nightclub. Finally, after a year, he can't handle his lifestyle anymore. He drops out of the acting school, but he did make some useful contacts in the world of acting, including Daniel Gélin. Not long after this, Gélin helps him get his first supporting roles. In 1936, Louis marries Germaine Louis Elodie Carroyer. Together they get one child, named Daniel and he must get food on the table. So, during the day he plays small roles in movies, while still playing the piano at night. Eventually the couple divorces in late 1942. During the German occupation of Paris in World War II, de Funès picks up his piano studies at a music school. At this school he falls in love with a secretary, named: Jeanne Barthelémy de Maupassant. This turned out to be the love of his life; they married in 1943 and stayed together for 40 years up until Louis' death in 1983 (together they had two sons: Patrick and Olivier). Through the early 1940s de Funès keeps on playing small supporting movie roles during the day, while playing the piano at night. He soon realizes he has to distinguish himself with his extraordinary comical talents, for the directors to notice him.

Thanks to his contacts with Gélin, Louis gets his first film role in "La Tentation de Barbizon" in 1945. He keeps getting bigger parts and the directors give him a chance to improvise. For De Funès there was only one way and that was the way up. During the next 10 years he appears in 50 films and he develops a daily routine of professional activities. In the morning he dubbed recognized actors (like the Italian Totò), during the afternoon he played in movies and in the evening, he played in the theatre. In the year 1954, he is 40 at that time, De Funès plays roles in 18 films and the audience begins to notice him. In 1956, he gets a chance to play Jambier in "La Traversée de Paris” opposite two of the biggest names in French cinema: Jean Gabin and Bourvil. According to a lot of movie critics, this is one of Gabin's best movies. This is because de Funès forces him to be the best actor he could be. In the two years following, de Funès lands two main roles in the movies: "Comme un Cheveu sur la Soupe" (1957) and "Ni vu ni connu" (1958). However, these movies do not become the big hits de Funès needed them to be and he decided to return to the theatre for a few years. He excelled in "Oscar" (a role he reprised in the movie adaptation a few year later) and in "La Grosse Valse".

In 1963, at the age of 49, de Funès returns to cinema.  He gets a main role in Jean Girault's "Pouic - Pouic" and "Faites sauter la banque!". During the summer of 1964, he shoots 3 movies, with only two days rest between each one of them. One of these movies is called: "Le Gendarme de Saint-Tropez" again directed by Jean Girault. This turned out to be de Funès' big break and the first installment of a 6-movie franchise. But at the moment of making no one believed it would be a success and the movie had a very low budget. Michel Galabru (who plays the role of Gerber in the "Gendarme" franchise) talked about the movie in an interview later. He said that he was on a vacation in Saint-Tropez and while he opened the window of his hotel room, he heard some people talking about a new movie set in Saint-Tropez. The people talked about how they wanted Louis de Funès for the main role and "some zeroes" to surround him. Galabru turned out to be one of those "zeroes". He got paid only 6000 French Francs for the part of Gerber, which comes down to $900/€915.

One of the main reasons the "Gendarme" franchise turned out to be a success is the fact that Girault gave Louis a carte blanche to play the role of Ludovic Chruchot. With Cruchot, de Funès creates a character that he would turn out playing a lot in the years following: the average pushover, a slimeball, who as soon as he gets an important position turns into a stuck-up obnoxious guy. Galabru later said that de Funès created that character, he owned it (so to say).  This is also the first time de Funès is not only an actor, he gets to assist Girault with the directing and editing of the movie. This marks the beginning of a magnificent career.  The other two movies, de Funès shot in 1964 were: "Le Corniaud" and "Fantômas". In "Le Corniaud" he plays opposite Bourvil again and for this movie Bourvil gets three times the amount of money de Funès gets. However, this is the most money de Funès ever got for a movie and these three movies make a big star out of him.

Between the recording of the movie and the release of it was a year. Gérard Oury set about the movie as a big movie. It was the first French comedy movie with a pretty big budget. The actors get flown over to Italy for filming and then back to Bordeaux (France). Oury exceeded the budget and everyone thinks this will mean his bankruptcy. But the producers have faith in the movie. Upon its release in 1965 it turns out that this was the right decision. The movie draws 11 million viewers to the cinemas and turns out to be a big success. At the age of 50 Louis de Funès finally finds himself at the top of the French cinema. Early 1965 he beats James Bond at the box office in France. Suddenly de Funès is a star and producers start building big movies around him. In 1965 de Funès re-assumes the role of Cruchot for "Le Gendarme á New York" and he also reprises his role as Commissioner Juve in "Fantômas se déchaîne". He also gets together with Bourvil and Oury again to make "La Grande Vadrouille", a story about two men on an unwanted adventure during WWII. The movie is a huge success and remains one of the best visited movies in French movie history. Bourvil and de Funès turn out to be a golden couple and they are good friends in real life, which only adds to their on screen chemistry.

Louis de Funès is a big star and he and his family move to the Castle of Clermont to get some rest. In the meanwhile, movie offers keep on pouring in. In between movies he enjoys the nature and spends his time gardening. But de Funès loves acting so much that he never takes a long time to rest.


Between 1967 and 1970, he is the big star in eleven movies. Among these is the last part of the "Fantômas" - trilogy: "Fantômas contre Scotland Yard", "Oscar" (the adaptation of the play he starred in years before) and "Le Tatoué" (with Jean Gabin). At the age of 56, de Funès is everywhere and he often stars in multiple movies at a time. While the public keeps on wanting more of him, the movie critics start being harsher on him. At this point of his career, de Funès seemed to be dictating the French movie world. At one point, one out of 10 movie tickets sold in Paris was a ticket for a movie starring de Funès. And the actor kept on making movies, he did not care for his status as a star, he just wanted to act. De Funès once said he didn't even want to become the big star he was, he was very modest and loved being in the background. This was very different from the man he was on set and in his movies, but he loved being on set and he loved to act. This was especially the case in all the "Le Gendarme" movies, he loved being reunited with the cast and crew of these movies and saw them as close friends.

In 1968, "Le Gendarme se marie" is the third movie of the franchise, followed by "Le Gendarme en ballade" in 1970, "Le Gendarme et les extra terrestres" in 1979 and "Les Gendarme et les Gendarmettes" in 1982 (just one year before he passed away). In "Le Gendarme se marie" Cruchot falls in love with and marries Josépha. She continues playing his wife in the "Le Gendarme" movies that follow, but also in other movies. The two worked together in 10 movies and in 8 of them they played husband and wife.  In the early seventies De Funès and Bourvil start working on a new movie, again directed by Ouvry. But during the filming of "La Folie des Grandeurs", Bourvil passes away in September 1970. De Funès loses his best friend and he doesn't want to finish the movie anymore. Ouvry must find a new actor to oppose de Funès, with the same grandeur as Bouvril. Eventually Yves Montand replaced Bourvil and again Louis had an amazing chemistry with his co-star and the movie turns out to be another success. After an intense period of filming for the movie, De Funès decides to take a break from movies, but not from acting. He returns to the stage. After "La Folie des grandes", Oury starts working on another movie for Louis de Funès and he decides to take on a more timely theme: antisemitism. In 1971 De Funès starts shooting "Les aventures de Rabbi Jacob”. In this movie De Funès plays the role of Pivert, a scoundrel, who is opposed to everything from cars to Jews, to Belgian people. 

It's the first time that Oury doesn't place a big star opossite De Funès. The movie turns out to be a big succes and De Funès is amazing in it. One of the most legendary scenes of the movie is the dance scene. De Funès practised mastering this dance for a month. Although the movie is a big succes, De Funès wants to return to the stage again. During this time he is very tired and keeps on giving everything every night. In March of 1975, he collapses at his home. He narrowly escaped a heart attack and has to stay in the hospital for two months. At the age of 61, the hyperactive Louis de Funès has to take some rest formhis own good. He takes up gardening. Because of his instable health condition there aren't a lot of moviemakers that want to take a chance and hire De Funès, no matter how big a star he is. In 1976, however a young filmmaker Christian Fechner takes the risk and makes the movie "Láile ou la cuisse". De Funès is back, but his way of acting becomes less energetic. In the years following De Funès keeps on making movies, but way less than he used to do. On January 23, 1983, however, De Funès gets another heart attack. He is brought to the hospital in Nantes, where he passes away. One of the biggest comedians of all time is gone. He passed away at the age of 68. 

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