In the early sound era, Hollywood made some amazing movies, but few had the sophistication of '30s playwrights like Eugene O'Neill, Clifford Odets, or Thornton Wilder, let alone the likes of Anton Chekhov or Henrik Ibsen. But the French had Marcel Pagnol, a popular playwright who realized as early as 1931 that cinema could record dramas of complexity and wit. That was the year he hired Alexander Korda to direct an adaptation of Pagnol's 1929 stage success Marius, which did so well that he penned a 1932 sequel, Fanny, for director Marc Allégret, and made the series a trilogy in 1936 with César, which he directed himself.
The Fanny Trilogy established Pagnol's reputation worldwide and practically codified French cinema's "tradition of quality"—in which performance and theme are valued over visual flash—which Pagnol-hating New Wavers would do their utmost to shred decades later. The films themselves are talky and comic, full of worldly, rounded-off characters and flatly naturalist settings, and they're as French as brie and Jacques Tati.
Each of the three films focuses primarily on its title character. Marius stars Pierre Fresnay as a barman's son in the port town of Marseilles. He longs to go to sea, but while he's stuck in his provincial community, he carries on an extended flirtation with Orane Demazis, half-resenting her for representing the unadventurous home life for which he may have to settle. Marius ends on a note of high drama and Fanny begins seconds later, with Demazis in crisis, torn between her love for Fresnay and a more practical marital arrangement proposed by local merchant Fernand Charpin. César stars Raimu as Fresnay's father, dolefully observing the results of the choices Fresnay and Demazis made, some 20 years after the fact.
The plots are straight melodrama, flavored by the details of seaside life and the rhythms of conversation among people who've known each other for decades. While not set-bound, the pieces of The Fanny Trilogy are overtly theatrical, with minimal action and a surfeit of digressive chat. The best of the series in that regard, César, opens with Charpin on his deathbed, making his confession. ("How often did you sin?" the priest asks. "Often," Charpin replies. "And with gusto.") A lot of César is about characters remembering the details of the first two films, though not in a repetitious way. Instead, they talk about who they were once, how they felt then, and how much has changed with time and wisdom. It's one moment of truth after another.
It would be too much to say that The Fanny Trilogy comes as close as '30s cinema gets to real literature, especially since film as an art form possesses qualities that transcend literature. But the series does stand among the few faithful records of how the theater of the time could be profoundly realistic and refreshingly adult.