Robert-Hugues Lambert in Mermoz

Mermoz Movie Poster 1942

Today we remember the death of French actor Robert-Hugues Lambert, who suffered in Drancy transit camp and ultimately Buchenwald while his first film premiered in Paris.  Few great French films were produced during the Vichy period, but reportedly, Mermoz was one of them.  Unfortunately, I have been unable to track down even a French version, much less one with English subtitles.  The story of the leading man, however, was worthy of a movie of its own.  (Keep reading, that exists too).

First, we have to take a very quick look at Jean Mermoz to fully understand the scope of the story.  Mermoz was an early aviation hero in both France and Argentina and everywhere in between. In the 1920s and ’30s he was making dangerous flights from France to exotic locales like Morocco and Senegal, and eventually all the way to Brazil. This led to exciting stories, like crashing in the Sahara and being taken captive by Turegs.
He moved to Argentina and became one of the leaders of South American aviation.

The mysterious ending to his historic career lends to the story.  He was lost at sea in a situation similar to what we associate with Amelia Earhart just seven months before her.  He is worthy of a blog of his own, which I may get to someday.  Needless to say, he was an extremely well-known and popular hero with a tragic disappearance. That is exactly what sells theater tickets, even when there is a world war going on.

Robert-Hugues Lambert was a little known comedic theater actor.  He was noticed by director Louis Cuny while working on a show by the great French playwright Jean Giono. But it wasn’t Lambert’s acting that caught the eye of the director, it was his likeness to Jean Mermoz.  It’s said the mother of Mermoz was overcome with emotion when she saw Lambert. The number one feature, of course, is their wavy hair.

Now one thing to remember here is that Cuny and basically everyone working on the set are relatively new to movie making.  Although he did have several short films under his belt, this was his first major motion picture.  The real reason he even had this opportunity was because in Occupied France of 1942, Jewish film directors, producers, actors, and even crew were no longer allowed to work.  Cuny saw this as a chance to make it big.

Unfortunately, the movie was plagued with problems from the get-go, most of which had to do with inexperience.  This included the below par acting of Lambert himself, as well as difficulty with the set and crew.  With the big premiere date in Paris already set, they were under the gun to finish on time, no matter what.

In Vichy France, homosexuals were as undesirable as Jews when it came to owning or running businesses. However, in the arts it was mostly overlooked.  Poets, musicians, and actors continued on (cautiously) with their careers.  Most believe where Lambert made his mistake was his choice to become involved with a specific lover.

There is very little that is actually known, but a lot of speculation swirls around what happened next.  With just over a week of filming left, Lambert disappears.  He attended a photo shoot earlier in the day then didn’t show up for filming the next day.  The evening of the photo shoot there had been a surprise roundup at a local bar frequented by gay men. Some believe it was coincidence that he happened to be there when the Nazi arrived.  I tend to believe otherwise.

He had been in a relationship with a German officer, which of course was kept secret.  With the movie about to be released, it became more important to keep the secret.  Some speculate there was a falling out between the two (possibly over jealousy) and the officer ordered the raid.  I tend to believe that the officer was afraid he’d gotten in a bit too deep and was scared for his own career and possibly life.  Or maybe it was just a coincidence.  Regardless, Lambert was arrested, most likely for “idleness,” and transported to Drancy transit camp.

There is also a haziness about what happens next.  I’ve read a lot of articles stating that Louis Cuny and the film company did everything they could to have him released.  I find that pretty hard to believe, because in similar cases people were released relatively easily.  Of course, this would have been more complicated with the German officer boyfriend perhaps hoping to keep the relationship under cover.  But Cuny was pretty well known for not caring about his actors.  He said he learned early to treat actors just like any other workers.  Once you’re done with them, that’s it.  You don’t call a plumber after he’s fixed your faucet.

So Cuny did what was easiest, he hired someone else to finish the shooting.  No problem.  They look similar enough, the shots will all be done from behind so no one will see Henri Vidal’s face.  They may have looked alike, but they didn’t sound alike.  They needed Lambert’s voice.

Meanwhile, Robert-Hugues Lambert is forced into hard labor.  In the end, he would be in at least four different camps.  But he was in Drancy when he was passed a series of lines to say into a microphone that was lowered over the barbed wire fence on a boom.  The movie could not be completed without his voice, and time was running out before the big Paris premiere.  Believing he would be released any day, he dutifully read the lines.  The crew sent to record lines even said they would see him at the premiere.  Perhaps they all really believed they would.

On November 3, 1943, Mermoz in premiered in Paris.  Robert-Hugues Lambert is not mentioned.  In August of 1943 he is transferred to Buchenwald.  In November of 1944 he is transferred to Flossenberg to work in a brickyard.  On March 7, 1945, Robert-Hugues Lambert dies at the age of 37 of exhaustion.

It’s said that in the camps, no one called him Lambert.  To the Nazis he was 21623.  To everyone else, he was Mermoz.

Marcel Bluwal would eventually make a movie loosely based on Lambert called Le plus beau pays du monde which is sometimes translated (like on IMDB) as The Happiest Place on Earth, but seems to more closely mean “The Most Beautiful Country in the World.”  I have also had a hard time finding this movie in English.  I would be leary of viewing it as historical fiction, however, since it seems to take a lot of liberties and the majority of the characters are fictional.

Not surprisingly, I couldn’t find a painting of Robert-Hugues Lambert.  However, I thought this Mermoz movie poster was a beautiful work of art. I love the stylized stone faced depiction of Mermoz, wavy hair flowing behind him.  It contrasts so well with the simplistic sky and ocean in front of him.  It also really shows that while flying made him famous, it was his larger than life personality that made him popular.

It is a bit surprising to me that you’ll notice at the bottom under Louis Cuny you’ll see Robert-Hugues Lambert in large letters.  I wonder if they used a different poster for the premiere.  I’ve seen at least three different posters (all equally beautiful), but all do list Lambert.  One even shows his picture.

To see all three posters, click here: Mermoz posters

Read more about Vichy here:  Deportation from Vichy

To listen to a portion of the ahhhmazing score of Mermoz by Arthur Honeggar, one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, click here:  La traversée des Andes

You may also want to check out the books World Cinema and Cultural Memory by I. Hedges and The Classic French Cinema, 1930-1960 by Colin Crisp.

*Description of poster: A horizontal movie poster.  The top two-thirds of the background is a dark blue sky. A small white plane flies in the distance.  The bottom third is a lighter blue ocean with dark blue waves.  The entire left side is an all white sculptural bust profile of Jean Mermoz covering both the ocean and sky.  His long wavy hair is chiseled as if it is flowing out behind him.

Across the bottom of the poster in large black letters, Mermoz.  In smaller letters, Un Film de Louis Cuny. Below that in smaller letters still, Robert-Hugues Lambert.  Across the top, Les Productions Francaises Cinematographiques, André Tranché.*

*Description of photographs: Two black and white portraits side by side. On the left, Jean Mermoz.  On the right, Robert-Hugues Lambert.  Both men wear a suit and tie and have dark eyes and wavy hair combed back.  Mermoz gives a teethy smile.  Lambert’s smile isn’t as broad, but both men seem to smile with their warm eyes.*

 

 

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