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Chanteuse in the City

Chanteuse in the City: The Realist Singer in French Film

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 273
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  • Book Info
    Chanteuse in the City
    Book Description:

    Long before Edith Piaf sang "La vie en rose," her predecessors took to the stage of the belle epoque music hall, singing of female desire, the treachery of men, the harshness of working-class life, and the rough neighborhoods of Paris. Icon of working-class femininity and the underworld, the realist singer signaled the emergence of new cultural roles for women as well as shifts in the nature of popular entertainment.Chanteuse in the Cityprovides a genealogy of realist performance through analysis of the music hall careers and film roles of Mistinguett, Josephine Baker, Fréhel, and Damia. Above all, Conway offers a fresh interpretation of 1930s French cinema, emphasizing its love affair with popular song and its close connections to the music hall and the café-concert. Conway uncovers an important tradition of female performance in the golden era of French film, usually viewed as a cinema preoccupied with masculinity. She shows how-in films such as Pépé le Moko, Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, and Zouzou-the realist chanteuse addresses female despair at the hopelessness of love. Conway also sheds light on the larger cultural implications of the shift from the intimate café-concert to the spectacular music hall, before the talkies displaced both kinds of live performance altogether.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93857-1
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-26)

    When we think of 1930s French cinema, images of the dilemmas of masculinity are likely to dominate our memories. InLe Jour se lève(Marcel Carné, 1939), Jean Gabin barricades himself in his apartment after murdering a rival; in bothLa Belle Équipe(Julien Duvivier, 1936) andGueule d’amour(Jean Grémillon, 1937), a virile male community is threatened or destroyed by a beautiful woman; inLa Grande Illusion(Jean Renoir, 1937), an aristocratic officer creates a diversion so that two men can escape from a prison camp. Our general sense that this cinema tells stories primarily about men seems confirmed...

  5. 1 Caf’-Conc’: The Rise of the Unruly Woman
    (pp. 27-57)

    Around 1865, the journalist Louis Veuillot went to the Alcazar café-concert, although no doubt apprehensive. He was there to see a performance by Thérésa (Emma Valadon, 1837–1913), a singer who had recently become wildly popular with her bawdy parodies of the sentimental ballad. Setting the stage, he writes of the crowded, smoky room, and of his difficulty in finding unoccupied seats. He is shocked to discover, for the first time, women smoking in a public place. With some misgiving, he describes Thérésa’s entrance:

    SHE was about to appear, [and] a thunderous outbreak of applause announced her entry. I did...

  6. 2 Music Hall Miss
    (pp. 58-83)

    In the thirty years separating the debut of Thérésa from those of Buffet and Guilbert, the café-concert underwent significant change. Several cafésconcerts were renovated and became even larger and more luxurious. By 1890, electricity had replaced gas in the café-concert, modifying the look of the spectacle. Gas lighting had illuminated the performers from below, producing a hardening effect on the artist’s features and limiting the range of useful stage space.¹ Now, electric lighting flooded the stage, allowing the performers a greater liberty of movement and more variety in the miseen-scène.² More important, ever since the 1867 decree authorizing costumes and...

  7. 3 Voices from the Past
    (pp. 84-129)

    As we have seen, the realist singer emerged from a very specific entertainment context—the raucous nineteenth-century café-concert—but persisted in the more sedate and regimented music hall, despite the gradual replacement of the tour de chant by the revue as the mainstay of live performance. The realist singer, we have also seen, was the product of discourses that emerged from two main sources: the writings of male music hall critics, novelists, and poet-flâneurs; and the authorial gestures of the singers themselves, such as the “rag-picking” activities of Eugénie Buffet and Mistinguett and their self-presentation more generally via interviews, autobiographies,...

  8. 4 The Revue Star and the Realist Singer: The Return of the Unruly Woman
    (pp. 130-152)

    Florelle’s star image was unusually flexible in that it could encompass not only the positive, even “resistant” connotations of the realist singer, but the more mainstream constructions of femininity found in the image of the music hall revue star. In this chapter, we shall analyze films featuring the “queen” of the revue with the goals of assessing the ways in which 1930s French cinema represents another major category of female singer and exploring how the cinema of this era addressed one of its competitors, music hall.

    As we saw in chapter 2, the fortunes of the music hall began to...

  9. Figures
    (pp. None)
  10. 5 Violent Spectatorship: Mechanical Reproduction, the Female Voice, and the Imaginary of Intimacy
    (pp. 153-174)

    InL’Atalante(Jean Vigo, 1934), a film now legendary for its aesthetic innovation and its realistic, yet magical images of working-class life, there are two scenes in which the recorded and broadcast human voice functions as a key causal element in the narrative. Juliette, a young bride who sails the canals in a barge with her husband, is irresistibly drawn to Paris when she hears a radio announcer reporting on the latest fashions. Soon thereafter, on an impulse, she steals away from her husband’s barge to explore the city. He sails off, abandoning her, and is subsequently miserable with longing...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 175-184)

    French cinema of the 1930s draws upon a figure dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, in whom a tradition of song meets a very particular construction of femininity: the realist singer. She embodies multiple qualities, some of which appear to contradict one another. She stands for strength and vulnerability, earthy sexuality and melancholy; she is defined by the singularity of her body and the intensity of her emotions; she evokes nostalgia for the past and anxiety with regard to the future; she performs a version of her personal history overlaid with other literary, musical, and cinematic codes. The realist singer...

  12. Appendix: Select Filmography
    (pp. 185-186)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 187-222)
  14. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 223-230)
  15. Index
    (pp. 231-247)
  16. Back Matter
    (pp. 248-248)