Gerard Oury

Actor and blockbuster film-maker

Max Gérard Tannenbaum (Gérard Oury), actor and film-maker: born Paris 29 April 1919; (one daughter); died St Tropez, France 20 July 2006.

Laughter is timeless. The truth of this is often proved when we watch old movies starring great comic actors who at their best can get away with anything, however preposterous or provocative. I realised this when, in 1973, I saw my first Gérard Oury film, Les Aventures de Rabbi Jacob, starring Louis de Funès. The film treats with a light comic touch the themes of racism, anti-Semitism and Arab terrorism. Thirty years on, it seems even more outrageous, still provoking an undercurrent of uneasy laughter.

Oury, a Jew, shot the film at an ominous period, just a year before the Olympic Games massacre in Munich, shortly before a petrol crisis and the Yom Kippur conflict. The film ends with a Parisian Jew of the rue des Rosiers and an Arab militant exchanging a fraternal handshake. De Funès, playing a wealthy company director, lays on the racial humour with what now feels like a dangerously heavy hand. Yet, in 1973 the French audience, enraptured by de Funès' great artistry and the craft of comic timing displayed by Oury, accepted these "jokes". And as late as 2004, there were no reports of adverse reaction from audiences when it was shown again on television. Oury's films were always blockbuster popular successes, repeated on TV year after year.

Max Gérard Tannenbaum was the son of the violinist Serge Tannenbaum and the journalist Marcelle Oury, whose name he adopted in his professional life. He was a pupil of the prestigious Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris, and after attending the René Simon drama school he went on to further study at the Conservatoire national d'art dramatique under the great actress Beatrix Dussane, who in 1939 recommended him to the Comédie-Française. In 1940, he was forced to flee Paris and sought refuge in Switzerland, where he worked in the Compagnie de Genève, playing small parts until he was able to return to France in 1945.

I remember first seeing Oury as an actor playing a small role in Jacques Becker's 1947 melodrama Antoine et Antoinette. Then in 1951 he appeared with Jean Gabin in La Nuit est mon Royaume (The Night is My Kingdom). He came to Britain in 1952 when he acted in Graham Greene's The Heart of the Matter with Trevor Howard. In 1953, he was in Ken Annakin's 1953 film The Sword and the Rose starring Richard Todd, Glynis Johns and James Robertson Justice.

Back in France, Oury appeared in Yves Ciampi's Les Héros sont fatigués (The Heroes are Tired, 1954) with Yves Montand and in Yves Allegret's 1955 La Meilleure Part (The Best Part) with Gérard Philipe. His last role was as an engineer who avenges himself upon an unfaithful wife, played by Jeanne Moreau, in Edouard Molinaro's 1958 film Le Dos au Mur (Evidence in Concrete), based on Frederic Dard's thriller Delivrez-nous de mal ("Deliver Us from Evil"). It was a great turning point in Oury's life.

He had been gaining valuable experience of cinematography techniques during all those years playing mostly supporting roles. But it was as a film director that he found international fame. In 1959, he authored with André Cayatte the screenplay of Le Miroir à Deux Faces, starring Michèle Morgan. It was a success. In 1996, an American version, The Mirror has Two Faces, was made starring Barbra Streisand.

Oury became a fully fledged author-director in 1959 with La Main Chaude (The Itchy Palm), followed in 1960 by La Menace and in 1961 by Le Crime ne Paie pas (The Gentle Art of Murder), before finally getting into his stride in 1964 with Le Corniaud (The Sucker), introducing that immortal pair of comics Louis de Funès and Bourvil.

This was the beginning of a whole series of phenomenal comedy successes that were to make Oury the most popular film-maker in France. His fame began to spread after the huge success of his 1966 comedy-drama La Grande Vadrouille (Don't Look Now, We've Been Shot At) with de Funès and the beloved British comedian Terry-Thomas as one of three British airmen shot down over Paris during the war. It was a great hit in Britain and gained a worldwide audience. Oury's next movie was another runaway success, Le Cerveau (The Brain, 1968) starring Jean-Paul Belmondo, Bourvil, David Niven and Eli Wallach, a comedy thriller about the hold-up and robbery of the Glasgow-London express.

Nineteen seventy-one saw the great success of La Folie des Grandeurs (Delusions of Grandeur) with Yves Montand, a very free adaptation of Victor Hugo's Spanish drama Ruy Blas, a madcap version of the verse tragedy I managed to struggle through at school. But towards the end of the Seventies, Oury's popularity began to decline and by the end of the century he had stopped filming.

James Kirkup

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