Tuesday 28 June 1994
IF EVER there was a disadvantaged child who made good, it was the singer and writer Mouloudji, the son of an illiterate Communist mason and a Breton cleaning woman who went mad and had to be interned.
He was born Marcel Mouloudji in Paris in 1922. His father, Said Mouloudji, left him to roam the streets of Belleville, a vibrant working-class district of the city where he learnt more than he ever did at school, from which he was often absent. The boy scraped a living selling stolen fruit and vegetables as well as militant left-wing journals. He belonged to the 'Red Falcons' Communist youth group, where he and his brother Andre entertained with songs and sketches, and with anti-Fascist, anti-military ballads.
Mouloudji's first bit of good luck came when he was taken on as a mime by the celebrated actor Jean-Louis Barrault, a role that made him the mascot of Left Bank intellectuals like Jacques Prevert, Robert Desnos and Jean-Paul Sartre. Later, Mouloudji (who came to be known by his surname alone) wrote two volumes of autobiography recording the adventures of those early days, Le Petit invite (1989) and La Fleur de l'age (1991), that mingle wry humour and nostalgia. Marcel Carne also gave him a helping hand by casting him as a street singer in his first film, Jenny (1936). It was to be the first of many film parts, first as a child, then as an adult, notably in Andre Cayatte's Nous sommes tous des assassins (1952), a strong polemic against the death penalty.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, Mouloudji became one of the leading lights of Parisian literary and theatrical life, and was a regular at the table of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at the Cafe Flore and at other Saint-Germain rendezvous like La Rose Rouge, Le Tabou and the Hotel Louisiana in the Rue de Seine where Greco, Sartre and the Egyptian writer Albert Cossery occupied small, cheap rooms: Mouloudji lived there for a while with his friend Lola-la-Brune. The hotel still exists, and Cossery still resides in his old room, a museum of literary souvenirs.
With the encouragement of his intellectual friends, Mouloudji wrote his first novel, Enrico (1943), which was more like a memoir of his childhood and youth. It is a work that deeply impressed Albert Camus and Jaques Prevert, and it won the newly launched addition to France's host of literary prizes, the Prix de la Pleiade. With Prevert, Raymond Queneau and Jean Genet, Mouloudji contributed to a new review, La Rue, and began writing songs as well as singing numbers written for him by Prevert, Boris Vian and Kosma; 'Le Mal de Paris', 'Mefiez-vous fillettes' and - at Le Boeuf sur le Toit, where he had been invited to perform by Cocteau - 'Papillon de Norvege'. He had another film success in Henri Decoin's Les Inconnus dans la maison (1942) with a script by Henri- Georges Clouzot in which Mouloudji, tall, raven-curled, angelic of countenance, played an assassin.
Perhaps it was his native street-wise upbringing that allowed Mouloudji to escape the clutches of the Nazi occupiers and to avoid conscription into the French forced-labour contingents in Germany and Poland. With the Liberation, he really began to blossom as a composer, singer, author and painter. His name can be found mentioned, often with deep affection and admiration, in the memoirs of the period. He keeps coming and going all through Philippe Boggio's excellent biography Boris Vian and in Juliette Greco's autobiography Jujube.
Jacques Canetti engaged him for a popular Montmartre music-hall, Les Trois Baudets, where he sang in the same programmes as Vian. Through Canetti and Vian (who became assistant artistic director of Philips) he started recording for that firm, both his own songs and those of others, and thus had his first great recording success with the sprightly little ditty 'Comme un p'tit coquelicot' and the anti-war song by Boris Vian 'Le Deserteur' (1956). The former won the first of his Grands Prix du Disque in 1955. But Vian's lyrics, in the middle of the Algerian conflict, caused trouble with the censors, even though Mouloudji persuaded Vian to tone down the virulent anti-militarism of the song for his debut at the Olympia. Even so, the song was banned as disruptive to national security and morale, and the recording was removed from the shops, forbidden on the radio. It was a terrible blow to Mouloudji's career. He took to writing novels, all of them slight, entertaining, yet with something more profound - a childlike wonder and simplicity of a quality rarely found in French writers of the period. He also started painting, a hobby that was to bring him few financial rewards but acted as a consolation to the very end of his life.
Paradoxically, it was another Vian song that brought Mouloudji back to the front of Parisian artistic life, another anti-Establishment song that Vian had written in 1952 but that did not achieve success until Mouloudji's 1971 recording: the title 'Allons z'enfants' is a sly dig at the first words of the French national anthem. Mouloudji received the Prix Charles- Cros in 1974 as a tribute to his recordings, and a second Grand Prix du Disque in 1977. Among his last popular songs were a series of haunting 'complaints' - in the medieval French sense of a mournful ditty about heartbreak or loneliness - 'La Complainte de la Butte', 'La Complainte de Mackie', 'La Complainte des infideles'. He also brought out more ferociously satirical numbers like 'Comme le dit ma concierge', 'J'ai mes papiers' and the bitter-sweet 'Autoportrait'.
Mouloudji also wrote plays, and acted in them, as well as in the plays of others, most notably Marcel Ayme's La Tete d'un homme and Erskine Caldwell's La Route du tabac. His one-man show packed the Theatre de la Renaissance in the 1980s.
Marcel Mouloudji started as a street urchin and a street singer, and his long career always reflected those early beginnings. He was a real Paris sparrow, light and quick, agile, graceful and symbolic of a certain romanticism of the working-class city streets, with a style that was very pure, direct and heartfelt. A male Piaf.
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