Youth and Studies
The Vieux-Colombier Theatre
At the Comédie des Champs-Elysées
The Athénée and the movies
Back in Paris
Biography (part one)
Youth and Studies
Louis Jouvet was born in Crozon, in Finistère, on December 24 1887, in a devoutly catholic family. His father, from Brive, is an engineer, his mother Eugénie is from Ardennes.
When he's two years old, young Louis is sent to live with his grandmother Marie, in Belleville-sur-Bar in Ardennes, until 1894. Louis loved and admired his grandmother, and he'll always remember this period as one of the most happy in his life.
At school, Louis is a quiet, reserved child. His time
is spent working or dreaming. His teacher tries to
make him lose the diction problems that afflict him:
he stammers and has great difficulty pronouncing the
In 1901, tragedy strikes the Jouvet family. Louis's
father is crushed under rocks while he's overseeing
the digging of a tunnel. Now a widow, Eugénie brings
her sons to live with her at her brother's house, in
Rethel. Louis's uncle is a pharmacist, and all his
family is now adamant that he too should make this
his profession. Until then, he's pursuing his
studies at the Notre-Dame College, where
chanoine Morigny is leading the theatre group
with passion and harsh discipline. Very soon, Louis
is neglecting his studies, so preoccupied is he with
his new passion for the theatre, and he decides to
make it his career. But his family is staunchly
opposed to it. To be left in peace, he'll accept to
do as they wish, while still intent on devoting all
his free time to the theatre. After a training
period in Rethel at his uncle's drugstore, he's
finally allowed to leave for Paris in 1904 to study
pharmacy, and pursue his dream...
While sharing his time between training in pharmacy and amateur theatre in the Groupe d'Action d'art, Jouvet can take part in theatrical performances, poetry recitals, but also finds the time to take classes at the Ecole nationale des Arts décoratifs.
Then he meets someone who'll be very important in his growth as an actor, Léon Noël. He approaches him after a performance and enrolls in his acting class, where he'll remain until 1910. Léon Noël is hard on his pupil, but Jouvet loves and respects him. He'll owe him a lot.
While accepting all the acting work he can find, in
Paris and on tour, he also finds the time to look for
romance. He falls in love with his neighbor from
across the street, Else Collin, a young Danish woman.
A friend of Jacques Copeau's, Else often speaks to
him about Louis. Copeau has been thinking of opening
theatre and, after having seen Jouvet perform at the
Théâtre du Château-d'Eau on Else's
recommendation, he tells him about his plans.
A spontaneous friendship develops between these two
men who share the same passion.
World War I
The company makes itself at home, led with harsh discipline by an obsessive Jouvet who's always handing out fines and memos. Unfortunately, the Vieux-Colombier isn't as successful as they had hoped, and very soon Copeau makes changes to the repertory that aren't to the taste of either Jouvet or Charles Dullin (who has rejoined the company in New York in 1918). They think Copeau has changed the mission of their theatre and sacrificed their ideal to economic necessities. Relations between Copeau and Jouvet become difficult, so much so that there are times they don't even speak to each other.
After two difficult years, they come back to France. Dullin is gone, but Jouvet, too indispensable, is still there. The Vieux-Colombier reopens in Paris in 1920. Jouvet's role at this point is even more important, but he can no longer get along with Copeau on artistic issues and wants to leave. That's why he accepts, in 1922, the technical direction of the Comédie des Champs-Elysées, that Jacques Hébertot has offered him.
In 1924, Jouvet is now sole director of his theatre
and is free to run it as he likes. He hires some of
his early fellow actors that have now become
available after the closing of the Vieux-Colombier:
Valentine Tessier, Romain Bouquet...
Louis Jouvet's artistic philosophy for his theatre is
to give the utmost importance to poetry, to the
author's text. He sees the actor only as a medium, an
intermediary, between the two important elements that
are the play itself and the public. The actor's
problems and moods are not taken into account and
don't interest him. He's hard, uncompromising with
his company, but if he yells at them sometimes, it's
'because he takes his work to heart, not for the
pleasure'... Besides, the same goes for him as well,
as Jouvet cares more about the greatness of the
theatre than about his own personal fame.
The talkies are the new rage in movie houses, and Louis Jouvet is often asked by producers to appear in their films, but he always refuses. He hasn't got time. He has too many responsibilities in his theatre.
Marcel Achard's Jean de la Lune is a great success for Jouvet in 1929, despite the tension that opposes Jouvet and his leading man, Michel Simon, whose talent "the boss" doesn't really appreciate. Giraudoux is busy writing his second play, Amphytrion 38. When it finally reaches the stage, it is such a success that the names of Jouvet and Giraudoux soon become famous even outside France.
But if Louis Jouvet's career is at that moment in full swing, all isn't going well in his private life. His mother is dying, and this greatly affects him. His girlfriend Lisa Duncan (one of Isadora Duncan's Isadorables) leaves him after a long relationship. Jouvet takes it very badly, but the theatre continues to fill his life. And as he continues staging new productions, he dreams of the day when he'll be able to stage a Molière masterpiece. He's obsessed by L'Ecole des femmes and Dom Juan. After staging a new Jules Romains play at the theatre Pigalle, he leaves for a European tour that will take him all the way to Vienna, in 1931.
1932: Jouvet has finally decided to make his first
movie with Marcel Pagnol's Topaze (directed by
Louis Gasnier), and soon after tries his hand at
movie direction himself with a filmed version of
Knock. In Knock, he casts a young
actress in a small role. Her name is Madeleine
Ozeray. They'll remain together for the next ten
years, both on stage and in life. As his last play
at the Comédie des Champs-Elysées, Jouvet stages
the long-awaited Jean Cocteau play La machine
infernale. Through Cocteau, Jouvet then meets for
the first time
Christian Bérard, known as Bébé, who designs
the sets. This is the start of a lifelong friendship
and collaboration. Bérard becomes Jouvet's favorite
The Athénée (and the
Soon he is offered the direction of the Comédie-Française, but he's not interested. (He'll refuse the same offer three times in his career.) He doesn't want to negotiate, to make concessions to members of the Comédie-Française. Jouvet needs to be absolute master in his theatre. However he accepts to stage two plays there, unfortunately without much success. Sadder still, his work at the Français prevents him from taking the part of Boieldieu, written especially for him, in the movie La grande illusion.
1937: Giraudoux's Electre, L'Impromtu de
Paris, and in 1938, Marcel Achard's Le
Corsaire. Le Corsaire is a huge success
for Jouvet in a dual role, but unfortunately it also
marks the end of the collaboration between Jouvet and
Achard when Jouvet learns from the newspapers that
Achard has already sold the movie rights to a
producer, and that Charles Boyer is to play his role.
Louis Jouvet will never forgive Achard. But other
movie projects come his way: most notably
Entrée des artistes, and Hôtel du Nord
will make him a huge movie star.
The thing that's on Louis Jouvet's mind however at the end of 1938, is finding a set designer for the new Giraudoux play Ondine. Christian Bérard isn't much inspired by the work and Jouvet must look elsewhere. He finds his man, at great expense, in Pavel Tchelitchew. While he's filming La Charrette fantôme, Louis Jouvet, fighting his nerves, awaits the day of opening night, May 4 1939. The play is a huge hit, the house always full and Madeleine Ozeray has a great personal success as Ondine. When summer comes, Jouvet must close the theatre for the holidays. He made a promise to attend the Cannes festival in August where La charrette fantôme will be presented. He'll reopen with a revival of Ondine in September.
But all summer long, the threat of war hangs over France. In September, the country is at war and mobilisation is in effect. When he returns to Paris, Jouvet realizes that almost all the men in his company have been drafted. He will have to keep his theatre closed temporarily. In March 1940, the filming of Volpone that had been interrupted the year before because of a lack of funds, can resume at last. Jouvet has great fun making this film, where he shares the screen with his friends Charles Dullin and Fernand Ledoux. On the first day of shooting, Ondine reopens at the Athénée. However, Parisians aren't in the mood for theatre in this time of war. The box-office receipts are insufficient and Jouvet is forced to end Ondine's run on May 15.
In June, the Germans are in Paris. France has surrendered. Soon, Jouvet is no longer allowed to stage Giraudoux and Romains; the occupying forces want him to stage Heinrich von Kleist instead. In these conditions, Jouvet prefers to keep his theatre closed indefinitely. With Madeleine Ozeray, he spends some time in Aix-en-Provence where they meet Max Ophüls. Soon a project of film takes shape: they'll shoot a screen version of L'Ecole des femmes in Switzerland. But Louis Jouvet is also making other plans and, during a visit in Paris in September 1940, he discusses them with Marcel Karsenty.
The year before, Karsenty had organised the South-American tour of the Comédie-Française. Jouvet had also been invited to perform in South America, but too busy in Paris, he had always turned down the offer. But now, leaving France seems to be the only option. Karsenty accepts to take care of everything.
Louis Jouvet, now also forbidden to teach, gives his
last class at the Conservatoire d'art dramatique on
December 7, 1940. The following month is spent
recruiting actors who'll accompany him. In
theatrical circles, some are very critical of
Jouvet's decision to leave. What chance have they got
if the "boss" runs away. But Jouvet has made up his
mind; he takes care of the interim at the Athénée,
takes dispositions so that his apartments are
maintained during his absence, and gets a
safe-conduct that will allow him to move freely until
the end of March 1941. On January 2, he leaves for
Switzerland, but right from the beginning of filming
L'Ecole des femmes, he becomes aware of the
real relationship between Madeleine and Max Ophüls.
Secretly in love, they've been having an affair for
some time now. Deeply hurt, Jouvet stops the filming.
The project is abandoned and the breakup between
Jouvet and Madeleine Ozeray imminent. Jouvet is
thinking of ways to replace her, both on stage and in
his life, but Madeleine finally decides to stay.
And so, on May 26 1941, Jouvet leaves Lyon with 25 actors, 5 crew members, his secretary, and Marcel Karsenty who'll take care of the organisation (theatres, subscriptions, public relations, rentals, publicity, etc.). Jouvet wants to devote himself only to rehearsing. They also bring with them 34 tons of material (sets, costumes and props) and luggage. On June 6 1941, the whole company sets sail from Lisbon on the Bagé for Rio de Janeiro. They're expected to come back in October...