The British National Archives (1) are a goldmine for researchers, particularly for those interested in the works of Alfred Hitchcock. In addition to their extremely friendly and efficient staff, the reference material is easily accessible, even for foreign visitors.
Sure enough, the reference number INF 6/2470 brings up a large amount of unreleased information, right from page 1. In fact, these initial paragraphs begin to throw new light on Hitchcock’s propaganda short, Aventure Malgache (1944), in terms of its cast members and, especially, on the true – and surprising – story behind its screenplay.
Judge for yourself:
From Mr. B.
To Mr. H. (2)
I should be glad of your advice on the request via the F.O. [British Foreign Office] for a Monsieur Clermont to borrow a 35mm print of Adventure Malgache (Madagascar Adventure).
We have a print (French version), but I am not sure if we should release it.
Mons. Jules François Clermont was a French lawyer who practised in Madagascar, was imprisoned by supporters of the Vichy government, escaped and worked for the British through “Madagascar Libre” broadcasts from Mauritius. Later, he came to London with Paul Bonifas’ Moliere Theatre.
Clermont was offered £50 for full rights in the story and for his collaboration with a third party (3) in turning the story into a script. Crown’s copyright appears to have been restricted to the use of the story as the basis of a propaganda short film in French and other languages “without restriction either as to the manner in which the film is to be exploited or the territories in which it is to be distributed”. M.O.I. [British Ministry of Information] were to have the right of commercial exploitation.
International Contracts Ltd. (a subsidiary of Associated British Picture Corporation Ltd. of Welwyn), under a contract negotiated by Mr. Sydney [sic] Bernstein, undertook to make the film for a fixed price of £5,000. (4) Alfred Hitchcock was director.
From the very beginning the idea failed to win the support of French Section and representatives of the French Resistance here in London, but the film was completed. When it was shown to the film officer and his staff in Paris, however, he advised against its release and the project was abandoned.
In the light of this, do you think we could be justified in lending our print to Clermont?
28th February, 1957
[Followed by a hand-written note:]
This obstacle not only to the commercial distribution of Aventure Malgache (aka Madagascar Landing) but also to its screening at film festivals (such as Oberhausen, Brussels and London) officially applied until 3 September 1993, when the film was presented in a public screening at the Everyman Cinema, Hollybush Vale, Hampstead, under the auspices of the British Film Institute.
The US Copyright Office registered the film mid-1993 under the reference number PA 712 254 and, on 2 May 1995, it was submitted for the first time to the British Board of Film Censors (Ref. AVV114198) by Connoisseur Video (in reality, the BFI) with a view to releasing it on VHS. This coincided with the release of another Hitchcock short, Bon Voyage (5 April 1995).
It is interesting to note that Aventure Malgache was never submitted to the French “Commission de Contrôle” (which later became the “Commission de Classification”) for registration as a cinematic work intended for public release. This was not the case for Bon Voyage, which was registered on 6 November 1945 (Ref. 1623), despite the fact that its distributor had scheduled its theatrical release for 5 October that year in Strasbourg, France.
Video release in France does not require such procedures. In principle, no particular authorization is necessary, although a work can be withdrawn after release if the rating category chosen by the video publisher is found to be incorrect.
So what can explain such a relentless campaign against a short film, even if Aventure Malgache obviously had the potential to ignite tensions between the Gaullists and the British authorities due to its portrayal of French Resistance fighters directed by an Englishman? In any case, the Foreign Office was clearly involved in the issue throughout this period.
Bon Voyage suffered a similar fate, banished to a state of purgatory for over almost fifty years, although apparently not for the same reasons. The classic explanation offered by officials at the MOI, and later by the Central Office of Information, is exemplified by this document from 7 October 1963:
To Mr. W.
This is the title of a Hitchcock film in our Copyright made towards the end of the war. It was recently requested by the Belgian Film Archive (5) for a Hitchcock season.
Because of its subject matter, I viewed the film with Miss C. of Foreign Office and we were both doubtful of the wisdom of releasing it because of the potentially libellous material it contains. It was then seen by Mr. O., Assistant Head of Western Department, F.O., who agreed with our view and is referring the matter to Foreign Office Legal Adviser for a ruling.
I attach a potted history of this film: all files on it have unfortunately been destroyed.
B.F.I. hold the preservation print of the film and have been told not to release it pending further instructions. A 16mm copy has been made for C.O.I. use and is in our vaults.
Here is another example of political “waffle” from the 1970s:
I have had a long talk to Barbara R. at the European desk. Her advice is to stick to the line that we cannot give permission for a screening of Aventure Malgache. She feels that the risks involved in allowing defamatory material to issue (particularly in the context of French susceptibilities) […]
This extremely rigid attitude thus remained unshaken, and in August 1979 prevented the screening of this short at a retrospective of Alfred Hitchcock films in London, organized by David Meeker under the aegis of the BFI and the National Film Theatre.
Initially authorized to show the print of Aventure Malgache held at the BFI at a screening planned for 22 August, Meeker was later informed that this was no longer possible, for the reasons cited above. Despite attempted scare tactics (such as threatening media exposure) and other arguments, nothing could influence the decision of the officials concerned.
This is how Meeker, former head of the NFT, described the experience to me:
Thank you for your enquiry about Aventure Malgache.
Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s a major (and by far the most interesting) part of my work at the B.F.I. was to supply the National Film Theatre with the 2,000 or so films that it required each year. That is, locating acceptable copies, tracking down copyright claimants and negotiating accordingly for our screenings. Several times during that period we wanted to screen this short as part of one of our programmes but permission from the copyright holder was always refused. The various UK Government authorities set up before and during World War II to produce propaganda were all merged into one entity called the Central Office of Information (C.O.I.) and this organisation still exists today to take care of the many thousands of films in its care and still produces all our Government-sponsored material for cinemas, television and, particularly, for overseas promotions. Back in the days when I was in contact with them they were an extremely bureaucratic office and, I always suspected, simply repeated their standard mantra to all enquiries about the film ad nauseam without ever taking the trouble to pass such enquiries up to their superiors. When pressed, they always argued that the film contained “operational secrets” that must be protected for the security of the country. This was plainly nonsense but I could never get them to re-examine someone’s original decision even 20 or 30 years after the war. Once I considered writing to our Foreign Minister or even to the Prime Minister about it in the hope that he would instruct a minister to look into the matter but for some reason I never did that.
Obviously, all those reactionary bureaucrats at the C.O.I. have long since departed and someone (probably a younger cine-literate person) eventually took the trouble to refer to the original production contracts or to simply ask his superiors to review the situation which by the 1990s had obviously become scandalously absurd. The film then became generally available for screenings, video, etc. I recall taking a print to Berlin as part of a talk that I was asked to give to film students as they’d never had a chance to see it before.
Incidentally, the B.F.I., being a charitable organisation, free of censorship and strictly non-commercial (in those days) and with a strong educational leaning, it was very rare indeed for anyone to refuse us permission to screen their work – unless for strictly commercial reasons. For example, we never had the slightest problems in screening Nazi material that was totally banned elsewhere. This one short film was virtually unique in that way.
Moving on from events linked to the film’s destiny, we find that the National Archives file on Aventure Malgache reveals the names of two people who prove to be of fundamental importance: Paul Bonifas and Jules François Clermont.
Let us begin with Paul Bonifas. (6)
Internet research (such as on IMDb) on the career of this excellent French actor (1902-1975) leads inevitably to a film in which he performed in 1963, and which provides a connection with Alfred Hitchcock via the film Charade, directed by Stanley Donen. Think back to the stamp dealer in this film …
Now, take a close look at the face of the Michel character in Aventure Malgache, the former Madagascar chief of police (and, especially, listen to his voice). It’s the same man all right!
Having established this, and after numerous hours on the telephone and the internet – and with a little luck thrown in – I was able to contact one of Bonifas’ children, Henri Dominique, who allowed me to consult his family archives. Among these records was this handwritten document, a kind of curriculum vitae listing the film roles played by the actor in England during World War II. It was written in English, as Paul Bonifas was bilingual.
The Bonifas family records also include three production stills from Aventure Malgache (the first of these has been previously published, while the other two have never been published).
There were many other equally fascinating documents, making it possible at a later stage to put names to faces in the lead cast of Aventure Malgache. As shown in the opening credits of the film, the troupe of French actors is credited collectively as “The Molière Players”, a decision made for security reasons. Paul Bonifas, also a member of the Free French Forces, was the founder of the Théâtre Molière in Britain in the early 1940s.
The Théâtre Molière troupe staged a repertoire of mainly Molière works in London theatres (see below), as well as in regional towns and at French army barracks.
One could imagine that Alfred Hitchcock may have attended one of these performances, perhaps familiarizing himself with the talents of certain actors that he would later sign up to play in Aventure Malgache.
Paul Bonifas ………………………………… Michel
Paul Clarus …………………………………… Himself
Paulette Preney …………………………… Yvonne
André Frère ………………………………… Pierre
Jean Dattas (aka Jean Sylclair) …… The man behind Michel (reading telegrams)
Some of these actors went on to pursue careers in theatre, radio and so on (we will speak about Paul Clarus a little later). Such was the case for Paulette Preney (1917-1993), who is pictured below accompanied by an actor who plays a major role in Hitchcock’s Murder (1930).
Paulette Preney also acted alongside Paul Bonifas in another propaganda short film, directed by Anthony Asquith the following month (March 1944), entitled Two Fathers.
Paulette Preney was married to Jean Dattas (1919-1975), whose career as an organist led him to perform at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. One of their children, Gilles Dattas, worked in the British television industry prior to following a career in painting and drawing in France.
André Frère (1908-1996) continued a high profile career in the theatre in France, Belgium and the USA.
Finally, a Canadian actor by the name of Guy Le Feuvre (1883-1950) undoubtedly plays the role of the “General” (in the scene showing ex-servicemen offering their help at the beginning of the film). Here is a photo of him from a 1943 edition of The Spotlight.
As a matter of interest, this actor also performed in a musical entitled Arlette, staged at London’s Shaftsbury Theatre in 1917, in which he was credited as composer along with … Ivor Novello. (7)
All this information shows us that, contrary to what one might understand from the prologue, the film’s cast is not strictly speaking entirely composed of members of the armed forces. The great majority were, in fact, stage actors rather than film actors.
The story of Paul Clarus deserves a detailed mention here, since he provided the inspiration for the screenplay of Aventure Malgache.
Paul Clarus’ real name was Jules François Clermont, as confirmed by this letter, which also serves as an excellent résumé of his career:
27th March, 1944
Reference No. 1610
To Mr. R.
I was extremely pleased to have the opportunity of meeting you last Friday, and for the little talk we had on matters of mutual interest.
I found out that the name of C.’s film is Aventure Malgache. It is being printed as a short, but will not be exhibited in the U.K. It is intended for France and French speaking countries.
The following is the extract from the Evening Standard about which I spoke: -
Maitre Jules Clermand [sic], Paul Clarus as he is known at the Theatre Moliere here, tells how he was once a “radio station” all on his own.
He was being sent back from Madagascar to Vichy France as a Gaullist prisoner when British warships raided the convoy. (8) He was freed, taken on board a destroyer, and broadcast from the ship in the Indian Ocean as “Madagascar Freedom Radio”.
M. Clermand [sic] was a lawyer in Madagascar for many years. His start in life was on the stage, then a legal appointment took him to Madagascar. Now in his early fifties he has gone back to his first love.
When you return will you give me my kind regards to T., and meanwhile with very best wishes for a safe journey and a pleasant tour.
The Ministry of Information,
Jules François Clermont was born in Algeria in 1895, and appears in the British Secret Services files in Section S.O.2 (S.O. for Special Operations) under the code name DZ 91. The origin of his stage name Paul Clarus may be a reference to the French city of Clermont-Ferrand, since “clermont” is derived from the latin “mons clarus” (“cler” relating to the word “clair,” meaning “light”).
Clermont is mentioned as “Clarousse” in a number of English-language publications (although not exclusively, as seen in Jane Sloan’s book on the works of Hitchcock), which is simply a phonetic spelling of “Clarus”. This can be explained by the unfamiliarity of the French (or German) “u” sound to English-speakers. Nevertheless, a 1942 report described him as follows:
2nd February, 1942
The new one-man post (Madagascar Libre) averaged 45 minutes each night. Mr. Clermont is extremely versatile: he speaks in French, Malgache and the trade Creole patois used by Indian and Chinese merchants in Madagascar. His personality is powerful and somewhat disreputable. He never minces words and both his idioms and his anecdotes are frequently vulgar without being coarse. He exalts in his freedom to listen to world radios and to comment freely on the news they give. He is robustly confident in an Allied victory.
This voice has aroused intense interest and amusement among listeners in Mauritius who consider his performance to be witty and admirably suited to the mentality of the average French Functionnaire [sic] or merchant in Madagascar.
Just before the second Madagascar operation, the station was closed down for reasons of security and for the same reason our Mission pressed us to allow them to send him to the U.K. as they did not want him in Mauritius or South Africa during the operation. We agreed that he should come with the idea that he should be transferred to P.W.E. [Political Warfare Executive] for work with their new Propaganda Mission in West Africa which was then being organised.
M. Clermont’s arrival coincided with the North African operation, and P.W.E.’s plans for subversive propaganda had to be changed.
Since the end of October, Clermont’s services have been offered to P.W.E., O.S.S., O.W.I., J. and H.
Sections and to A.M.V., but none of them have been able to offer him employment.
While he has been in London he has done a little work for the London Transcription Service and the B.B.C. and also briefed General Legentilhomme (9) and various other officials at Fighting French Headquarters on conditions in Madagascar.
Relations between Clermont and Free France were evidently not at their best, as illustrated by another report:
16th March, 1943
Clermont tells me he has been trying to discover why the Fighting French refused to employ him and from a friend who works at the Fighting French headquarters he has come to the following conclusions:
(a) Because of his Broadcasts from “Madagascar Libre”, where his line was – “do not join the British, do not join the Americans, do not join de Gaulle – remain French and independent – denounce Vichy and the Axis and rally to the United Nations”. Therefore the Fighting French argue his broadcast were anti-Gaullist.
(b) Some of de Gaulle’s influential advisers are strongly against recruiting any Frenchmen who have previously worked for or had close connections with the British.
(c) There is some suspicion that the British authorities might retain an interest in Clermont and use him as an agent inside Fighting French headquarters.
(d) There has apparently been an indication from Madagascar that it would be unwise for Clermont to return there. His very outspoken broadcasts upset too many people who have now “turned their coats” and are working with the Administration, and they would make things very unpleasant for him.
We do not know if Alfred Hitchcock was aware of such information when he met Clermont at Claridge’s Hotel in London one morning soon after his arrival from the United States. We can presume, however, that his friend Sidney Bernstein, who held a high-ranking position at the MOI, had been informed of the adventures of DZ 91. Nonetheless, the last paragraph of the report quoted above brings to mind the final scenes of the film in which the Michel character does indeed “turn his coat”.
Perhaps these details (and others) were included in the screenplay that Clermont presented in person to Hitchcock, in the presence of two other people (whose names and functions remain a mystery) (10) as well as a young Belgian actress, Elma Soiron (11), a member of Bonifas’ troupe and incidentally bilingual. Soiron took the role of interpreter, translating and performing various roles in the story scene by scene.
Arriving in this grand establishment, “with gilt everywhere”, made an unforgettable impression on Soiron. Indeed, after knocking at the door of the room she was directed to, she was greeted by a “small, rather stout man”. She asked this charming character if she could speak to Mr. Hitchcock, whereupon he replied, “But I am Mr Hitchcock!”
After an excellent lunch at Claridge’s restaurant (we know how much Hitchcock appreciated his food), work resumed until the evening, during which time Soiron, as the only woman present, felt obliged to serve tea, which was brought in on a cart.
One question, among others, remains unanswered: how did Angus MacPhail work on this screenplay in French, one which was based directly on the rather complex experiences of Jules François Clermont, a lawyer in Madagascar, amidst a backdrop of Franco-Britannic and internal French conflicts? If such archives exist, it would be interesting to research an explanation for this mystery.
While it is relatively simple to find information such as this relating to Aventure Malgache, the same cannot be said of the short film, Bon Voyage.
This even extends to the film’s musical score, composed by Benjamin Frankel:
There is, however, no trace of a musical score composed for Aventure Malgache.
One could imagine that the same technical crews were involved in both films, although the cast was not the same (with a more British-dominated cast for Bon Voyage?). This could explain the lack of information.
That said, at least one actor features in both films: in the cast of Bon Voyage and as an extra in Aventure Malgache:
Gunther Krampf (Cinematographer)
Manny Yospa (12)
Here is an amusing anecdote regarding Manny Yospa (13), from an interview on 14 March 1995, with Charles Drazin (note a slight error in his recollections when he states that three films were shot by Hitchcock)
YOSPA: Oh yes they – well it was their job I suppose and – they did what he was telling them […] And then another thing we did at Welwyn. They flew Hitchcock over secretly during the war and he made three films in French for the French Resistance. And it was astonishing the way he worked, and everything was – he drew out – like nowadays they have storyboards for commercials…
YOSPA: … and he did the same. And I kept some of those but … [laughs]
DARZIN: So every single scene was mapped out and he knew exactly …
YOSPA: Yes, and he drew the composition, er – and he was very keen on pace. Because I remember he had his stopwatch and there was a sort of conversation between two French people and he timed it and said, “We want it a bit quicker.” Until he got the speed he wanted …
DARZIN: And how did the actors respond to this treatment?
YOSPA: Oh yes they – well it was their job I suppose and – they did what he was telling them.
Needless to say, I have never managed to get hold of these storyboards!
* * *
There are many remaining grey areas surrounding these two short films, not so much in terms of objective analyses of the works themselves (of which there are many “scholarly” reviews which are generally unanimous in their assessments) as in more technical terms – cast, crew, screenwriters and so on.
New discoveries in this area are always possible, if not probable, although the considerable time passed does not make the task any easier.
Special thanks to: Henri Dominique Bonifas, Gilles Dattas, Elma Soiron, Pamela Stirling.
- The National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 4DU, UK. Aventure Malgache: file # INF 6 /2470. Two Fathers: file # INF 6 /392. Paul Clarus: file # HS 9/326/.
- Possibly an internal memo from the British Ministry of Information.
- Could this be Angus MacPhail?
- In around 1944, Anthony Asquith had directed a film entitled Two Fathers upon payment of £50 for expenses, covered by the Crown’s budget. Finance authorized £4,117 direct to the Crown in respect of production. V. S. Pritchett was commissioned to prepare a treatment for £25. The film has never been commercially released.
- Perhaps François Truffaut requested it in preparation for his conversations with Alfred Hitchcock in 1962, considering that he had seen many of Hitchcock’s films at the Bruxelles Cinémathèque.
- Even if his film and television career was extensive (feature films, tele-movies, television series and so on), he was first and foremost a stage actor. He was, of course, a member of the Comédie Française just prior to and immediately following World War II for a period of around two years.
- Templeman Library, University of Kent at Canterbury, UK. http://library.kent.ac.uk/library/special/icons/playbills/playdat2.htm.
- The French ship’s name was Compiègne.
- French Governor of Madagascar appointed by General de Gaulle.
- One might wonder if Colonel Forestier, whom Hitchcock mentions in his interviews with François Truffaut, was present at this meeting. And what was the actual role of Claude Dauphin in the writing of the dialogue, considering that he was at times seen as the “11th hour worker” by long-time members of the Resistance, and since he is often credited as actively involved in this aspect of filmmaking. Our research among members of his family has not shed any light on these questions. Similarly, the French actor Jean Mercure is sometimes mentioned as participating in this film, while no confirmation of this information has been found.
- Elma Soiron (born in 1918) was, however, not part of the cast of Aventure Malgache; neither were Suzie Marquis or Elsie D’Hont (both Belgians), other members of Paul Bonifas’s theatre troupe with whom I managed to make contact.
- “So I started work at Welwyn Film Studios – Warwick Ward was the pseudo-manager, chief of the camera was Ronnie Anscombe, who is quite well known. And he took me under his wing and he taught me everything about cameras. And we were doing feature films there, and in between the feature films we did a lot of war material, instructional films for the forces, propaganda films.” Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union interview of Manny Yospa. The BECTU Oral History Project, University of East Anglia, UK, www.uea.ac.uk/eas/britcin/descriptions.html.