"The King of popular comedy is dead," proclaimed Le Figaro after Gerard Oury, one of France's most successful directors (if not its most successful) died on Thursday, July 20, at his home in St. Tropez.
I know Oury's work because as a teenager I went with my mother to New York's 68th Street Playhouse, an art house, to see a film called "The Mad Adventures of Rabbi Jacob." A French comedy about a rabbi? Seemed like a contradiction in terms.
The 1973 film is about a rich French racist, played by Luis de Funes, who on the way to attend his daughter's wedding becomes unwittingly involved in a plot to murder an Arab leader and must disguise both himself and the leader as Chasidic rabbis in order to escape. It makes fun of Arab-Jewish relations, anti-Semitism, French snobbery and racism, treating such serious subjects with a light touch. Personally, what I recall is falling out of my chair laughing.
Born Max Gerard Houry Tannenbaum in Paris in 1919, Oury's father was a classical violinist and his mother a journalist for Paris Soir. He began his career as an actor and was accepted as member of the Comedie Francaise, but fled Vichy France during the German occupation, spending the war years in Switzerland.
Returning to Paris in 1945, he resumed his career as a stage and film actor. He also worked as a screenwriter, receiving a credit on the original "The Mirror Has Two Faces," which would be remade by Barbra Streisand in 1996.
In 1962, Oury turned to directing and made a series of thrillers, most notably "Le Crime ne Paie Pas" ("Crime Doesn't Pay"), which features the actress Michele Morgan, who would become his life partner, and Louis de Funes, who would become a longtime onscreen collaborator.
It was de Funes who suggested that Oury try his hand at comedy, which he did to great success.
Oury's 1966 comedy "La Grande Vadrouille," which starred de Funes and Terry Thomas, was released in America as "Don't Look Now, We're Being Shot At." Thomas starred as a World War II bombardier shot down over Paris who escapes to the South of France with the help of two bumbling French civilians. Call it a "Resistance comedy." According to Variety, it sold 17 million tickets in France, a record that remained unchallenged until 1998 when it was surpassed by "Titanic."
Oury's other films included "Le Cerveau" ("The Brain"), "L'as des As" ("Ace of Aces") both with Jean-Louis Belmondo, and "La Folie des Grandeurs" ("Delusions of Grandeur") with Yves Montand and Luis de Funes. As reported in Variety, "Oury's six most successful pictures totaled over 50 million tickets in theaters."
Oury directed his last film, "Le Schpountz" in 1999, a remake. His daughter, Danielle Thompson, who co-authored many of his most famous screenplays (including "Rabbi Jacob"), is a successful director and screenwriter in her own right, most famous in America for her screenplay for "Cousin, Cousine." Oury is remembered for his conviction that no subject was taboo for comedy. But more than that, he believed that in making fun of serious subjects, we could come to understand them, and each other, better.
Watching "Rabbi Jacob" again several years ago, I didn't find it funny anymore. More benign and shtick-filled than I recalled, I found it overburdened by de Funes' mugging and over-acting (exactly the things that made me laugh as a teenager). But watching it last night, I was surprised by the attention and affection Oury lavished on Jewish life and ritual in the film.
The notion that Jews and Arabs should acknowledge each other as cousins -- albeit distant ones -- with respect, and that France's future lay in embracing Jews and Muslims is all the more remarkable given that the film appeared in 1973, after Munich, and at the time of the Yom Kippur war.
The conceit of "Rabbi Jacob," that an anti-Semite and an Arab would respect Jews by living among them (and would want to live in peace with them afterward) was strikingly original and comic at the time. Today, this notion of living in someone else's shoes, so to speak, is the basis for several reality programs, from "Wife Swap" to Morgan Spurlock's "30 Days" (in whose first episode a Minuteman lives among a family of illegal Mexican immigrants), to an Israeli version of "Wife Swap" in which an Arab-Israeli and Israeli right-winger trade homes.
Watching "Rabbi Jacob" last night, I didn't feel like I was watching a comedy. Given the recent news, I felt like I was watching a long ago dream -- of a time when anti-Semites were funny vaudeville characters, Jews just wanted to be understood for the warm and fuzzy people they were and Arab leaders were just a handshake away from living in peace with their Jewish neighbors.
For that reason alone, I mourn the loss of Gerard Oury.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.