Pierre Etaix may be the funniest filmmaker you’ve never heard of.
Etaix gained fame in the 1960s when he made two short comedies and five features — the majority co-written by Jean-Claude Carriere (“The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”).
Inspired by Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy and Harold Lloyd, Etaix’s sweet and inventive films were box office hits and award winners, including the Academy Award for live-action short subject for 1962’s “Happy Anniversary,” about an earnest young man trying to get home in time for his anniversary dinner.
But due to legal issues with his producer and distributor, the films were out of circulation for decades. Etaix, though, kept busy working with his wife, Annie Fratellini, as a circus clown. The two even opened the first National Circus School in France. And he’s appeared in small roles in films, including Jerry Lewis’ ill-fated, never-released “The Day the Clown Cried” and in Aki Kaurismaki’s current comedy, “Le Havre.”
With his legal woes finally resolved, his films have been restored. Now the world is being reintroduced to his comedic vision. After a triumphant tribute to the filmmaker at the Telluride Film Festival in September, Etaix, 82 and now widowed, is appearing Wednesday at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater. “Pierre Etaix: The Laughter Returns” will be hosted by Leonard Maltin and actress Genevieve Bujold, who appeared with Etaix in 1967’s “The Thief of Paris.”
Screening are “Happy Anniversary” and Etaix’s first color film, the delightful 1969 romantic comedy “Le Grand Amour,” in which he plays a married man who finds himself falling in love with his pretty new secretary.
Speaking through an interpreter over the phone from Paris, the charming Etaix admitted that “at first I was worried that my films — they are now 40 years old — would not find any interest from the public. But having seen the success they have found since they have come back out in the public has made me very happy and content.”
Etaix, born in Roanne, France, fell in love with the films of the great silent comedians as a kid. “I loved the fact that all of these artists were coming from musical halls and Vaudeville and the circus,” he explained. “Their comedy was derived from these sources.”
And he followed in their footsteps as a young man, clowning around in the circus and in musical halls. “At that time in my early career, I was not thinking about making movies.”
But that all changed in 1954, when he met the Oscar-winning French comedic genius, Jacques Tati (“Mr. Hulot’s Holiday”), who relied more on visual humor and sound effects than dialogue.
“Tati looked at my drawings and thought they had a lot of the humor and observational skills and I was really good at writing gags,” related Etaix. “So he asked me to help to prepare ‘Mon Oncle.’ That is how I entered the world of cinema. Not having any idea of cinematic language before then, I learned everything from Tati.”
The legal issues that surround the films’ disappearance for years was difficult for Etaix.
“When I made the films, I was working with a producer who wanted to keep the rights for 10 years,” he said. After the failure of his 1971 film, “Milk and Honey,” which was pulled from the theaters after less than two weeks, the producer told him that “my type of films were not in fashion. They were not sellable. There were no buyers for my films. There was another producer that had approached me to buy the rights to the films, but that same producer refused, so it became a case of litigation.”
During the prolonged litigation, the producer died and his widow sold the negatives to another production company. Eventually, the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage and Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema stepped in to restore the films and get Etaix the legal rights.
Etaix said he never truly abandoned filmmaking. “I was working on three screenplays" in the 1970s, he said. “Because of the flop of the last film, none of the producers I showed the new screenplays to wanted to finance my films. After many years of rejection, I opened the school of circus.”
For information on the program, go to www.oscars.org.
— Susan King
Photo: Pierre Etaix, center, in "Le Grand Amour." Photo credit: Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage and Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema.