Extraordinary French film director Jean Renoir found the inspiration for one of his seminal early talkies, 1932's "Boudu Saved From Drowning," from an unlikely source -- the family pooch.
"Boudu," which Paul Mazursky remade in 1986 as "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," revolves around an anarchic Parisian hobo who takes a suicidal leap into the Seine River but is saved by a well-heeled Parisian bookseller. The family takes in Boudu (played by one of Renoir's favorite actors, Michel Simon) only to have the bohemian totally play havoc with their lives.
"Boudu" was adapted from a play, but according to Renoir's good friend, actor-director Norman Lloyd, the filmmaker based the shaggy dog of a character literally on his own dog.
"I wish I could remember the dog's name," Lloyd says, laughing.
As Renoir told Lloyd, his dog would disappear from the house every day. Inevitably, Renoir would receive a call from the local pound saying his dog was in the shelter.
Renoir discovered that next to the pound was a butcher shop where workers would throw scraps of beef to the dogs in the afternoon. Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Renoir's pooch made sure he found his way to the pound in time to get the food.
Renoir was so taken with his dog's wiliness that he infused the character of Boudu with his dog's street smarts and guile.
"Boudu" is one of the highlights of the
retrospective at the
, which begins Friday. ("Boudu" screens April 9.) The Renoir retrospective is being done in conjunction with the museum's exhibition on his father, painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir's later work.
The 95-year-old Lloyd will be appearing at the retrospective March 20 to introduce the 1945 American film Renoir directed, "The Southerner"; the Frenchman earned an Oscar nomination for best director for the film. Lloyd and Renoir became close friends until the director's death in 1979 at age 84.
Leslie Caron was also a great friend of Renoir's who worked with him on stage and in film. "His thing was conversation, communication, making friends," she recalls. "He just could go on talking and be interested in people and politics and philosophy. He could go on without ever being tired. He was remarkable."
The war in Europe caused Renoir to flee to the U.S. in 1940. "Jean made it to this country with the help of filmmaker Robert Flaherty," Lloyd says.
Though he returned to his homeland to make movies in the 1950s and '60s, when he became a champion of the French New Wave, Renoir was a naturalized American citizen who lived in Beverly Hills. Renoir became interested in cinema while recuperating from a stray bullet injury in his leg during World War I. "Jean had a permanent limp from World War I," Lloyd says.
In fact, Jean Gabin, another one of his favorite collaborators, wears Renoir's uniform in his landmark 1937 World War I drama, "Grand Illusion," the first foreign language film to be nominated for a best film Oscar. "The script is literature -- it's not a picture script," Lloyd says.
Renoir raised money for his early features by selling his father's paintings. His wife, Catherine Hessling, who had been one of his father's models, starred in several of these films, including 1925's "La Fille De L'Eau," "Nana" and 1928's "The Little Match Girl." Acting was not one of her strong points.
After he divorced Hessling and sound arrived, Renoir scored a success with his first talkie, 1931's "La Chienne," which screens March 27 with his 1936 epic on the French Revolution, "La Marseillaise."
"Some of his silent films show a lot of experimentation," says Leo Braudy, Leo S. Bing chair in English and American literature and professor of English at USC and author of "Jean Renoir: The World of His Films."
"But he had this rap by the end of the silent period that he was too expensive, that he spent too much money."
With "La Chienne," Braudy says, "he had to prove he could do it cheaply and deal with sound. There's a kind of grittiness that comes in as well in the talkies. There is discovery of a sense of environment too. He was interested much more in theatricality in the silent films. His sense of the complexity of human nature becomes more acute with sound."
Braudy explains that there are two basic kinds of films -- open and closed.
"Closed films are like paintings in which all the information about what was going on was in front of you," Braudy notes. "Open films are like windows that had reality around them as well as within them."
Renoir, he says, was an open filmmaker. "That's one of the appeals about Renoir -- there is some kind of a sense of community that you feel with the people in the film," Braudy says. "There is compassion even for the villains."