For forty years Fernandel, a.k.a. Fernand Joseph Désiré Contandin (1903–1971), was France’s top comic actor and an enormous and reliable box office draw, starring in over 130 features. When you look at French movie posters as often as I do, you see his caricatured long face and toothy grin
popping up regularly—usually for films I have never heard of. But something about this beautiful grande
for the 1951 comedy Boniface somnabule
a.k.a. The Sleepwalker
caught my eye. Maybe it’s the exquisitely rendered nightscape of Paris or those Paris rooftops which I remember fondly from having myself lived in a chambre de bonne
garret for a year. Maybe it’s the details: that black cat with its arched back, or the tiny crowd of gawkers gathering in the bottom left of the poster, or the tactile folds of Fernandel’s voluminous green pajamas. Or maybe it’s the way his name is rendered in the smoke from the chimney. Painted by Fernand François, whose signature is as sinuously elegant as his star’s name, the poster may be far more memorable than the film itself. A review on the website Films de France
Boniface somnambule is far from being the most memorable of French comedies but it does have one claim to fame - a hilarious scene in which two of France’s legendary comic actors - Louis de Funès and Fernandel - appear in bed together. Alas, this unforgettable (and highly improbable) rencontre takes up less than five minutes of screen time and the rest of the film is the usual poldding Fernandel fare... Director Maurice Labro makes the most of the lacklustre scenario but the distinct dearth of gags and a mostly recycled storyline offer limited scope for creativity. A few limp musical numbers provide a little relief from the heavy pall of ennui that hangs over the film, but apart from the aforementioned clash of comedy titans there’s not a great deal to write home about. It’s an amiable little time waster if you’re a Fernandel fan, otherwise don't bother.
That said, the poster is certainly worth a closer look.
Boniface somnabule was actually a sequel to a 1949 film L’héroïque Monsieur Boniface, which itself has striking posters by two of the great French poster artists Constantin Belinsky and Roger Soubie.
And Fernand François painted at least one other terrific Fernandel poster, for the 1950 film Casimir, a.k.a. Three Feet in a Bed. Again, the appeal lies in the bold color, the details like that feather in Fernandel’s hat, and the composition: that endless staircase and the figure climbing it and the way the title curves around the bottom of the stairs.
I found only a few other posters by François, the best being this below which Heritage Auctions catalogues as being for the 1940 film Narcisse, even though that title is nowhere to be seen.
I assumed from this poster that Rellys was the name of the dog, but in fact Rellys was another long-faced French comic actor, seen here in this 1955 re-release poster for Narcisse, which is credited as “after” François.
Many thanks to Heritage Auctions
where the Sleepwalker
poster recently sold for $167. I wish I’d snapped it up.