The 1938 French film “Le Schpountz,” was released as “Heartbeat” in the USA; however, the English title hardly makes sense since the lead character is referred to as Le Schpountz throughout the film. A Schpountz is a foolish fellow, perhaps a clown or an idiot, and actor Fernandel certainly acts that way for most of the movie. Fernandel plays a grocery clerk named Irénée Fabre, who infiltrates a film crew stopping in his village near Marseilles. Irénée does a performance for the crew, which they find laughable, but as a joke they present him with a fake movie contract. Irénée takes it seriously and reports to the studio in Paris.
Although this very talky movie takes a lot of time getting from scene to scene, it aims to skewer the smug movie types working at the Paris studio — including a pompous ham actor playing Napoleon, a director who may be Russian or Italian (the studio can’t tell), and a studio boss named Meyerboom who bears a striking resemblance to Louis B. Meyer. Irénée’s determination and naivety drive him to succeed, with lots of help from love interest and film editor Françoise, who plays Irénée for a fool several times before deciding to push his value to Meyerboom.
With all the talking, the script for this film must have succeeded several hundred pages. It feels like one of MGM’s talky comedies such as “His Girl Friday,” the 1940 Howard Hawks film starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. Of course, this one came 2 years earlier, but director/writer Marcel Pagnol certainly enjoyed hearing his own words. Pagnol adapted his own novel and probably found it hard to edit out much of it. The director seems to repeat one scene involving Irénée reciting a prop list, but perhaps I miss the irony since the version I saw does not subtitle the scene the second time through.
Fernandel, playing Irénée, has an expressive face but he doesn’t do a lot of physical comedy in this movie. He’s full of rubbery smirks and an occasional funny walk, but he doesn’t stay quiet for very long. He looks funny carrying props around and wearing funny suits. Fernand Charpin, who plays Irénée’s uncle and the owner of the grocery store, provides a lot of argumentative dialogue that seems mean-spirited at the beginning of the film but turns more loving towards the end. Nobody in Irénée’s village knows much about the movie business, but they are all sure he’s been tricked and will fail.