This Day in Jewish History

2007: The World's Greatest Mime, Who Saved Jewish Children in WWII, Passes On

Marcel Marceau had extraordinary skills of pantomime – which he employed in the French Resistance while shepherding children over the mountains to safety.

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On September 22, 2007, Marcel Marceau, probably the greatest pantomime artist of all time – certainly the best known – died, at age 84.

He was born Marcel Mangel on March 22, 1923, in Strasbourg, near the French border with Germany. His father, Charles Mangel, was a kosher butcher and amateur singer. His mother was the former Ann Werzberg.

When he was seven, Marcel’s father took him to see Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights.” The silent-film era was coming to an end, but for the young boy, Chaplin’s performance was a beginning: He was captivated by the expressiveness of the master’s face and movements, and when he emerged from the darkness of the theater, he began to teach himself how to imitate Chaplin’s waddle.

After the start of World War II, the family had to flee the border city, and moved to Limoges, in the country’s center.

Death in Auschwitz and mad courage

In 1944, Charles Mangel was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where he died. Ann survived. Marcel and his brother, Alain, both joined the French Resistance, and assumed false identities, taking on the surname “Marceau,” in tribute to the Francois Severin Marceau-Desgraviers, a general for anti-monarchist forces during France’s Revolutionary Wars.

One of his tasks was to lead Jewish children across the Alps into Switzerland, or south, into Spain, to avoid arrest by the Germans. He later said that he used his pantomime skills to keep the children silent during the most dangerous moments.

In a tribute to Marceau in the Paris Review last year, Mave Fellowes recounted how, late in the war, near Limoges, a lone Marceau encountered a unit of more than 30 Germans. On the spot, he presented himself as an advance scout of a larger French regiment, and ordered the Germans to surrender their weapons. To a man, they did.

After liberation, in 1944, Marceau joined the French army, and served as a liaison to Allied troops. The next year, he gave his first public pantomime performance before an audience of some 3,000 American troops.

Enter Bip

Following the war, Marceau began studying dramatic arts at the Sarah Bernhardt Theater, in Paris, where his teacher was Etienne Decroux, the pioneer of “corporeal mime,” an almost scientific method of physical theater. Marceau was a more literal artist: Whereas Decroux thought in terms of archetypes, Marceau wanted to create character.

In 1947, he created the character that remained with his trademark until the end of his days, a harlequin-like figure he called “Bip.”

Bip, wearing a floppy high hat, topped by a flower, and a striped pullover shirt, became Marceau’s alter ego. In “Youth, Maturity, Old Age and Death,” he represented the four ages of man in four minutes, and in “Creation,” he evoked the founding tale of humanity, through to the expulsion from Eden.

After a brief, successful period in the company of famed mime Jean-Louis Barrault, Marceau established his own troupe, in 1949. In 1955, he headed off for his first North American tour. In New York, his show was such a hit that it was moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway's Ethel Barrymore Theater.

Reviewing it in the New York Herald Tribune, Walter Kerr wrote that Marceau “should be snared with one of his own imaginary butterfly nets and trapped inside the proscenium of an American theater for the entire season, and perhaps for the rest of his natural life.”

His on-screen appearances included a bit part in "Barbarella," starring Jane Fonda, his first speaking role, and a tiny role, as himself, in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie,” where, when asked if he will appear in the film being made within the film, he responds with the single word, “non” – the film’s only spoken dialogue.

One paradox of Marceau’s career is that this quintessentially French performer was always more appreciated abroad than at home, where audiences didn’t respond to him with the same enthusiasm.

Marceau, who was married three times, and had four children, continued performing internationally, in up to 200 shows a year, until 2005, when he retired to a farmhouse in Cahors, in France's Lot region. It was at a racetrack in Cahors that he died, on this day in 2007.