High School Swim Team

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High School Swim Team

Our high school swim team was about to head off to a major competition. I was in grade 12 and seated in the auditorium with a number of my football teammates. This particular school assembly was to serve as a pep rally for the members of swim team. There were over 800 students at this assembly.

The female coach of the team walked up to the microphone. She called to the athletes, and the swimmers came out from behind the curtain. My buddies and I were disappointed that they didn’t come out in their swimsuits; you see, except for one guy, the assembled team was entirely female (and we were 17-year-old boys).

Now the lone fellow on stage was also also a football player. Football season was over; but still, he was one of us and there he was standing amongst a dozen females. We were jealous.

The coach talked about the upcoming meet and about the team in general. She then introduced each member. When the individual names were said, that student would step forward, we would cheer and the coach would state that person’s swimming style.

She was introducing the students from left to right. She finally came to Ed.

Next we have Ed Smith. Ed is a breast-stroker.”

OMG, did she really say that? The whoops began.

Ed, you are the man!”

But does he do any swimming?”

Looks like you have your hands full, Ed.”

The are some things that need to be carefully worded when presenting to a group of trans-pubescent boys.

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An Early Christmas Gift

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An Early Christmas Gift

For the longest time, I never told anyone this story; well, except for two people. I think enough time has passed that I can share it now.

During my time as a principal there was a government grant program that hired people who were on Social Assistance (a provincial program) and gave them enough weeks employment to qualify for Employment Insurance (a federal program). If you were on Employment Insurance (EI), then you also qualified for additional assistance if you went back to school. The intent of the program was to give the unemployed some valuable work experience. The fact that those fortunate enough to be granted such a placement ended up being transferred from the provincial to the federal books would have been a secondary bonus for the province (I wonder if that wasn’t the primary objective). In elementary schools, these workers were employed as assistants in the kindergarten classes.

In most cases, these workers proved to be a valuable part of the team. Imagine being a teacher, alone in a kindergarten class with twenty students. Now imagine having another caring and competent adult in that room whose job it was to assist you with the running of your daily routine; in a word, invaluable.

By my third or fourth year as principal the criteria of the program changed. Either the length of the program was shortened or the amount of time to qualify for EI was lengthened (perhaps it was a combination of the two). Anyway, the workers simply returned to social assistance and, in many cases, awaited the next opportunity to participate.

It was mid December when Christa entered my office. It was at the end of the day. She was on the grant program for the second time and was being shared between two kindergarten classes. She was lamenting the fact that her time was coming to an end.

Mr. Caines, is there any way that my time can be extended by six weeks? If so, I could qualify for EI and, hopefully, get financial assistance to go back to school. I would like to go to college and train to become a teacher’s assistant.”

I told her that I would make some calls and see what I could find out. I would let her know when I had an answer. I figured I already knew the answer but didn’t want to say.

The next day I called and spoke to the person responsible for coordinating the program in our area schools. I was told that there was nothing that could be done to get Christa six additional weeks. I went one step further up the ladder and asked the same question. I was given the same answer. At this point it occured to me that I could simply tell Christa that nothing could be done and that I had done all that I could do. I wasn’t prepared to do that. I then asked the following question.

Somewhere between you and the premier of the province is the person who has the authority to make this this happen. Can you tell me who that person is?”

He gave me a name of an official in the Department of Education. He also said, “Don’t tell him I gave you his name.”

I called and managed to get this person on the phone. I explained the situation and pointed out that here was a worker who wanted to get off welfare and go back to school. I said that if the pot of money from which this program is funded has surplus funds then we had an opportunity to make a real difference in the life of this young woman. I pointed out that the additional six weeks did not have to be spent at our school. Perhaps she could be placed at an area church to work the additional time. This wasn’t about helping our school, it was about helping a person.

The official I spoke to confirmed that he was the one who could make this happen. He also confirmed that there were funds that had yet to be assigned.

I asked, “What do you need from me to make this happen?”

Just leave this with me and I will get back to you within a few days.”

It was just before the Christmas break when he called back. He told me that the money was in place to extend Christa’s work-term; in fact, she would be extended right through to June. She could also stay in our school.

This was great news. Not only were we about to do something wonderful for this woman, it meant that we were going to have two assistants in the kindergarten. The person who was scheduled to replace Christa and, of course, Christa herself. This would see each of the classes having their own assistant. This was a win on so many levels.

I asked Christa to stop in my office at the end of the day. When she did I gave her the news. Needless to say, she was over the moon. She wanted to know who to thank. I told her that the person who went to bat for her wished to remain anonymous but that I would pass her thanks on. Just seeing her reaction was reward enough for me.

Two years later I called the official in Fredericton. I explained that Christa had indeed gone back to college and had became a teacher’s assistant. She now had full-time employment at another school and was getting on with her life.

I hope he felt as good about this as I did.


There is difference between saying, I have done all that I can do, and, I have done all that I am willing to do.

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The Tinsel’s Silver Glow

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The Tinsel’s Silver Glow

Before I returned to university to complete my BEd degree I was employed as a Youth Counsellor at a juvenile detention centre. Essentially, I was a guard. It was a casual, six month position after which I was laid off. That suited me just fine.

It was a few days before Christmas and I was working with the older boys. As I recall, there were 18-20 boys in the dorm. My eight hour shift was spent ensuring that they were following the routines and not fighting with each other.

Hey, Mr. Caines, watch this.”

The fellow who gained my attention was now standing before me and had his hands cupped beneath his nose. We were next to the Christmas tree that had been decorated several days earlier.

I wasn’t sure what he was up to but his actions were accentuated with a combination of coughs, snorts and gags. He certainly had my attention.

He then dropped one of his hands and at this point I could see a strand of tinsel hanging from his right nostril. He then reached into his mouth and, after another series of coughs and gags, pulled the other end of the tinsel out of his mouth. I was dumbfounded.

Watch this”, he said.

He then proceeded to alternately pull on opposite ends of the tinsel. It looked like he was flossing his nasal passage.

He smiled, “Isn’t this cool?”. I think if I had just eaten I would have thrown up.

Honestly, I wanted to laugh but I didn’t want to encourage him. I told him to stop and to remove the tinsel from his head. I thanked him for helping me to find the spirit of the season. I also suggested that he not put the tinsel back on the tree.

This is a gimmick that I will definitely NOT be teaching my grandson.

Merry Christmas to you and yours

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A Good One-Liner

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A Good One-Liner

It was a year ago, mid-December, and I had stopped by my old school. I had some things to drop off, and I made a point of popping by the staffroom to say hello to former colleagues. One of the teachers I chatted with was responsible for the Co-op Program which saw grade 12 students carrying out a work-term with area employers.

About ten minutes later I went to the local gym and ran into that same teacher. She was spending the morning checking in on her students. I next saw her at the local pharmacy about ninety minutes later.

Jokingly, she said,“Why Mr. Caines, I do believe you are following me.”

I replied, “Just consider yourself part of my Christmas stalking.”

I was rather proud of that one.

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Lost in Translation – Part 2

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Lost in Translation – Part 2

……….. continued

I took Ji-hu aside and explained to him the significance of saying, Jesus. I told him that many would find it offensive and suggested that he not say it. His jaw dropped. He apologized several times.

You know, Ji-hu, there is another expression that kind of means the same thing but is not offensive.”

Ah, what is that?”

In a circumstance like this, many might say Jeepers Creepers.’”

Ah, Jeepers Creepers.”

As soon as he spoke the words I realized that I made a mistake going down this road. I don’t know what I was thinking.

Actually, Ji-hu, the more I think about it, that is more of a little boy expression. It is probably not a good choice. Please forget I said that.”

Several weeks later arrangements were made to take the grade 11 and 12 students to a post-secondary symposium in the city. Students would board buses after home-room and would be gone for most of the day. The day before the symposium Ji-hu approached me and asked if he could take his mother’s car and drive directly from home to the symposium. His home was significantly closer to the symposium site than the school. He was of the impression that the event was for the entire day.

I asked, “If you were to do that, would you drive back here for period 5?”

Is it not for the entire day?”, he asked.

No. The intention is to have everyone back here for their last class.”

This obviously caught him off-guard. His hope was to simply return home after the symposium was over. He looked down at the symposium schedule he was holding in his hands. It confirmed that its duration was not for the entire school day.

He looked up at me, “Ah, Jeepers Creepers.”

Oh no, I thought to myself. What had I created?

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Lost in Translation – Part 1

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Lost in Translation – Part 1

Opening Night for our December theatrical performance was drawing near and we were in the early stages of the technical rehearsal. We were in the process of fine-tuning the sound cues and we had two students on the sound board. One was a grade 12 student who was well familiar with how long and drawn out the day was going to be. The other student was relatively new to the school. He was from Asia, and English was not his first language. Ji-hu also happened to in my homeroom class. He would be in my top-10 list of all-time for students who were polite, respectful, cooperative and keen.

We were going through each cue in order, and the director was deciding exactly what he wanted. It was my job to interpret his wishes for the guys on the board which was located at the back of the theatre. Some changes were called back from the middle of the theatre. In this instance I walked back to be nearer the two students.

OK, fellows, for cue 7 bring the volume up 10% and for a total time of 8 seconds. Start the fade after 2 seconds.”

OK. Shay’s-us”, said Ji-hu.

I looked at him, uncertain what it was he had said, but it sounded more like an acknowledgement than a question. I carried on.

A short while after I said to the guys, “For sound cue 8 let’s trying shortening it by 2 seconds and see how that works.”

The change was made and the director listened. He decided he wanted something different.

Let’s try taking off another 2 seconds but bring the volume up about 5%.”

The director listened then made another decision. I walked back to the board, “Guys, let’s go with that but leave the volume as it was.”

OK. Shay’s-us”, said Ji-hu. He then made the change under the watchful eye of the other student.

I looked at him. “Ji-hu, did you just say Jesus?”

In a heavy accent he replied, “Yes. It’s what you say when you make a change.”

It took me a moment to figure out what was going on. Each time the director changed his mind and the cue needed to be reprogrammed, the grade 12 student would mutter, Jay-sus. Ji-hu thought that this was a working expression and an acknowledgement that the message was understood. Rather than say Roger, Wilco or Message Received he would nod and say Shay’s-us.

to be continued …………………………………

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Cheaper by the Dozen

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Cheaper By the Dozen

During the year I spent at the District Office I had the good fortune of driving by a newly opened bagel store each day. I knew the owner, he was actually the principal of one of the nearby high schools. I would often stop in on my way home to pick up fresh bagels.

On this particular day I made an unscheduled stop. There was a new face behind the counter. She told me that she was a high school student and that this was her part-time job.

I didn’t have a lot of cash with me. After I looked in my wallet I counted my change. I didn’t see any prices displayed. I looked up at the young lady.

How much would half a dozen be?”

Six”, she answered without any hesitation.

I looked at her. I was waiting for her to laugh and to actually answer my question, but she just stared back at me. She actually thought that I didn’t know what a half dozen was.

Really? Here I was wearing a jacket and tie and I easily had 25 years on her. For her to think that I had made it this far along not knowing that a half dozen was 6 seemed rather unbelievable. I then thought to myself, What makes for a better story?

I asked, “So then, a dozen would be 12?”

That’s right”, she answered.

A week later I saw the owner at a principals’ meeting. I told him the story, and after he finished laughing he told me that the young lady was actually a student at his high school. He was fairly certain that in her response she was not trying to be flippant at all.

That principal and I are both retired now but we occasionally run into each other. When we do there is a better than 50% chance that he will say, “Hey, how much is half a dozen?”

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A Shirt by any Other Name

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A Shirt by any Other Name

My brother Ron first introduced me to curling. I was 14 at the time. I was in my late 30’s before I started taking it seriously. When I was 43 my rugby team made it to the Maritime Championship which was played on the first Saturday in November. The following Wednesday was the first night of that winter’s curling season. That night I overheard someone say, “Who’s the young fella?” I looked around and then realized that he was referring to me. I went from being the oldest guy on the rugby pitch to the youngest guy in the curling rink. It was good for my self-esteem.

This story took place several years later. Our kids had moved out and my wife and I were empty-nesters. On this particular Wednesday night I was getting my curling gear together. I would always wear a sleeveless t-shirt under my golf shirt. I grabbed a t-shirt from the clean laundry basket. I put it on but found it to be really tight; however, I had recently finished rugby season and knew that my upper body was bulked up more than usual BUT this one was really tight. Oh well, it was getting late and I needed to get on the road.

After my team took the ice, I got down in the hack to prepare my first stone. As I did so, I could feel my t-shirt moving up the small of my back. It was rather uncomfortable. I tried tucking it back down but it kept riding up. Oh well, I would have to ignore it. When I returned home later that night I tossed my curling gear in with the dirty laundry.

Several days later my wife met me in the hallway outside the laundry room. She was holding the same white, sleeveless t-shirt out for me to see.

Whose shirt is this?”

Isn’t that one of my undershirts?”

This is a ladies tank-top.”

Really? How can you tell?

Just look at it.”

It still looked like a regular t-shirt to me. “Then it must be yours.”

No. It’s … not … mine.”

Huh. I don’t know what to say. I don’t think I own any ladies tank-tops.”

The mystery was solved shortly thereafter. We had been away a few weeks earlier and our daughter had been house/dog sitting for us. She left one of her tank-tops behind and it was the one I had worn. I returned it to her but she made some reference to it being stretched out of shape. I apologized.

I realized that this made for a funny story so I started telling it. Teachers at work had a good laugh, and a few days later I overheard a colleague retelling the tale. When she did she used the word camisole rather than tank-top. Without thinking I just assumed that camisole and tank-top meant the same thing, so I would often use the term when sharing the story.

Several retellings later a fellow teacher asked me how it was that I couldn’t tell the difference between a camisole and a t-shirt.

Well, they look identical”, I answered.

No they don’t. A camisole has decorative trim; you know, frilly stuff. Are you sure it wasn’t a tank-top.”

Yeah, that’s exactly what is was, a tank-top. Tank-top and camisole are not synonymous?”

No, they are not the same thing. If you tell people that it was a camisole then you appear to be an even bigger idiot.”

For the record, it was a tank-top.

Oh, and I now know what a camisole is.

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The Good, the Bad, the Not-so-Bad

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The Good, the Bad, the Not-so-Bad

First a bit of background:

After I graduated with my science degree I spent six months with the Naval Reserve. After that, I accepted a six month job as a youth counselor (essentially a guard) at a youth detention facility. It was a casual position which meant that I would be laid off after completing 120 shifts. I was OK with that as I had already planned to go back to university to complete a BEd. The detention centre was not designed for violent offenders but there was no other facility in which to place boys awaiting trial. While I was there, two boys were detained and awaiting trial for murder. As they were both segrated from the rest of the population, I actually spent a lot of shifts supervising them, one-on-one. 

And now the story …..

While enrolled in the BEd programme my second student-teaching placement was at a junior high school. My cooperating teacher taught grade 8 and 9 math and science. There were two classes at each grade level. The two grade 8 classes were noticeably different, and among the staff they were referred to as the good grade 8’s and the bad grade 8’s. The students knew that they had been labelled.

During the first days of my first week, I simply observed the classes. By the end of the week I started teaching while being monitored by my cooperating teacher. At the end of each day he would offer feedback and suggestions. Midway through the second week, he told me that he was comfortable leaving me alone and that I would be taking over his classes. If I needed him he would be just down the hall. I was good with that.

Just prior to my first class alone with the bad grade 8’s a student approached my desk. He leaned ahead and spoke.

Do you know, Mr. Caines, that we are the bad grade 8’s? Do you think you can handle us?” His body language suggested that he was trying to increase my anxiety level.

Really?”, I answered. “What makes you bad?”

Well, we often don’t do what we are told, and we talk when we should be listening.”

Wow, really? Anything else?”

Ah … sometimes we throw things around the room.”

Hmmm … well thanks for the heads-up.” I leaned closer to him. “You know, I just finished working at the Youth Detention Centre. I worked with a 15-year-old boy who shot his parents. I worked with another young fellow who stabbed an 81-year-old woman to death during a botched break-and-enter. I worked with boys who, if they had the opportunity, could tear you apart. I have experienced bad and you’re not it. So why don’t you go back to your desk and get ready for class.”

He quietly turned and returned to his seat. He looked like he had been deflated.

Yeah, collectively they weren’t as cooperative as the other grade 8 class, but in the grand scheme of things, and on the bad-scale, they hardly registered.

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Pick of the Litter

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Pick of the Litter

Many years ago I set a small goal for myself, to pick up one piece of litter every day. While I was still teaching there were few days when I didn’t pass by garbage walking from my car to the school. I would often gather up two or three items – this would make up for the weekends when, perhaps, I wasn’t in a litter zone. Now that I am retired I usually carry out my one-a-day ritual when in the city. I figure if one in ten people picked up a piece of garbage every tenth day then we would be close to having litter-free communities.

Last weekend I was in the city and had a number of stops to make. As I was nearing a parking spot outside a mall I noticed a man walking across the lot. At one point he stopped, bent down and pick up a cardboard coffee tray that had been discarded. I rolled my window down and thanked him for doing so. We both agreed that this world would be a better place if people were more considerate. This reminded me of an incident that took place ten years earlier.

I had been awarded an educational leave (sabbatical). I would be participating in a French Immersion course in the north of the province. In anticipation of this I enrolled in a conversational French class at the local college. I was hoping to recapture some of the language skills I had learned when in high school. Classes were once a week.

Each night on my way to class I would stop at a coffee shop not far from the college. On this particular evening I saw something that was rather upsetting. As my car was approaching a parking spot I noticed am arm extend from a vehicle and a cardboard coffee tray and paper bag were dropped on the ground. I couldn’t believe it. By the time I pulled up beside the car the window had been closed. I decided to be part of the solution.

Now I must admit that when I looked over at the vehicle I expected to see some teenagers (sorry teenagers – I admit that I was stereotyping). To my surprise I saw an elderly couple in the car. I rolled my window down and pointed to the ground.

You dropped something. Something fell out of your car.”

The woman looked at me. She turned to the man seated in the driver’s seat. He leaned ahead and looked at me.

Something fell out of your car”, I repeated.

The window was lowered. I again pointed to the ground, “Something fell out of your car.”

They looked at each other. By this time I had stepped out of my vehicle.

The woman said, “It’s garbage. I meant to toss it.”

I stood still. I gave them the best basset hound face I could muster. “You mean, you meant to litter?”

……… YES”, she replied in a rather stern voice.

The man looked like he wanted to punch me; but hey, I didn’t do anything wrong. I was playing the good guy.

How about this. I’ll pick it up for you and place it in the garbage can over there.”

She hesitated. In the same voice she said, “OK.”

As I picked up the tray and bag they drove off. I watched them leave then disposed of the garbage.

By doing so I had met my litter picking quota for the next two days. I felt pretty good.

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Cristopher Tolkien Makes an Appearance

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I’m always a bit leery but also drawn in when a famous writer’s offspring attempts to ride a progenitor’s coattails to fame, fortune and probably an enlarged bank account.


Brian Herbert and Kevin J Anderson expand Frank Herbert’s Dune Universe.

Brian Herbert’s attempts to expand his father’s Dune universe are a typical case in point.  They are interesting science fiction books in a familiar universe but… but they break no new ground.  This is probably the biggest attack on his father’s legacy that was committed here because the original Dune books were beloved precisely because they were new and fresh. Core fans will read them, of course, bit I doubt they’ll be considered part of the canon anytime soon (at least not by me).

But Herbert’s books (with an assist from Anderson, clearly) aren’t bad.  If it wasn’t for the legacy, we’d all have liked them without further comment.  Much worse was the disastrous attempt at authoring an epic Fantasy by Nicolai Tolstoy (grandson of Leo), which resulted in the only time I have ever voluntarily abandoned a book in the middle of it in the last 30 years.

So it was with mixed feelings that I picked up the Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle Earth series some years ago.  That first book was a difficult read, but I was fascinated by the textual history that Tolkien Jr had managed to piece together from his fathers papers.  It is a stunning piece of academic research taken on by probably the only person with both the access and motivation to succeed in it.

I’ve since read the six books that followed which brings us all the way through the history of the writing of the tales that eventually became the Silmarillion to the text of the Lord of the Rings.  The book which prompted this post, and which I’ll be concentrating on here, is the seventh, The Treason of Isengard.


The Treason of Isengard, Book 7 of the History of Middle Earth and Book 2 of the History of the Lord of the Rings

Like its predecessors, this volume presents older drafts of the material with commentary on when changes were likely made, and when names evolved into the current versions that everyone knows and loves.

As a writer, I find JRR Tolkien’s process mesmerizing and terrifying.  Mesmerizing because watching text evolve so methodically is an education in and of itself and Terrifying because the man spent his entire adult life continuously tweaking his text.  Were it not for editorial pressure and deadlines, he probably would have kept toying with the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings until the day he died, much like he did with Silmarillion.

The reason to read this series isn’t because it will bring you a new appreciation of LotR – we all know it and love it (or despise it) for our own reasons, and this won’t change it, but it will bring you a type of writing process that will feel very alien to nearly every one of us.

If I wrote my books like that, I’d simply go insane, but it’s undeniably effective.  The layers of myth upon myth back through the ages that shine through in the Lord of the Rings are there because Tolkien actually wrote them, and rewrote them and wrote them yet again as he composed the Silmarillion and the associated poems.

In this particular case, I don’t begrudge the son a single cent, and actually prefer that his series exists instead of having original writing from Christopher.


Not the Greatest French Film of All Time, Interesting Nonetheless

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Les Enfants du Paradis Movie Poster

As we continue our slow journey through the 1001 Films one must supposedly watch before one dies (maybe if we never finish the list we’ll live forever?) we encounter a bunch of films which are reputed to be or voted as the greatest something or other.   The major conclusion one can immediately take from these is that an amazing number of important-sounding institutions exist which seem dedicated to choosing the greatest films of whatever country, and none of them can agree on which one it is.

Les Enfants du Paradis (1945) was voted the greatest film ever in one poll of French film industry people.  Yes, I know that it was obvious that the French would select a French film for the honor, but it’s pretty amazing that they happened to select this one.  It isn’t.

It’s also been called the French equivalent of Gone with the Wind.  It also isn’t.

What it is is an interesting flick with a fascinating production history.

The plot is noteworthy .  Everyone is in love with the girl, but no one gets her.  Additional interest is given to it by having her suitors span the social range from a mime and a criminal to a count.  Loads of fun and hijinks and melodrama ensue, and the film does entertain.  The ending is also worth waiting for, as it is neither a conventional happy ending or a typical tragic one.  The only person who dies richly deserves it.

The most noteworthy thing about it, however, is that it was produced in Vichy France under the strict and watchful eye of the German censors with a cast and crew that mixed resistance elements with collaborators in what must have been the ultimate example of workplace politics.

Imagine attempting to shoot a large-scale film in a country ravaged by war, with Nazis telling you what to cut out of it and a director, Marcel Carné, who tries to sneak a lot of the stuff that is supposedly forbidden back in, in a different guise.  The sets were a shambles, which was a drawback for a film with a lot of outdoors street scenes, and one can only imagine what kind of scarcity conditions they had to operate under as the allies advanced.


Robert Le Vigan – French actor convicted of collaborating with the Nazis in Vichy France.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the film are the story of Robert Le Vigan who was removed from the production, accused of being a collaborator and disappeared.  He was later tried and sent to prison, but in the meantime they needed a replacement for him, and chose one of the Renoir brothers (yes, the son of the painter).

Collaborators, of course, weren’t tried under the Vichy régime, so you are correct in guessing that the movie wasn’t finished until the allies liberated France.  It is speculated that Carné himself created production delays that ensured the film would only be released in a free France.  Whether that is true or a product of Carné’s propaganda is open to debate, but it does cement the legend.

So, perhaps it’s not the film itself but the context and symbolism which engendered the French industry’s fascination with it.  It’s both understandable and forgivable, and the film isn’t bad either.