The culmination of the early part of Marcel Pagnol’s career is The Well-Digger’s Daughter. It’s also the only film with both of his favorite leading men, Raimu and Fernandel. No longer relying on longtime collaborator Jean Giono for his source material, Pagnol manages to write a story that tops all of the previous fille-mère (single mother) stories in his early career.
A soldier meets a girl, Patricia (Josette Day). He is called to war, and shortly thereafter she discovers that she is pregnant. Her father (Raimu) is as shocked and shamed as the father in Angèle (one of Pagnol’s earliest films). But this father is a bit more forgiving, and he accompanies his daughter, hat in hand, to the well-to-do parents of the soldier. They ask for their help in setting things right. Instead of offering support, the young man’s parents brag about their son’s virility, and dismiss the poor, grubby father and his slutty daughter.
What the previous fille-mère films seemed to dance around, The Well-Digger’s Daughter attacks directly. Young people have hormones. They fall in love, they have sex, and sometimes they make a baby. Social mores against unwed mothers are only useful as a deterrent, and not as punishment. Once a girl is pregnant, the “shame” of her status gets in the way of the health and well-being of her and the new child. It tears apart families that need to stick together.
There is a novel development in The Well-Digger’s Daughter that is the perfect illustration of the problem of the fille-mère. The soldier, the only son of his parents, is killed in action. The news is hard for Patricia, but she and her father have already made peace with her position as a single mother. The soldier’s parents, however, realize how huge their mistake has been. Their only descendant, and their only link to their dead son, is the bastard child they’ve already turned their backs on. They have to swallow their pride and come begging to the grubby family if they don’t want to completely lose their son.
As in all the other Pagnol films, the characters are refreshingly decent, always trying to do the right thing except when stubbornness and ignorance get in the way. There is a contrived ending that makes The Well-Digger’s Daughter seem slightly less polished than some of Pagnol’s other films, but the spot-on plot development, the vortex of great casting, and the generally solid production, make a good conclusion to the first half of a brilliant career.
Photo from Il était une fois... Marcel Pagnol, by Raymond Castans, Julliard, 1978