15 April 2014

Doing Right by Robert Fontaine

I've never paid much attention to humorist Robert Fontaine, in part because I didn't think of him as Canadian, but a recent query by an old college flatmate has had me exploring the author's work and reconsidering his allegiances.

Fontaine was born on 19 January 1908 in Evanston, Illinois, to a French Canadian father and Scots-Irish mother. At the age of three, he was brought to Ottawa, where his papa found work in vaudeville and, later, as a violinist with the Château Laurier Hotel Orchestra. Though Fontaine returned to the United States as an adult, ending up in Springfield, Massachusetts, he always considered himself to be Canadian, as did the newspapers of the day. His best selling book was The Happy Time, light sketches inspired by that Ottawa childhood. William Arthur Deacon, our leading critic, described it as "the kind of book Mark Twain would have written if he had shared a drop of French blood."

Published in 1945 by Simon and Schuster – I much prefer the 1947 Hamish Hamilton cover above –  The Happy Time was adapted to radio in a weekly CBC series, then turned into a long-running Rogers and Hammerstein-produced (but not penned) Broadway play, starring Johnny Stewart, Kurt Kasznar and Eva Gabor.

Playbill, 24 January 1950
Still greater success came with a 1952 film adaptation directed by Richard Fleischer, starring Charles Boyer, Louis Jourdan, Marsha Hunt and Kurt Kasznar. Bobby Driscoll plays Robert "Bibi" Bonnard (read: Robert Fontaine), while Linda Christian takes on the role of magician's assistant Mignonette, and wins a battle with a bad hairdo to come off as the object of adolescent desire.

My wife described it as Looney Tune Ottawa, with impeccable streets, Model Ts and Victoriana as retro kitsch. I add: more front porches than Celebration, USA.

Though clearly not shot in the nation's capital, I have to give Fleischer and screenwriter Earl Felton credit. I can't think of another Hollywood film that takes place in Ottawa. And how many others mention McGill, the University of Toronto and Queen's and include a lesson on our parliamentary system?

Location is not important. This is a story about awakening sexuality. On this, wise papa Charles Boyer provides his own lessons:
Papa: Now, Bibi, we speak now of love. And where there is love, there is also desire; they go together. Love must have the desire; I don't believe there can be love without it. But, it is possible to have the desire without love, and this is where the world falls apart. For instance, you don't understand why the principal of your school beat you.
Bibi: No, papa.
Papa: Well, it is because he has been brought up to believe that the desire is wrong. And since he himself has the desire, he's even more mixed up than we are! He has been brought up in a world where the desire has been used so badly – so badly, believe me – that it itself is thought to be bad; and this is wrong. This is wrong, Bibi. And you know the reason for this condition? It is because so many people are without love.
There's a good deal of darkness in The Happy Time. Bibi sneaks into Mignonette's room, watches her sleep, then steals a kiss. The next morning he is beaten after the principal finds "a dirty picture from La Gay Paree". The principal soon finds himself confronted by Bibi's papa and two uncles; one, a drunk who walks around with a cooler filled with wine; the other, a travelling salesman who collects garters as trophies:
Maman: Bibi, what have you got on your sleeves?
Bibi: They're too long. Before he left town, Uncle Desmond gave me some garters to hold them up.
Maman: Women's garters! Take them off! Look at them! Off some stranger's legs!
Grandpère: To Desmond she was not a stranger.
Ribald? You bet! How's this:
Maman: Where are you going?
Grandpère: Out.
Maman: You should be in bed!
Grandpère: It is only a matter of time.
How many of these words can be credited to Robert Fontaine I can't say. Our town library doesn't have a copy, nor does that of the next town over, nor the one after that. The author himself is pretty much forgotten. The Canadian Encyclopedia has no Robert Fontaine entry, and he is not so much as mentioned in The Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature; yet he seems to have had a good run, mining his Ottawa childhood further in My Uncle Louis (1953) and Hello to Springtime (1955).

For now, all I can do is recommend the film:


Don't be deceived by the 1968 Broadway musical of the same name. Here Fontaine's material was taken on by a reluctant N. Richard Nash who insisted it be married to his own story about a small-town photographer. "Suggested by the characters in the stories by Robert Fontaine", reads the credits. The author had no say in the matter; Fontaine had died in1965, aged fifty-seven.

It was nominated for ten Tony Awards, making winners out of Robert Goulet (Best Performance of a Leading Actor in a Musical) and Gower Champion (Best Direction of a Musical and Best Choreography). A sample is provided by the awards ceremony broadcast:

I recognize Robert Goulet as a fellow Canadian.


  1. I live in Fontaine's former home in Springfield, Massachusetts, and have found several of his books on eBay. Oddly enough, my cousin in California works for Marsha Hunt and has a picture of Hunt and Fontaine together on the set of The Happy Time.

    1. That's a remarkable coincidence, Kathy. Thank you for sharing. I'm pleased to hear that you're bringing Fontaine's books home (so to speak). A man in nearby London (Ontario), who lives in Arthur Stringer's old house, is doing something similar. A wonderful way to recognize the history.