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There are many mimes, but there is only one Marcel Marceau. In Spielman’s compelling children’s biography complemented by subtle artwork from Gauthier, we learn of Marceau’s early inspiration, the silent film star Charlie Chaplin, as well as his childhood growing up in Strasbourg, France, close to the German border. Always the performer, young Marcel could make people laugh with his impersonations and amiable personality. This ability to entertain would not only save his life but countless others as well.
The son of a Jewish kosher butcher, Marceau and his older brother Alain fled to Limoges when, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the French government ordered the people of Strasbourg to leave their city. The Marceau brothers changed their last name from Mangel in a move to avoid being targeted by the Nazis who, in 1940, had taken over most of France. Marcel had an aptitude for art and worked secretly during the war to alter identity cards in order to help young Jewish children avoid the labor camps where so many were being sent. In addition to this risky business, Marceau faced untold danger helping a cousin in the Resistance by leading groups of children across the Swiss border on more than one occasion. “On one trip, Marcel got the children singing so happily that Nazis traveling on the same train complimented them on their voices.” Here his skill at performing allowed him to smuggle children out of Nazi territory “right under their noses.”
At age 20, Marcel began to study drama working under the famous mime, Etienne Decroux. Because Marceau never lost his love of mime, as a volunteer soldier in the Free French Army, he performed his first mime review in front of 3,000 American troops. How fortunate that Marceau continued to pursue a career on the stage, bringing the craft of mime to new heights. He went on to create the eponymous Bip, part clown, part Chaplin Little Tramp in “white face paint, tight-fitting pants, a striped shirt, flower, and a crumpled hat. Spielman helps us marvel at how the masterful Marceau, without so much as word, could speak volumes the world over.
Find this review in October’s issue of L.A. Parent at www.laparent.com.