(1931) dir. René Clair
I have often noted that no one has seen “all” of the important, interesting films, is familiar with “all” of the significant auteurs or directors, no matter how lonely and locked up with a VCR or DVD player they could be. But, as I am apparently aspiring to such a thing, I am frequently delving into the works of directors of note whose films I had never before seen. The latest case in point: writer/director René Clair and his 1931 film, Le million.
Described as an influential Screwball comedy, I was thinking Howard Hawks or something coming into it. It’s a very different animal than a film like His Girl Friday (1940), not nearly so verbal and dialogue-driven. In fact, the film is one of Clair’s first sound films, and Clair was one of the critics of the development of sound for cinema, saying that it would ruin the art form that had been developing so beautifully. But interestingly enough, Clair employs sound very inventively throughout, even omitting it in essence in certain sequences that are far more motion-based (chases, processions, and the like).
The film is actually in some ways a musical. Perhaps not in the grandest sense, with key songs and so forth, but in the tradition of theater and a chorus. The film is very theatrical while still being very cinematic, which is often a tough line, in my opinion, to navigate. But much of the action is set in a theater, on a theater stage, and so the theatricality makes sense. Despite the music that offers that side of things, the film is very visual, with interesting camera movement, complex usage of space and sets, and something quite unique.
The story is of a man who has a lot of debtors knocking at his door and a winning lottery ticket for a million Dutch florins lost in a jacket pocket that keeps moving from place to place, creating a cavalcade of seekers. And the man is a bit of a philanderer, but perhaps in that French way that isn’t considered to be all that damning.
Actually, the romantic sequence is quite nice. The poor artist and his girl hide behind the stage set, while the singers in the front spell out their unspoken words in their operatic performance. It’s Clair using sound as a counter-point to the silence of the two others. It’s quite clever.
The film is lively and quite fun. But frankly it didn’t really engage me the way one might hope. I did appreciate it and perhaps could appreciate it more with further consideration, but while it was a good time, it wasn’t for me as spectacular as it is perhaps in context of its time and production. Take that for what you will. I did.