..

LE MILLION

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Annabella, Rene Lefevre, Louis Allibert, Constantin Stroesco
Director:  Rene Clair
Audio:  Dolby Digital Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  Rene Clair Interview, Stills Gallery
Length:  81 Minutes
Release Date: 

Film ***1/2

I usually tend to think that the first decade of existence for ďtalkiesĒ was one of the driest periods in cinema history.  The fluidity and grace of the silent era was replaced by the clunky, static and rigid stage-like presence of sound film, where cameras and actors seemed helplessly weighed down by attachments to clumsy hidden microphones, and even more weighed down by clumsy dialogue.

In all fairness, thatís too broad a generalization to be completely true, and every so often, I discover a film made between 1928-1938 that proves that the early sound era wasnít entirely the era where movies stopped moving.  D. W. Griffith, the grandfather of cinema, may never have recaptured the glory of his silent heyday, but when he made his first talking pictures, he refused to let his cameras be anchored.  James Whaleís early horror classics kept action as important as the new concept of spoken dialogue, and as such, his films have aged better than most from those early years.

French director Rene Clair was another artist who proved that early talking pictures could remain moving pictures as well.  Like many filmmakers, he resisted the introduction of sound as a crude novelty and possibly even the death knell for movies, but it didnít stop him from making one of the most delightfully charming early talkies, the 1931 musical adaptation of Le Million.

Itís a simple story of simple characters told with great style, humor, and best of all, fluid motion.  Based on a stage play, Clairís screenplay found ways to make the story more suitable for early sound cinema.  Sections of dialogue were replaced by charming musical numbers.  Live sound was sometimes replaced by comical ones.  There are even stretches when the music takes over, the dialogue disappears, and weíre essentially looking at bits of silent film that return a sense of energetic comedy to the picture.

Michel (Lefevre) is a likable character despite his flaws (he has mistress troubles despite his devotion to his girlfriend, and he owes a lot of money to a lot of different people).  But his luck changes when he learns he won a cool million from the lottery!

Or does it?  The winning ticket, which he kept in his jacket pocket, was snatched from his girlfriend Beatriceís (Annabella) care by a notorious thief!  Soon, the chase is on.  He gets his roommate Prosper (Allibert) to assist, promising him half the prize if he can recover the ticketÖbut is Prosper getting designs on having that whole jackpot to himself?

We follow the characters and the jacket as they go through their adventures, until the coat ends up in the care of a pompous opera star Sopranelli (Stroesco) who uses it as part of his stage costume.  This is where the fun really picks up, as Michel, Beatrice and Prosper all try to get their hands on the prize that the befuddled singer doesnít even know he has!

There are many moments of pure joy in the film.  My favorite is one where Michel and Beatrice end up behind a backdrop on stage and make up.  We donít hear their words of love, but the operatic lyrics being sung on stage in front of them seem to make up their dialogue for them.  Itís a clever and charming sequence that proved the new medium of sound cinema could be used in inventive ways.

Another memorable sequence is an all-out brouhaha over the coat that erupts backstage.  Here, rather than try to record what was probably noise and incomprehensible speech, Clair simply replaces the live soundtrack with the sounds of a soccer match.  This simple idea heightens both the comedy and the energy.

From the opening shots looking down on a great (and highly realized) city of Paris to the big musical finale, Le Million is a well-made and winsome film, filled with charm, style and grace.  Itís definitely a landmark in early sound cinema, and remains just as entertaining today.

Video ***

Being a 70 plus year old film, you canít expect perfection from the source material.  But despite the age, Criterion delivers a solid presentation for this DVD.  Yes, there are specks, spots, and scars here and there, as with any other film from such an early periodÖbut they really donít dominate the images or detract from them.  For the most part, the black and white photography produces well, with clarity and sharpness and good levels of detail.  Inherent limitations means this disc wonít be the best looking one you own, but I think fans of classic films will be more than satisfied with this offering.

Audio **

Like most mono tracks, especially ones this old, thereís not much to either praise or condemn.  Noise levels, usually strong for early talkies, arenít much of a problem here, even though nothing much can be done about the fact that films from that period had their sound recorded onto phonograph records.  The dialogue, in French, seems clean and clear enough, as do the musical score and songs.  Not much dynamic range is present, but not much is expected.  All in all, a perfectly adequate listen.

Features **

The disc features a stills gallery of production photos and a 9 minute 1959 interview with Rene Clair (in English) discussing the advent of sound films.

Summary:

Le Million is another in a small handful of films from the first ten years of sound cinema that proves that not all early talkies stopped moving.  This is a sweet, funny offering from Rene Clair that demonstrates how a little imagination could keep the action moving as much as the dialogue.