Review by Michael Jacobson
Annabella, Rene Lefevre, Louis Allibert, Constantin Stroesco
Director: Rene Clair
Audio: Dolby Digital Mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Features: Rene Clair Interview, Stills Gallery
Length: 81 Minutes
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.
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
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.
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.
(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!
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
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.