Restoring René Clair 

I hope the techno-geeks among the readership don’t feel misled by the headline. I refer to restoring the reputation of the great French film-maker; not the physical preservation of his films. Which I’m all for, by the way, it’s just not my beat. I Cover the Whattafrump.

I first learned about René Clair (René-Lucien Chomette, 1898-1981) from books like Gerald Mast’s The Comic Mind and Walter Kerr’s The Silent Clowns, in particular the former, which has quite a good sized section on him. Clair’s influence extended well beyond French cinema; he decidedly influenced American film comedy, over and above the handful of films he made during his brief stay in the U.S.

As a young man Clair studied philosophy, drove an ambulance in World War One, and wrote journalism, criticism, fiction and poetry. In 1920 he acted in his first film, Loie Fuller’s Le Lys de la vie. This led to a few more film roles and to some work as an assistant director. All of which, obviously, was excellent preparation for his career as an auteur. Clair’s career can very neatly be broken into five phases: the Silent Era; Early Talkies; British Period; Hollywood Period; and the Return to France.

Clair’s first film was Paris qui dort (1924), a wild science-fictiony romp that feels kind of like a silent episode of The Twilight Zone. A night watchman at the top of the Eifel Tower comes off his shift to find that almost all of the people of Paris are frozen in place. He subsequently does manage to find a small handful of others unaffected by the malady, which proves to have been caused by a mad scientist and his “crazy ray”. This magical, whimsical comedy is fully in the tradition of predecessors like Melies and Max Linder, and pretty much the set the tone for the rest of his career. That same year he made a Dada short called Entr’acte, featuring Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp) to be screened as part of Francis Picabia’s ballet Relâche with music by Erik Satie. So during this first phase of Clair’s career he was both a commercial entertainer and a leading member of the Paris avant-garde. His work anticipates things like Buñuel and Dali’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) and the films of Jean Cocteau, for example. Clair’s next feature, Le fantôme du Moulin-Rouge (1925), like his first, has elements of horror, mystery and comedy. The plot: through mesmerism, a man’s spirit roams the astral place causing mischief. In Le voyage imaginaire (1926) a fairy leads a daydreaming bank clerk into a fantasy realm where people turn to animals, and waxworks come alive. La proie du vent (The Prey of the Wind, 1927) was a straight melodrama, but as such an important step in his development. Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat, 1928) might be the best known of his silents in the English speaking world. Based on an 1851 stage farce, it’s the kind of plot Mack Sennett relished. While a woman dallies with her lover, a horse eats her expensive imported hat, forcing her lover to scramble to acquire a new one so her husband doesn’t find out. 21 year old Orson Welles adapted the same play for the stage in 1936, and presented it with the Mercury Theatre. Les Deux Timides (1928) rounds out the silent period. Also based on a 19th century stage farce, it concerns a jittery lawyer’s encounters with the client he accidentally sent to prison. This “terror of the pyscho you sent to prison” plot would later provide hearty fodder for the likes of Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges.

Much like Chaplin and Keaton, Clair was outspokenly resistant to the arrival of sound, but he eventually caved after giving the matter careful thought. Critics hailed his creative solutions to the problem. It would have served the art of cinema well if others had followed his lead on a more sustained basis, though Clair himself abandoned his innovations within a few years. In the early period, he used stylized sounds, substituted one sound effect for another, employed lots of music, and staged some action in the dark or offscreen which the audience would only hear, rather than see. Ironically, given the French New Wave’s dismissal of Clair a couple of decades later, one of the few directors who made lots of use of those kind of techniques on an ongoing basis was Jean-Luc Godard. But of course, the fact that Clair was no longer as inventive in his last years was one of the points of that later criticism. There is a Lubitsch like magic to the five films of this period, although Clair has different satirical impulses. His first talkie Sous les toits de Paris (1930) has an expressionistic, gritty Parisian beauty and is famous for the long tracking shot that begins and ends the film. Le Million (1931) is a musical farce about a winning lottery ticket that winds up in the pocket of an ever-elusive coat. À nous la liberté (1931) is often spoken of as an influence on Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). There was even a lawsuit about it. I’d even wager that it influenced Laurel and Hardy’s Pardon Us (1931). It’s about a pair of escaped criminals (Henri Marchand and Raymond Cordy), one of whom goes to on get rich as the owner of a phonograph company (a little wink to the audience about sound there). It all turns to chaos when his old pal turns up unexpectedly and all the old secrets come out. The film continues Clair’s playful experiments with sound, but is also visually stunning. Its art deco set designs won an Oscar. This was followed by Bastille Day (1933) a romantic farce starring Annabella, who’d also been in Le Million, followed by Le Dernier Milliardaire (1934), which has elements in common with Lubitsch fairy tale like settings and things like The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which had come out the year before. Conversely, Buster Keaton’s Le Roi des Champs-Élysées (1935) feels a lot like Clair’s films of the period.

Clair was now internationally famous and thus was able to expand his career abroad. In 1935 Alexander Korda produced The Ghost Goes West, directed by Clair from a script by Robert E. Sherwood and based on a short story. It has similarities with The Canterville Ghost, and stars Robert Donat, double cast as a contemporary Scottish castle owner and the spirit of one of his dead ancestors. Eugene Pallette plays an American capitalist who buys his castle and has it shipped to Florida, Jean Parker plays his daughter, whose attractions convince Donat to take the deal against his better instincts. I’ve tackled this one a couple of times, and it feels very clunky to me. Clair’s English wasn’t very good, although it got better over the years. Most of his English films feel odd to me in tone, especially in terms of things like rhythm and continuity. and I can’t help attributing it to the language barrier. These movies seem oddly subdued and dark even when it isn’t called for. Korda pulled out of an intended three picture deal after The Ghost Goes West. Clair self-produced his second British picture Break the News (1938) in cooperation with star Jack Buchanan. As this one co-starred Lubitsch vet Maurice Chevalier, who could of course communicate with Clair in French, and was based on a property that had already successful on the French screen, and was thus tried and true, this one fared little better at the time. Buchanan and Chevalier plays a couple of performers who fake a murder for the publicity. June Knight plays the love interest. It’s an easier one to associate with Clair’s earlier French work than his subsequent Hollywood movies however — has more of “him” in it.

Clair’s second French period was slated to begin in 1938. He had returned to his own country and begun preparing a film at that time. But the advent of World War Two scotched that, so the Ghost Went West, to join Lubitsch, Billy Wilder and the other European refugees in Hollywood. The four films he made during this period ( a couple of them anyway) are probably better known to classic film fans. Unfortunately, his initial film suffered as his British films had. The Flame of New Orleans (1941) sounds promising, a western comic vehicle for Marlene Dietrich in the wake of her previous such Destry Rides Again (1939), set in a very French town, with a cast that included the likes of Andy Devine, Mischa Auer, Franklin Pangborn, Laura Hope Crews, Shemp Howard, Melville Cooper, Roland Young, and Eddie Quillan, with a script by Norman Krasna. Apparently no major stars equal to the task (Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Clark Gable?) could or would take on appearing opposite Dietrich. So the male lead was Bruce Cabot. Now Bruce Cabot was fine in a lot of movies (he was especially suited for westerns), but crackle in comedy he couldn’t. This was one major hindrance to the film’s success. As was the need to keep to a Hollywood timetable (preventing Clair’s accustomed careful preparation). And so was the hostile crew, who were prejudiced against this “interloping foreigner”. So this movie is not so good. But Clair managed to score twice subsequent to that, a miracle in and of itself. The first was Halloweeny screwball comedy I Married a Witch (1942) with Fredric March and Veronica Lake, which I wrote about here. (Many believe it to have been the inspiration for the sitcom Bewitched). His other Hollywood hit was the all star 1945 screen adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None. It was the first of the many screen versions of that iconic mystery, which you’d be tempted to call “can’t fail” material, but for the fact that people fail with “can’t fail” material all the time. Ironically, the Hollywood film most conducive to Clair’s gifts, It Happened Tomorrow (1944) is probably his least well known. It stars Dick Powell as a newspaperman who acquires a magic press than anticipates the next day’s news. Linda Darnell is the love interest, but it is helped along considerably by a supporting cast that includes Jack Oakie, Edgar Kennedy, Edward Brophy, Sig Ruman, George Chandler, etc.

When the war was over, Clair did the patriotic (and incidentally, sensible) thing and returned to his home country and made seven more films: Le silence est d’or (1947), which is set at a silent film studio and stars Maurice Chevalier; La Beauté du diable (1950), based on the Faust legend; Les Belles de nuit (1952); Les Grandes Manœuvres (1955); Porte de Lilas (1957); Tout l’or du monde (1961); and Les Fêtes galantes (1965). I have seen only one of these later films (Les Grandes Manœuvres) so it’s the only stretch of Clair’s I have little exposure to. The film I saw was a gorgeously shot color period comedy, frothy and light, and clearly made with lots of resources at his command. Ironically it seems possessed of far greater technical fluency than did his Hollywood films, which often seem choppy and disjointed. The slick aspects are what made that French New Wave critics hostile to Clair’s later films. They felt that they seemed lifeless and artificial, and that the times demanded greater energy, freshness, and spontaneity. Obviously they had a point; for Clair was now far, far away from the avant-garde he’d been associated with decades earlier. Though now, 60, 70 years later it is possible for us to look at these later films a little more dispassionately and see the virtues as well.

Clair continued to write books and articles and direct for the stage into the 1970s. I’ve also seen a 1959 American TV interview, in which he expressed himself in English quite well. In the 1970s, Groucho Marx told Charlotte Chandler that Clair was one of the few directors he’d wished he’d worked with. Technically, at the time he said it, it was still possible! Rene Clair outlived Groucho by four years.

For more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.