(French, 1931, 83 minutes, b/w, video, in French with English subtitles)
In 1960, Rene Clair was the first film director to be elected a member of the prestigious Academie Francaise. As the newest of the arts to the most conservative international humanities organizations, the cinema's first representative had to be an acknowledged master of his art, not just within France, but in the estimation of the world. Clair's election occurred even before that of Jean Renoir; in his day, Clair's colleagues in the arts thought him Renoir's equal. In the tradition of his painter father, Renoir was the French cinema's great impressionist, his masterworks like A Day in the Country and The Rules of the Game capturing what seem to be casual observations of the passing moment that turn out to be profound and timeless truths. Clair, on the other hand, was his era's great surrealist, using every one of the cinema's attributes to paint an impish, warped, often bitter, and yet perpetually delighted view of the world around him.
Quoting Rimbaud in his speech to the Academie, Clair said "I believed in all enchantments." And so he did. Several of his silent films, such as The Crazy Ray and the Dadaist visual essay Entr'acte (both 1924) and The Imaginary Voyage (1926) are among the landmarks of cinematic surrealism, each looking as inventive and deranged today as on the day they were released. In a few short years, Clair grew to be a film artist with a unique and personal vision.
And yet, the coming of sound made Clair deeply anxious. "[The cinema] has conquered the world of voices, but it has lost the world of dreams," he fumed, fearful that the whimsical visual devices on which he depended, such as double exposures, fast and slow motion, and miraculous appearances and disappearances, would be dulled by the literalism that sound was bringing to the cinema. His first sound film, Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) cleverly used non-synchronous sound and music to defeat the tyranny of the voice. But Clair wished to confound the unthinking enthusiasm of the movies for the human voice, and in Le Million, he eloquently burlesques the agonized synchrony of early American sound musicals of 1928 and 1929 such as The Lights of New York and The Broadway Melody. The result was a use of sound as an expressive device, rather than a realist convention. In the process, Clair showed the musical what it might become at its most madcap ( The Marx brothers' A Night at the Opera, made only four years later, seems directly influenced by Le Million) or at its most deeply invested in the truth of its own dream world (Vincente Minelli's 1948's The Pirate, with its total immersion in music and fantasy, seems the logical destination of the assumptions put into play in Le Million). The early sound cinema of Ernst Lubitsch (Trouble in Paradise, 1932) and Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight, 1932) were acknowledged in their day as indebted to Le Million, which received worldwide release.
The film's premise is nothing more substantial than the pursuit of a coat, in the pocket of which resides a winning lottery ticket. Accompanying that pursuit are the cheers of a rugby crowd, with the game no where in sight. A group of creditors bellow comic musical choruses in earnest Pirates of Penzance outlandishness. And , in the film's most famous sequence, the emotions of two young lovers are displaced onto the thundering larynxes of two portly opera singers.
Rene Clair's first three sound films, Under the Roofs of Paris, Le Million, and A nous la liberte (1931) remain articulate and convincing arguments against the hardening of the cinema's stylistic arteries. Clair would speak to the Academie Francaise, in his 1962 investiture speech, of the "generous revolution" he and fellow movie-making iconoclasts had mounted against what to them seemed a dismaying trend toward ossification and repetition in the cinema. Against a grey background of convention, said Clair, there were
a few unforgettable visions like the ones that, pressed down on our foreheads by the night wind, leave such an imprint on it that in bringing it to mind we waver between the illusion of the real and the reality of the ream." Every filmmaker in the sound era who has sought to reject the cold inheritance of empty tradition, from Lubitsch to Busby Berkeley to Preston Sturges to Jean-Luc Godard to Werner Herzog to the Coen brothers, owes something of the privilege of joyous rebellion to Rene Clair.
— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University
The following review by Jeremy Heilman appears on MovieMartyr.com:
The often-asserted notion that movies should be regarded dominantly as a visual medium has always irked me. I’m all for films that are capable of telling their stories visually, but that some use sound to do so doesn’t make them inferior, just different. The nostalgic idea that the silent film is somehow purer than the sound seems to spring forth from this same erroneous mindset. When Edison made the first modern movie camera, his intention was to use it in conjunction with his earlier invention, the exceptionally popular phonograph. This so-called visual medium was actually intended as a multimedia endeavor from the get-go. It was only due to a lack of technology (and that lack of technology was in the ability to project sound from a film, not in an ability to synchronize it with a film) that the silent cinema was necessary at all. While there are countless silent masterpieces, they probably should not be regarded as a purer demonstration of the potential of the medium, but, instead, as examples of what achievements are possible when working within technical limitations. It’s only when advances in the realm of sound projection finally made the sound film a possibility, the medium began to realize its full potential.
René Clair’s charming musical comedy Le Million was technically his first sound film (his previous Under the Roofs of Paris was shot silent, then later dubbed into talkiedom) and its sophisticated use of the fledgling technology led to universal acclaim for the director, who became regarded as the first true master of the sound film. Considering that the first talkie feature was made in 1928, there’s no doubt that Clair’s use of sound in Le Million is incredibly sophisticated. The anachronistic sound effects that comically comment upon the action and scenes in which the music comments upon the action on screen seem incredibly innovative when compared to the other sound films of the time. Instead of simply attempting to recreate the sounds heard in the movie’s "reality", Clair used his new tools as efficiently as he did a pan or a zoom to embellish our perceptions. Of course, much of what we see in Le Million has been imitated so many times that the innovations seem obvious, but that matters little, since there’s no denying that they feel like natural ways for Clair to tell his delightful story.
Le Million’s tale of a lost lottery ticket and the horde of Parisians that attempt to track it down is filled with an effervescent grace. The array of characters that Clair invents is utterly enchanting. The madcap chase for the ticket extends across all tiers of French society, through a bohemian apartment, a criminal hideout, a police station, and an opera house. The ceaseless and ceaselessly inventive pursuit that powers the movie never flags. Clair’s array of sight gags and coincidences feel far preferable to any serious moral that he could impose upon this circus, and the closest that he comes to one is to suggest that fate is a playful beast. Throughout, Le Million remains lighter than a soufflé, somehow simultaneously leisurely and rushed (probably due to the audience’s knowledge, courtesy of the prologue, that everything will work out in the end), but that exceedingly bearable lightness becomes the fuel for much of its charm.
There are those great films that lift us up to their levels and those that make us realize the wonders of our own lives. Le Million is definitely one of the latter, celebrating, as it does, the great diversity and excitement that our lives can contain. There’s no pandering to be found here, but instead, an invitation to see the world through the same rose colored tints that Clair does. It might be tempting to write off a film like this, which is solely interested in pleasing us, as a mere trifle. To do so would be to demean Clair’s consistently inspired savoir-faire and ability to provoke precisely that pleasure, however. Upon viewing the film, it’s quite easy to see why its arrival acted as a reproach to those who suggested the arrival of sound cinema meant the death of film. Over seventy years later, Le Million hasn’t lost a bit of luster.
The following is excerpted from an article by Paul Sherman that appeared in the Boston Herald, March 19, 2000:
While contemporary French films might give Gallic moviemaking a reputation for mopey navel-gazing, "Le Million" and "Under the Roofs of Paris" (Home Vision) show that wasn’t always the case. As with many other enduring French movies of the 1930s - like "Quai des Brumes," "Pepe Le Moko" (remade by Hollywood as "Algiers") and "Le Jour Se Leve" - these two early talkies by director René Clair are lively and down-to-earth, qualities that can be hard to find today. Clair’s buoyant blends of music, physical comedy and romance were made early in the sound period (1930-31), before the formulas were established to delineate what constituted a musical comedy or what made a comedy witty or low-brow. Both are stories of Average Joes and their uncommon romances that offer a delightful crazy-quilt of elements rarely tossed together once talkies' genres became more defined. Few movies have ever been as effervescent as "Le Million." It’s the tale of a debt-ridden artist (René Lefèvre) who discovers he’s won the lottery, but then must endure a daylong misadventure tracking down his misplaced ticket. The film offers a dreamy whirlwind of choreographed activity, creative singing (by the plain voices of the merchants or by an unseen Greek chorus that comments on the events) and pure comic charm. The second half takes the artist backstage at the opera, where he must chase down both a lost jacket and a lost girlfriend (Annabella) - action that clearly influenced the Marx Brothers’ "A Night at the Opera."
The following is taken from an article by Gilbert Adair that appeared in The Independent of London, April 25, 1999:
Film history has always had its own history and, even if there now does exist a canon of sorts, discoveries are still possible, reassessments and re-evaluations seem to be made on an almost annual basis, and certain artists whose niche in the pantheon had seemed for ever secure find themselves ignominiously ousted from it.
Such has been the fate of René Clair, once arguably the most celebrated of all French film-makers, director of Le Million, Sous les toits de Paris, Quatorze Juillet, and numerous other titles still calculated to prompt a nostalgic frisson among former frequenters of the Academy and Paris Pullman art-house cinemas. He who was compared (favourably) to Mozart by the critic James Agee, who was universally esteemed as one of the medium’s rare geniuses, who influenced Chaplin and Lubitsch, Minnelli and Billy Wilder, Truffaut and Demy, has now - without having suffered the sometimes meritorious indignity of being harshly condemned or the sometimes merciful one of being totally forgotten - come to be regarded as superfluous to it. Why so? Perhaps, primarily, because his work was ahead of its time. Ahead of its time? But, I hear you protest, surely the artists likeliest to be reclaimed by posterity are precisely those whose work was long described as "ahead of its time." Well, yes, but Clair is a case apart.
The principal ingredient of his oeuvre was its nostalgia. Clair was apparently born nostalgic (like the elderly gentleman in his 1952 time-travelling comedy Les Belles de nuit who, even in the Stone Age, pines wistfully for the good old days). Out of 25 features, just over half were set either wholly or partly in the past; others in a deliciously anachronistic Paris of which the Eiffel Tower, its spindly capital ‘A’ soaring over the city’s rooftops, was the emblematic logo; and still others juxtaposed contemporary urban values with traditional rural ones, the former caricatured, the latter idealised. In fact, his droll silent adaptation of Labiche’s Un chapeau de paille d’Italie (better-known in Britain as An Italian Straw Hat) was so imbued with nostalgia for the frivolous charms of the Belle Epoque that one irate cinema owner complained to the distributors that they had sent him an "old film." Clair, in short, had both the prescience and the exceptional ill-fortune to be nostalgic before it was fashionable to be nostalgic.
The following quote appeared in the Manchester Guardian, June 23, 1994:
"LOOKING back over 60 years or so, I often feel the most surprising thing in movie development has been the virtual total lack of follow-up to René Clair’s use of music in, say, Le Million, where Prosper’s conscience addresses him in song. I felt certain that a truly integrated use of music, a free and natural employment of its uses and benefits, would have developed after those early Clairs. But what have we had? Practically nothing. I always wanted to try it, but never got off the ground."
— Sidney Gilliat, co-screenwriter of such British cinema classics as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes and Carol Reed’s Night Train to Munich.
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