French director René Clair is best known for a trio of musicals he made in the early 1930s, at the beginning of the era of sound. As with too many directors, I didn't know what to expect when I resolved to watch them, only knowing that there had been some controversy over Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times" reputedly having borrowed too heavily from a sequence in Clair's "À Nous la Liberté" ("Liberty for Us"). I don't have the greatest appreciation of the Hollywood musicals of the same era, like the "The Gold Diggers" and "42nd Street," which I always found too stagey for my taste. And the added language barrier made me even more apprehensive. What does a 1930s French musical even look like?
Well, I'm glad to report that the ones directed by René Clair are a delight. I started with "À Nous la Liberté," which follows the misadventures of two escaped prisoners, then moved on to "The Million," about a missing lottery ticket, and finished up with "Under the Roofs of Paris," a more winsome romance. I liked each one a little less as I went, but then I was working backwards in time, from Clair's most ambitious, stylized film to the simplest, most realistic one. All three films were made in the span of a little over two years, but it's amazing to see the technical and artistic strides the director made from one to the next. "Under the Roofs of Paris" was Clair's first sound film, and one of the first French sound films to gain international recognition. You can tell that the technology was rudimentary and the director, who was famous for harboring deep reservations about the use of sound, was still in the early stages of experimenting with music and aural effects.
"Under the Roofs" was pleasant, and featured some impressive feats like the opening and closing crane shots. But the other two films are on another level entirely. "À Nous la Liberté" and "The Million" are silent comedies at heart, full of great slapstick gags, visual humor, and outsized emotions that I rarely saw in Busby Berkeley musicals. I don't know that Clair rivals Chaplin or Keaton's best, but he's certainly an artist cut from the same cloth. There's plenty of music and singing in these films, but rarely are the songs staged as musical numbers. Rather, they're either incorporated into the action or used like occasional narration, making them less obtrusive. Clair also plays with the marriage of sound and image, irreverently juxtaposing mismatched elements to make it seem like a flower is warbling a tune to the main character, or the heroine's shoe is ringing like an alarm clock. Among the filmmakers of the time, I don't know that there was anyone else using sound in such interesting, playful ways in mainstream films.
There's also quite a bit of social commentary in Clair's work, giving his plots a little more heft and substance than the norm. "The Million" looks at the effect of money on a young man's reputation and regard in his community, poking fun at social conventions in between the chase sequences and comic misunderstandings. "À Nous la Liberté" is more pointed satire, with a wonderful Kafkaesque production design that equates the dreary drudgery of modern life with endless production lines and conveyor belts. The two screwball heroes don't have to just escape their prison workhouse, but a larger society that functions in much the same way. So they proceed to rebel against order with chaos, and against stuffy propriety with silliness and humor. And they sing a jaunty little tune as they go that is ridiculously catchy, and I can't help humming it to myself days later, even though I can't decipher any of the lyrics.
And I guess that's what it all comes down to. There's a universality about Clair's films, from the themes to the character archetypes to the humor and humanism. "The Million" and "À Nous la Liberté" still work on almost every single level, eighty years later. And Clair managed to do what Chaplin and Keaton never managed, which was to make that monumental transition to the talkies despite all his misgivings, and employ sound just as well as he employed visuals. Now I'm curious to see what his silent films were like, and what happened to his style later, when he decamped from France to Hollywood for a decade.
One of these days I really have have to get rid of all these idiot preconceptions about films I've never seen. But then again, I have so much fun being wrong.