Rene Clair hits the jackpot

On Sunday, July 21, TCM will be screening a pair of early talkie comedies by Rene Clair.  Of the two, A Nous la Liberte is the more celebrated—perhaps even a bit notorious.  It was the film Charlie Chaplin was alleged to have ripped off when he made Modern Times (which also air  earlier the same day).  But I’m here today to act as the blog equivalent of a sign twirler—with a digital substitute for a giant neon inflatable arrow to point in the general direction of Clair’s Le Million, an utterly fabulous treat that shouldn’t be overshadowed by the better known A Nous la Liberte.

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Le Million is a musical comedy from 1931 that features some surprisingly adroit cinematography and special effects.  An opera singer features in the cast of characters, and in many ways the whole thing feels like a comic opera—a small scale story of a few people in a concentrated place and time performed with such intensity that it feels like a sweeping epic.

Rene Lefevre is the protagonist of this farce—he plays a rather selfish bohemian artist who has racked up a mass of bills he cannot pay, and is involved with two women—a long-suffering fiancée (Annabella) and a sexy model (Vanda Greville).  In the opening scenes we are given plenty of reasons to dislike this petty jerk, instead of sympathize with him—but then he receives word that he has purchased the winning lottery ticket and is a sudden millionaire.  That is, if he can produce the ticket—which is the problem.

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Clair expertly spins circumstance after circumstance, intricately interwoven complications that involve ever larger numbers of additional characters as the situation spins madly out of control.  Like A Nous la Liberte, the joke is about the nature of “private” property—Lefevre can’t exercise any ownership rights over the ticket until he gets his hands on it.  “Possession is nine tenths of the law,” as they say, or ”finders keepers.”

In the finale, Rene Clair stages a big musical number with almost Monty Python-esque inflections.  In it, the cast dances in circles, singing about how “they say that money doesn’t mean anything, but I’ll believe that when they start giving it away.”  I’m pretty sure that’s a lyric from a Blink 182 song.

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The idea of building a comedy around a character suddenly enjoying instantaneous unearned wealth is a common one (and informs a few key moments of A Nous la Liberte as well).   Although various approaches appear in different films, by far the most common one isn’t the lottery but the unexpected inheritance.

TV Tropes has a section devoted to this idea, but let’s take a quick trip back to 1912 for the earliest version I’ve yet seen (but I’m not so foolish as to say “the first,” just the oldest one I know of).  The film is Matrimony’s Speed Limit by Alice Guy-Blache (tune in this September for a programming block dedicated to her, but don’t expect this one to be run.  If you want to see it, seek out the DVD set The Origins of Film from the Library of Congress).  There’s a young couple—Fraunie Fraunholz (the boy) and Marian Swayne (the girl).  A stock crash ruins Fraunie’s financial position and he decides to break off his engagement to Marian since he’s now a pauper.  Marian doesn’t give a damn, and decides to trick Fraunie into marriage by concocting a phony telegram telling him he stands to inherit a fortune as long as he’s married by noon.  This sets off a chain of ludicrous circumstances as Fraunie races against the clock to marry someone, anyone—all the while Marian races across town to make sure that she’s the one by his side come noon.

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Yup, Matrimony’s Speed Limit is the same comic set-up as Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances.  Or The Three Stooges’ Brideless Groom (or Husbands Beware).  Or the Chris O’Donnell/Renee Zellwegger The Bachelor.  Mack Sennett turned out He Must Have a Wife in 1912, and I’m not entirely sure whether it preceded or followed Guy-Blache’s film.  But for that matter, the whole subgenre seems to have been inspired by a 1896 play The Black Sheep.

The list goes on—and if I tweak it to so as to change “comedian stands to inherit a fortune if they get married by a certain time” to be “comedian stands to inherit a fortune if they do [fill in the blank]” then we can draw in even more examples… but I’m not going to let this turn into a list.

I wonder if this recurring trope isn’t connected in some way to another recurring notion in comedy, one which I’ve written about here before.  Throughout the first half of the 20th century an “origin story” for movie comedy developed, and was reiterated time and again with the same basic contours: a socially maladapted and physically clumsy individual behaves in destructive ways that, if they happen to be caught on film, are mistaken by audiences for comedy—and the fool becomes an accidental comedy star.  What’s weird about this is that the comedians who kept insistently peddling this idea were actually serious artists with a perfectionist’s zeal and elaborately developed personal theories about comedy.  The likes of Mack Sennett, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Snub Pollard, Abbott and Costello, and others were anything but accidental comedians.

The reason why I think these ideas are connected is that inherent in both is a sense of unworthiness—that success, fame, and fortune could only come by accident or deus ex machine, never earned.  (And I can’t immediately call to mind any examples of Harold Lloyd doing either the inheritance gag or the accidental comedian gag—his character always earned his rewards).

Let’s take Charlie Chaplin as an example—he went from being a nearly homeless pauper who had to alternate with his brother Syd which one of them could eat that day, to being the most highly paid entertainer in the entire world.  How could that not spin your head?

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I mean, think about it like this: in The Gold Rush, Chaplin plays a misfit outsider who bumbles around chaotically until one day he suddenly falls into fabulous wealth and gets everything he ever wanted.  And in City Lights, Chaplin plays a misfit outsider who bumbles around chaotically, and winds up destitute.  The general critical reception of these two films has it that City Lights with its grim, heartbreaking ending is the more “realistic,” but just try to wrap your head around the fact that in point of fact it is the unrealistic fantasy and The Gold Rush more closely models what actually happened!

This is the secret shame that informs screen comedy—especially for those like Charlie Chaplin or Rene Clair who cared deeply about social justice, real life seemed to have lost connection with anything logical, sensible, or fair.  But for those—like Charlie Chaplin or Rene Clair—who also cared deeply about comedy, the triumph of the comedian wasn’t something to be abhorred.  Hence the unquiet compromise—hero comedians who get the good life but don’t deserve it.  Famous, when in fact they are just loser weirdos.  Rich, when in fact they did nothing to secure that wealth.

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3 Responses Rene Clair hits the jackpot
Posted By Gene : July 20, 2013 2:20 pm

The irony you write of is so true and permeates history, especially in this present age. Will have to check this out. A Nous La Liberte is one of my favorites.

Posted By swac44 : July 22, 2013 8:50 am

Was really looking forward to finally seeing Le Million, but due to the vagaries of Canadian film copyrights (many French titles have different rights holders up here due to their distribution in Quebec) TCM Canada aired The Man Who Laughs instead. Guess I’ll have to track down that Criterion edition instead.

Posted By À Nous la Liberté | Ruined for Life: Phoenix Edition : August 5, 2014 4:25 am

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