A talented batch of new directors redefined the French film scene in the 1920s. Artists like Jean Gremillon, Jean Renoir and Luis Bunuel combined avant-garde and commercial film techniques during the post-war years. In 1924, a young René Clair stepped behind the camera to become one of the most prolific creators of screen comedy.
Born René Chomette in Paris in 1898, he served in an ambulance unit in World War I and spent his early years reporting for the Parisian newspaper L’Intransigeant. He found his passion in writing poems and stories, but in the early ‘20s a group of friends convinced him to act in movies. Although the cinema did not initially appeal to Clair, Charlie Chaplin’s films inspired him to write his own scenarios. In 1920, he first appeared with Loie Fuller in Le Lys de la vie. He took the stage name “Clair” in 1921, for his roles in Louis Feuillade’s L’orpheline and Parisette.
In 1922, he joined the crew of director Jacques de Baroncelli’s film Carillon de minuit and he also started to write a column on cinema for the magazine Theatre et Comoedia Illustres. The next year he wrote and directed his first film, Paris qui dort (The Crazy Ray, 1925). He made three more films over the next three years: Entr’acte, Le fantome du Moulin Rouge and Le voyage imaginaire, all of which used double exposures, slow motion, fast motion, unusual camera angles and inventive montage.
In Clair’s early critical essays he described a “pure cinema&helip;free of the restrictions and restraints imposed by narrative fiction.” According to Clair, “the only poetry that exists in the cinema is that created by the image itself…a singularly new poetry whose rules are not determined. Motion is the primary basis of cinematic lyricism.”
In the mid ‘20s, several French directors made both avant-garde and commercial films. A number of critics denounced Clair’s 1925 Le voyage imaginaire for interweaving fantasy and reality. This criticism drove Clair to “prove (he) could make a commercial film as bad as everyone else.” He was nearing the end of a two-picture-a-year deal with the Albatros Production Company and he needed to make another film, when fellow director Marcel L’Herbier approached him with Eugène Labiche’s 1851 vaudeville farce Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat). Clair was intrigued by the challenge of translating Labiche’s “verbal wit into visual humor.”
Clair’s Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (1928) demonstrates his ability to accept and transform a strong narrative. Rather than a static drawing room comedy centered on the play’s dialogue, the film is a marvel of inventive sight gags as it sends its characters on a wild goose chase across Paris in search of the hat that will preserve a married woman’s honor and rescue the bridegroom from certain death. Clair credited Labiche with creating a new genre of comedy that he called “vaudeville-nightmare,” in which the protagonist encounters threats and fears that we associate with our most “terrifying dreams.”
Clair completed the script for Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie in eight days, and the entire production, from script to premiere, took less than five months. When it came to shooting, Clair said, “it wasn’t much of a secret. I shot exactly what I knew I would need; whereas some directors were shooting everything they could conceivably turn their lens on. If you control the cutting of the film, god knows you control the film.”
After the success of Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, Albatros renewed Clair’s two-picture-a-year contract, but proceeded to turn down several of Clair’s proposals. Strictly for himself, Clair shot the short film La Tour (1929) on the Eiffel Tower, then he returned to Labiche for inspiration, selecting the 1860 comedy Les deux timides (Two Timid Souls). Before he had even begun, however, Clair went into pre-production on an entirely different film, Une enquête est ouverte, which would be a documentary-style version of a Hollywood police procedural. Albatros could not secure the government’s official patronage for the film, so they pulled the plug on it. Clair immediately returned to Les deux timides, shooting it in less than two months and premiering it on the same bill as La Tour. Able to produce only one feature film that year for Albatros, Clair then severed his relations with the company.
Les deux timides received harsh criticism, and Clair himself dismissed the film, his last of the silent era, by saying, “It was just a game.” Enthusiasts of Clair’s work thought the film was delightful, but even they judged it a minor effort. On the other hand, Clair’s biographer Celia McGerr has said Les deux timides is “more vibrant, technically complex than Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie…one of the most visually ambitious films of the silent era.”
Directors were not the only ones to experiment with both avant-garde and commercial cinema. Pierre Batcheff, the shy trial lawyer Frémissin in Les deux timides, was a Russian émigré who appeared in several Albatros productions, but he is most famously known as the protagonist in Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel’s 1928 surrealist masterpiece Un chien andalou. Sadly, Batcheff’s career came to an abrupt end with his drug-related suicide in 1932.
Clair considered giving up filmmaking and returning to a career as a writer when sound came in. To him, the silent screen spoke to the imagination through rhythm and movement. With sound, “they will talk nonsense in our ears and we will be unable to shut it out.” In 1929, however, while directing in London, Clair watched a few Hollywood “talkies” and he became excited by the artistic possibilities for placing sound in opposition to the image, or even using sound to replace image. He achieved worldwide stardom through his sound films Sous les toits de Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), A nous la liberte (1931) and Quatorze juillet (1933).
Clair thought of Hollywood as very little more than a “symbol of commercial interests and oppression of artists,” but World War II forced him to move his family to Los Angeles after the threat of German occupation shut down the production of his never-finished film Air-Pur. According to Georges Charensol, Clair had hoped to set up a center for French film production in America, but nothing ever came of it. Between the years 1941 and 1946, Clair wrote a second novel and directed five Hollywood films, including The Flame of New Orleans (1941) and I Married a Witch (1942) starring Veronica Lake.
Clair moved back to Paris in 1946, and he continued to direct films for twenty years before he returned to his first love, writing. In 1960, René Clair became the first director of motion picture comedies to be elected into the Academie Française. He followed in the footsteps of Eugène Labiche, who, despite angry protests, had been the first vaudeville playwright to be elected into the Academie Française in 1880.
Presented at SFSFF 2008 with live music by Baguette Quartet