This release by Flicker Alley of a newly mastered version of René Clair’s great silent comedy The Italian Straw Hat, fills a major gap in the availability of his films on DVD. Few of cinema’s great master’s have been as poorly served on DVD as has Clair and even today many of his films – especially those from his British and American periods – remain unavailable on DVD.
Clair’s reputation was built primarily upon three exceptional comedies made in the early sound era in France: Sous les toits de Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and À nous la liberté (1931) (the latter the center of controversy when Charlie Chaplin was accused of plagiarizing it for Modern Times- - even those being charitable to Chaplin have to acknowledge that he borrowed heavily from it). However, fans of Clair’s films had not had DVD access to either The Italian Straw Hat or such notable later efforts as The Ghost Goes West or I Married a Witch, although the best film of his American period, And Then There Were None, has been available in an remastered though adequate version
Although Clair primarily made his reputation in the sound period, he made two very important silent films, this one and the surrealist masterpiece Entr’acte (available as an extra in the Criterion edition of À nous la liberté). Until now, American viewers have not had the opportunity to see a complete edition of the film. his print was made from the original 35mm negative used for the original American release that, unfortunately, had been subjected to many cuts, with missing bits supplied from a French print. The overall result is excellent, though with a few rough moments one suspects are from the French print. The DVD offers two soundtracks, one an orchestral version and the other solo piano, using musical cues approved by Clair.
The Italian Straw Hat is based on the play (Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie) by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel, which was first staged in 1851. Clair’s film updates the action to 1895. The story deals with the events on the day of the marriage of Fadinard (Albert Prejean). While on his way home to prefer for his wedding, he is forced to get briefly out of his horse cart to recover his whip. While doing do, his horse wanders over to a bush upon which is resting an Itallian straw hat, which he proceeds to chew upon.
The hat belongs to a young married woman who is cavorting in the undergrowth with a dashing lieutenant. The two of them follow Fadinard on his way home, where the lieutenant explains that the woman is married and her honor will be insulted if a replacement for her hat cannot be found (though it is not really explained why her honor hasn’t instead been insulted by the officer who has been philandering with her, nor why they can’t come up with a satisfactory explanation to her husband as to how the hat was destroyed). The officer demands that Fadinard provide a replacement hat or he will destroy all of the contents of his apartment. The balance of the film involves Fadinard’s attempts to save his apartment from destruction, find a replacement hat, and get married, all at the same time.
It is thus a film about marriage and the attempt to save a marriage; the beginning of a marriage and one in danger of ending; a film about the beauties of marital love and the tawdriness of adultery. The main protagonist must preserve another’s marriage while embarking on one himself.
No description of the plot can account for this film’s brilliance. Clair is one of the supreme masters of the purely visual aspects of film narrative, inviting comparison to directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Ernst Lubitsch (especially the latter’s Lady Windemere’s Fan). Although the original play was a chatty affair, Clair is able to distill the play’s central comedy so completely that he almost entirely dispenses with title cards, employing far fewer than usual in a silent film.
Although his previous films had all been short affairs, this runs to 105-minutes with scarcely a wasted moment. Although Fadinard is clearly the lead character, Clair masterfully coordinates a large ensemble cast through one deceptively complex scene after another, always disguising his expertise rather than calling attention to it. He uses a host of techniques to sharpen the narrative and keep it exhilarating. A couple of examples.
- During the wedding reception a pianist is playing while a small child interferes by tinkling on the keys on the extreme upper register. She eventually slaps him and the mother of the child angrily walks up to her. But at the precise moment we expect to see the mother address the other woman sitting at the piano, we instead get a close up of her hands upon the keys. She stops and then removes them, holding them at readiness; a far more effective moment than merely seeing the two women talk.
- There is a delightfully orchestrated moment during the civil part of the wedding (the couple enjoy both a civil and a religious ceremony). The wife of one of the members of the wedding party notices that her husband’s clip-on tie is hanging loose from his neck. She tries to get his attention and gestures at her neck, but he keeps turning at the wrong moment and doesn’t understand her.Gradually, most of the other men in the room do see this and mistakenly wonder if she is telling them that something is wrong with their ties. The result is that every male in the room, including the magistrate performing the marriage, is checking his tie, except the man whose tie does need attention.
The brilliant ensemble cast is an unceasing delight in the film, with every character memorable and distinct, every actor possessing a wonderfully expressive face (the face was in the silent era what the voice would be in the sound period). We get to know the characters so well that when near the end of the film we are shown only the hands and arms or shoes of the members of the party, we know precisely who is shown.
The DVD contains a number of excellent extras, though unfortunately what would have been one of the most helpful, a commentary track, is missing. Two short films are included in addition to the main film. The 1928 René Clair short Le Tour, containing a wealth of contemporary film footage of the Eifel Tower, is the more interesting of the two. A rather pedestrian 1907 film by Ferdinand Zecca entitled Noce en Goguette (After the Wedding) is included less for its artistic merits (which are negligible) than because it shows the activities of a wedding party only 12 years after the time of the action in the main film.
There are also complete .pdfs of the original Labiche and Michel play along with an essay entitled “Eugene Labiche, Vaudevillist Member of the Academy” by Clair Vincent Chesley. The disc comes with a booklet providing several short pieces, including an important 1940 review by Iris Barry that was crucial in changing critical assessments of the film in the United States after a butchered print had been released in the early ‘30s.
This release not only provides us with one of the most important previously unavailable films by one of French and world cinema’s greatest comic directors, but one of the great films of the late silent era.