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The transition from silent to sound film brought on a brief impoverishment of the medium. In order to produce sound film, the rudimentary technology demanded that actors maintain close proximity to microphones, and, in more cases than not, the performers came to resemble mannequins and cameras rarely moved.
While many individuals succumbed to these apparent imperatives, a number of directors recognized that sound was but another available technique for communication. Films like Rouben Mamoulian’s Applause (1929), King Vidor’s Hallelujah (1929), Roland West’s Alibi (1929) and The Bat Whispers (1930), and Fritz Lang’s M (1930) memorably conjoined sound and image, illustrating that recording devices did not necessitate the cessation of movement.
Making the Silent Screen Speak
Albert Préjean, Pola Illéry, Edmond Gréville
Another notable director who helped to transform the transition from silent to sound film was René Clair (1898-1981). He began his career in the 1920s, when he joined up with a Parisian circle of artists (including painters and musicians) who wished to employ contemporary techniques to depict the modern world in an extraordinary manner. His first film, Paris Qui Dort ( The Crazy Ray) (1923), used stop motion photography and the narrative conventions of science fiction in order to render the city of Paris as if frozen by new-fangled technology.
It was his next film, the Surrealist-influenced short subject Entr’acte (1924), that created a stir. Made with the painter Francis Picabia, it was shown as part of the performance of the ballet, Relâche, scored by Eric Satie. Its frenetic mixture of slow and fast motion, realistic and surrealistic imagery, and slapstick sight gags makes for a visual romp that has not lost it ebullience over time.
Like many, Clair resisted the transition to sound film, but only until he could redesign his technique to take full advantage of the new technology. He combined music and sound effects in addition to minimal dialogue, with a moving camera in order to involve the eye as well as the ear. As much as he favored memorable dialogue, Clair was committed to using music in his soundtracks. His first three sound features—Sous Les Toits de Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), and À nous la liberté (1931)—are not musicals per se, but they employ song as much as speech as primary modes of expression. Each includes a virtual wall-to-wall score by Georges Auric, at the time a major film composer.
As was the case with his silent features, Clair remained interested in fanciful subject matter, and although his stories are set in Paris, the environment takes on a touch of the fantastic. In collaboration with his art director Lazare Meerson and cinematographer Georges Perinal, Clair concocted a cityscape in each of these films that combines the uncommon with the quotidian.
Sous Les Toits de Paris announces its innovation with the very first shot. A camera attached to a boom glides over the rooftops of the city down to a metropolitan square. There, a crowd gathers around a street performer, Albert (Albert Préjean), who leads the assembly line in singing the film’s title song. In the crowd is Pola (Pola Illéry), a young woman who attracts Albert’s eye, but is also the object of the affections of Fred (Gaston Modot), an abrasive thief. He is arrested when police discover he has hidden some household goods for an acquaintance. While Albert is imprisoned, his best friend, Louis (Edmond Gréville), looks out for Pola, only to fall in love with her as well.
The integration of sound and image is rather primitive in this film, and scenes in which the characters do speak are visually static. However, the portions that include song or instrumental music possess a grace and ease of motion, and one presumes that Clair shot these silent and dubbed the sound afterwards.
Sous Les Toits de Paris couples the music with a recognizable urban environment, using certain visual paradigms of the period that gave the public their pictorial shorthand for Paris. Recall Brassai’s dreamy but exquisitely detailed photographs of the demimonde, the Galouise-smoking lovers wrapped in one another’s arms in an atmospheric café. As much as contemporary gangster films featuring James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson established the way The City looked to U.S. audiences, Clair’s picture offered a similar perspective for the French.
One sees in Sous Les Toits de Paris important antecedents to the French urban melodramas of the late 1930s, which film historians have described as “poetic realism.” Marcel Carné, who directed the quintessential film of this mode, Le Jour Se Leve (1939), starring Jean Gabin, was an assistant director on Sous Les Toits de Paris.
Le Million relinquishes such “realistic” details for fantasy. The opening sequence again establishes the tone: the camera tracks across the roofs of the city in pursuit of the sounds of many voices singing. Two men drawn by the noise emerge from their apartments to gaze through an attic window upon a room virtually bursting with revelers, celebrating that an artist, Michel (René Lefèvre), has won a million francs in the lottery. A variety of complications ensue, when he inadvertently leaves the winning ticket in his jacket that his girlfriend, Beatrice (Annabella), mistakenly gives to a thief, Grandpa Tulip (Paul Olliver). Unaware of the prize, he sells the jacket to an effete opera singer (Constantin Stroesco). During a frenzied performance and its even more energetic aftermath, Michel recovers his fortune and Grandpa Tulip and his gang are captured by the constabulary.
As this sequence of coincidences illustrates, the plot of Le Million is as light as a soufflé. What the characters lack dramatic motivation, they make up for in joie de vivre, repeatedly breaking into song. At times, Le Million gives the impression that Clair perceives his characters as puppets to manipulate, yet the film never feels mechanical. Its playfulness is particularly visible at the opera recital, where the jacket is tossed from character to character, like a sartorial soccer ball. Clair replaces any manner of naturalistic soundtrack with the color commentary of a professional sports match, allowing the sound of the crowd cheering to respond to the action as the coat passes from hand to hand.
À nous la liberté blends the musical and lively dimensions of its predecessors with an even more elaborate sense of visual design. A satire of industrialization and the soul-numbing consequences of the assembly, it focuses on the fates of two prisoners, the tall Emile (Henri Marchand) and the short and effervescent Louis (Raymond Cordy). During an escape attempt, Emile makes his way over the wall, but Louis is forced to remain behind. Circumstances lead Emile to the trade of making and selling phonographs, and in a few years, he has become a successful tycoon by cornering the market.
Ironically, Emile has made the plant in which he produces his phonographs as sterile and inhibiting as the prison he escaped. The men move along in lines as if automatons, working piecemeal. The factory scenes resemble the underground workplace in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), albeit in a comic mode; still, À nous la liberté‘s criticisms are clear. Ironically, Louis emerges from prison and finds himself outside the plant. Lazing about, enjoying the spring day, he is shanghaied by the guards and put to task as a member of the workforce.
Louis and Emile are soon reacquainted, and the newly liberated Louis reinforces to his stuffy friend that his social and economic success has led to another form of imprisonment. Both men quickly find solidarity in their affection for juvenile byplay and lack of success in any romantic attachments, and eventually decide to cast off their shackles of conformity.
Both the visual design and satire of À nous la liberté have influenced subsequent films and other media. Charles Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) recalls its critique of mechanization, so much so that the French producers, without Clair’s support, fought a long, ultimately unsuccessful, suit over plagiarism. As well, a sequence in which Louis cannot cope with the assembly line resembles the classic “Job Switching” (a.k.a. “Candy Factory”) episode of I Love Lucy. In a more recent instance, the elaborate look of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) brings to mind Clair’s alienating architecture.
The impact of Clair’s work on other filmmakers and performers belies the fact that these three films are more often read about than viewed. Film histories cite their virtues, yet none are featured with any regularity in revivals. Their reissue as part of the Criterion Collection permits one the best possible means of assessing the depth and delight of Clair’s understanding of sound and image. The pristine prints are digitally transferred; the French dialogue has been newly translated and subtitled; and the extra features on the discs include prints of both Paris qui dort and En’tracte, as well as interviews with Clair and his widow, Madame Bronja Clair.
Clair’s reputation has fluctuated; awarded the Legion of Honor by the French government, he has also been disparaged for his attention to detail and design, with critics calling his films bloodless, if not dessicated. John Russell Taylor wrote in 1980, “Clair’s cinema goes about as far as it is possible to go through the conscious exercise of consciously cultivated talents; it leaves nothing to instinct or chance. Which may be at once its greatest strength and its greatest weakness.” These three films illustrate that a rigorous allegiance to formal construction need not evaporate a viewer’s pleasure. If countless films today overwhelm with witless dialogue and ear-numbing music, René Clair’s first three sound features repeatedly attract the ear and engage the mind.
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