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Le Million (Rene Clair) 1931
The often-asserted notion that movies should be regarded dominantly as a visual medium has always irked me. I’m all for films that are capable of telling their stories visually, but that some use sound to do so doesn’t make them inferior, just different. The nostalgic idea that the silent film is somehow purer than the sound seems to spring forth from this same erroneous mindset. When Edison made the first modern movie camera, his intention was to use it in junction with his earlier invention, the exceptionally popular phonograph. This so-called visual medium was actually intended as a multimedia endeavor from the get-go. It was only due to a lack of technology (and that lack of technology was in the ability to project sound from a film, not in an ability to synchronize it with a film) that the silent cinema was necessary at all. While there are countless silent masterpieces, they probably should not be regarded as a purer demonstration of the potential of the medium, but, instead, as examples of what achievements are possible when working within technical limitations. It’s only when advances in the realm of sound projection finally made the sound film a possibility, the medium began to realize its full potential.
Rene Clair’s charming musical comedy Le Million was technically his first sound film (his previous Under the Roofs of Paris was shot silent, then later dubbed into talkiedom) and its sophisticated use of the fledgling technology led to universal acclaim for the director, who became regarded as the first true master of the sound film. Considering that the first talkie feature was made in 1928, there’s no doubt that Clair’s use of sound in Le Million is incredibly sophisticated. The anachronistic sound effects that comically comment upon the action and scenes in which the music comments upon the action on screen seem incredibly innovative when compared to the other sound films of the time. Instead of simply attempting to recreate the sounds heard in the movie’s “reality”, Clair used his new tools as efficiently he did a pan or a zoom to embellish our perceptions. Of course, much of what we see in Le Million has been imitated so many times that the innovations seem obvious, but that matters little, since there’s no denying that they feel like natural ways for Clair to tell his delightful story.
Le Million’s tale of a lost lottery ticket and the horde of Parisians that attempt to track it down is filled with an effervescent grace. The array of characters that Clair invents is utterly enchanting. The madcap chase for the ticket extends across all tiers of French society, through a bohemian apartment, a criminal hideout, a police station, and an opera house. The ceaseless and ceaselessly inventive pursuit that powers the movie never flags. Clair’s array of sight gags and coincidences feel far preferable to any serious moral that he could impose upon this circus, and the closest that he comes to one is to suggest that fate is a playful beast. Throughout, Le Million remains lighter than a soufflé, somehow simultaneously leisurely and rushed (probably due to the audience’s knowledge, courtesy of the prologue, that everything will work out in the end), but that exceedingly bearable lightness becomes the fuel for much of its charm.
* * * * Masterpiece