In the final scene of Frank Capra’s classic weep-fest, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s young child proclaims, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” Well, as far as this reviewer is concerned, every time I’m in a theatre and an audience member laughs at vulgar, cheap, and unoriginal scatological humor, the artistic medium of cinema begins to die. Of course, it’s not the filmgoer’s fault but that of the filmmaker and while it’s the dramatic films that earn all of the awards and make us weep, one seldom appreciates just how difficult it is to create a perfect comedy, possibly since in its very nature, it’s supposed to look so spontaneous and effortless.
There are comedic rules and classic adages served up time and time again such as given enough time, even the most heartbreaking tragedy can be unspeakably humorous, repetition (especially in threes) leads to the most chuckles, and that certain consonants are funnier than others. However, when it comes to foreign comedies, unless one speaks the language, the last rule goes right out the window so new rules for just what makes something funny must be invented.
With this in mind, imagine the alternately terrifying and liberating feeling of crafting a musical comedy in France back in 1931, before all the advice had been summarized and before filmmakers hoping for a quick laugh crammed in as many toilet scenes as possible. Not only did famed director René Clair manage to live up to this challenge adapting Georges Berr’s play with co-writer Marcel Guillemaud but as noted by The Criterion Collection, their finished result, Le Million, would not only change the face of musical comedies forever, especially here in the states, but also inspire the masterful comedians Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers. By employing the oldest trick in the comedic book that simpler is better, Clair and his comedic cohorts started with a simple premise and then began stacking up the obstacles like dominoes, building and building it with tremendous effect, weaving gorgeous circles and patterns to delight our senses until they knock it all down for our unparalleled amusement.
Opening with a merry celebration, the bulk of Le Million rewinds itself to relate the unpredictable events that transpired over the course of that particular day. Soon we’re introduced to the flirtatious painter Michel (Rene Lefevre) who finds he’s guilty of the sin of omission when the beautiful subject (Vanda Greville) he’s been leading on discovers that Beatrice (Annabella), the woman she assumed was his neighbor, is in fact his long-suffering fiancé. And by now Beatrice has grown infinitely weary and annoyed by both Michel’s favorite hobby of entertaining beautiful models as well as the fact that he’s endlessly indebted to creditors, thereby perpetually postponing his promise that they will eventually wed.
Shortly thereafter as Michel is predictably hounded by an angry mob of townspeople to whom he owes money, Michel and his best friend Prosper (Louis Allibert) learn that Michel is the lucky winner of the French lottery. Sure that the winnings will be the answer to all of Michel’s problems, they quickly return to retrieve the ticket from an old coat pocket, only to discover that—without realizing what was inside the pocket—Beatrice has given the worthless, tattered coat to an elderly, enterprising eccentric named Grandpa Tulip (Paul Olliver).
Complicating the deceptively simple plot even more in a way that seemed to inspire Susan Seidelman’s Desperately Seeking Susan, Tulip later sells the jacket to an Italian tenor named Ambrosio Sopranelli (Constantin Siroesco) who feels it’s the ideal wardrobe for the character he’s playing that evening in the opera before he journeys over to America to further his career. Now with time running out before the curtain goes up, Michel and Prosper follow leads both separately and together, trying to win back the trust and affection of ballerina Beatrice along the way as they strive to claim their ticket, with the creditors and the beautiful Vanda Greville trailing them from only a few steps behind.
Fans of classic Marx Brothers comedies will immediately see the influence as Le Million gets increasingly chaotic, with characters just missing one another, the few maddening misunderstandings mixed in for maximum tension, and of course music throughout. However, while the music sometimes pulled one out of the Marx’s merry mayhem (most notably in the awe-inspiring but overly staged productions from A Night at the Opera), Le Million employs its soundtrack brilliantly. Much like the film’s opera “The Bohemians” which is listed as one crafted in three acts, there are three distinct acts to Clair’s work and he not only weaves in music from a natural source as one character sings or plays the piano either in rehearsal or for amusement but also structures his film operatically as well, with the creditors making up a singing version of a Greek chorus and other characters commenting on the action through song. And although as mentioned earlier, it’s cited as a definite Chaplin favorite along with impacting American musical movies, while it has much in common with musicals, one can’t simply stoop to pigeonhole Le Million by labeling it as belonging strictly to the genre, much like calling Jacques Demy’s 1960’s French New Wave classic The Umbrellas of Cherbourg a musical is a disservice as well.
In fact true to musical form, while there is a showstopper, Le Million’s is contradictory in that it’s subtle, accidental, and we feel we stumble upon it in the same way as our characters do. During the film’s opera in the final act, Sopranelli and his leading lady belt out a gorgeous song but our attention is diverted from their polished performance to a different part of the stage as Michel and Beatrice, hiding from the sight of the audience, seem to fall back in love right before our eyes, the only cues being the feeling the music gives us and the delicate touches in the cinematography as flower petals fall and it’s given a fairy-tale like glow. Seeing a shot as elegant, exquisite, and understated like this one not only made me nostalgic for black and white photography which sells the moment better than color perhaps could have—possibly making it more surreal or “precious” with pastels—but also felt like the ultimate antidote to viewing too many pre-packaged romantic comedies which end with a literal chase, the obligatory snappy one-liner, and a clinch.
While film can never actually be mistaken for real life, especially in an expertly choreographed 1931 French musical comedy, it heightens life. Moreover, in Clair’s simplicity, especially in scenes such as the one I just described, it somehow engages us in recognition and identification by its subtlety, making one relate even stronger to the gorgeously restored Criterion Collection classic than most contemporary films in the genre at your local multiplex. Thereby, although when films like The Love Guru and Meet Dave try their best to murder the medium, the late Rene Clair and his marvelous cohorts breathe much needed life back into the dwindling art of cinema when viewers ignore scatological, juvenile fodder and take the pains to seek out something like Le Million.