Director: René Clair
Production: Films Sonores Tobis (France); black and white, 35mm; running time: 89 minutes. Released 1931.
Producer: Frank Clifford; screenplay: René Clair, from the musical comedy by Georges Berr and M. Guillemaud; photography: Georges Périnal and Georges Raulet; production designer: Lazare Meerson; music: Georges Van Parys, Armand Bernard and Philippe Parès.
Cast: René Lefèvre (Michel); Annabella (Beatrice); Louis Allibert (Prosper); Vanda Gréville (Vanda); Paul Olivier (Father Tulipe, a gangster); Odette Talazac (Prima donna); Constantin Stroësco (Sopranelli, the tenor); Raymond Cordy (Taxi driver).
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* * *
Of the series of comedies that René Clair made for Tobis Films at the beginning of the sound era, Le million remains the most satisfying. It was preceded by the half-silent/half-musical Under the Roofs of Paris and followed by A nous la liberté, making Clair the first internationally acclaimed sound film director.
Clair had become one of the most vociferous opponents of the sound film, claiming that it could only mire down the silent film's flights of images. He had begun his career with the anarchic Paris qui dort (1923) and Entr'acte (1924), and he feared the added equipment and personnel, the excessively wordy scripts, and the close-ups of the actors speaking those scripts. It took someone as skeptical as Clair to overcome these problems in the early sound film. In Under the Roofs of Paris he freed the camera from street singers and let it scale an apartment house, peering in at every floor to watch the effects of their song. He joked with the medium by cutting the sound when a door was closed. In this way he made the first international talkie a success by keeping talk to a minimum.
With Le million his ambitions grew. Every element (sets, lighting, acting, noise, speech, and camerawork) was broken into parts capable of fitting an overriding rhythm that didn't properly belong to any of them. Characters don't walk or gesture so much as half-dance their way from scene to scene. Double chases, near misses, and parallel plots give Clair the chance to syncopate the action with his razor-edge cutting. Scenes are stopped just as one character leaves the frame, and another enters the next. Every shot offers a single dramatic or rhythmic jolt. Ultimately these tidy bits collect on stage for the delightful denouement.
The plot is as symmetrical as the decor. The lyric opera is set off against the bohemian life of two poor artists both in love with a ballerina. Their happiness depends on finding a lottery ticket which through a clever series of reversals finds its way into the jacket of the lead singer in "The Bohemians." The struggle to grab the ticket involves the police and a Robin Hood band led by the master of the underworld, the master of Paris, the master of ceremonies, Père Tulipe. At its height Clair abandons even the abstract tone of natural sound and lays the noise of a rugby crowd over the madcap actions as the jacket is passed from person to person until it appears in the hands of Père Tulipe who produces the winning ticket for our hero.
Afraid of the talkie, Clair gave cinema its purest example of what a lyrical film might be.