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An Italian Straw Hat / Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, Rene Clair 1927

Posted by keith1942 on June 4, 2014

italian

This is one of the classics of French cinema and one of the best films directed by René Clair. It was produced by Alexander Kamenka for Films Albatros at their Montreuil Studio. Films Albatros had started out as a film company of Russian émigrés, including the star actor Ivan Mosjoukine. However most of the émigrés had left Albatros for a new studio at Billancourt. Albatros had been in the forefront of French productions, but now it had to rebuild its success, relying on a series of comedy adaptation. The young René Clair turned in one hit, La Proie du vent (1927) and followed it up with this adaptation and updating of a famous French farce from 1851.

He was supported by an excellent cast and production team. The sets by Lazare Meerson and cinematography by Maurice Desfassiaux and Nicolas Roudakoff are all impressive. Most of the film, including many of the fine exteriors, were shot at the studio.

The film’s continued status is confirmed by it being included in Ian Christie’s The Peak of Silent Cinema (Sight & Sound November 2013):

“Clair’s solution, in agreeing to film Eugene Labiche’s vintage stage play, was to update it to the belle epoque of 1895 and to shoot it with the utmost simplicity, in the style of early film. Labiche’s play was always a satire on petit bourgeois pretension, with the nurseryman as keen that his daughter should marry a ‘gentleman of leisure’ as Ferdinand is to secure his future. Everything that gets in the way of the wedding represents a threat to the social order that is being confirmed; and in this case most of the obstacles are objects, signs of property and status, which constantly threaten to get out of hand.“

All of the director’s silent films were screened at the 2007 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a programme entitled René Clair: Le silence est d’or. The Festival Catalogue included notes on Clair and the films by Lenny Borger. He pointed out that for many years Clair’s reputation rested on a series of early sound films, including Le Million and A nous la liberté. Clair himself was often dismissive of some of his earliest films. In fact he developed his skills in a series of silent films which stand up very well today. Clair started out as a journalist, and then took up screen acting.  His first directorial outing was Paris Qui Dort (Sleeping Paris, 1924). Filmed in the summer of 1923 this is an early science fiction drama, running just over an hour. A mad scientist’s ray turns Paris into a frozen city of sleep. The only six characters awake embark on a surrealist trip round the city. The film is full and witty an innovative techniques and situations. It presents the delight of a young filmmaker with the magic of the new medium.

Entra'cte Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray

Entra’cte Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray

Entr’acte (i.e. intermission) is Clair’s famous film experiment from 1924. Clair was working as editor of the cinema section of the arts magazine Le Théâtre-Comoedia Illustré and was involved with avant-garde artists such as the Dadaists. The film was to fill the interlude in a new Ballet, Relâche, by Francis Picabia and Erik Satie. Entr’acte, which runs for just on twenty minutes, is another ensemble of cinematic techniques, much of it down to the cinematographer Jimmy Berliet. The official plot has a group of mourners chasing a runaway hearse.

Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge (The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge) was released in 1925. It had been made whilst Clair was working on Entr’acte and produced by Films René Fernand. It was a fantasy film mixing comedy and melodrama. It is full of the recognisable techniques and tricks in Clair’s first two films. The plot is quite complicated but ends in another dramatic chase. The standout sequence is set in the Moulin Rouge where the fantasy elements commence. Designer Robert Gys created the setting with great skill in the studio. The Giornate screening used a British print from the National Archive, which, surprisingly, is longer than the surviving French print.

Le Voyage Imaginaire (1925) was commissioned by ballet impresario Rolf de Maré to star his lead performer Jean Borlin. Like its predecessors this is a fantasy film, this time with the hero’s fantasy in a dream form. The sets by Robert Gys were again impressive, but the film did not really work effectively. It flopped and undermined the growing reputation Clair had established with his first three films. It also closed off a film career for Borlin.

Clair was then recruited to work for Films Albatros and his first production for them; La Proie du Vent was both a critical and commercial success. This launched the partnership with producer Alexandre Kamenka and designer Lazare Meerson. The plot follows a fantastic adventure romance set in the sort of Mittel-Europe revisited recently in Grand Budapest Hotel.  The film also starred the British actress Lilian Hall-Davis.

Clair’s follow-up film was Un Chapeau de Paile D’Italie. His last silent feature was Les Deux Timides (1928). This was a comedy by one of the authors of The Italian Straw Hat Eugène Labiche. The C19th play focuses on two shy male protagonists pursuing romantic interests with difficulty. Clair updated the play to the present and added characters and additional scenes.

His last silent was a documentary short, La Tour (1928) of the Eiffel Tower.

1929 onwards saw the arrival of the news sound cinema. Alexandre Kamanka’s Albatros Film was a casualty as the producer re-joined forces with his erstwhile Russian colleagues at the Billancourt Studio. Clair went to work at the Tobis Paris Studios, part of a conglomerate involving the Tobis and the Klangfilm Sound Companies. He retained the services of Art Designer Lazare Meerson and directed some of the outstanding early sound films including A nous la liberté (Freedom for Us, 1931) and Le Million (1931).

Fadinard

Fadinard

An Italian Straw Hat follows the travails of Fadinard (Albert Préjean) on his wedding day. An accident with the Italian straw hat of Anais Beauperthuis (Olga Tschekowa), caught in a compromising position with her lover Lieutenant Tavernier (Vital Geymond), upsets the carefully planned celebratory events. Fadinard, a bourgeois, is joining hands with Hélène, daughter of petit bourgeois Yvonneck. The comedy opens in the Yvonneck home, and in increasingly farcical situations, takes in the streets, Fadinard’s apartment, the Town Hall, and the home of Beauperthuis. Some of the comedy is delicate and recurring, two important props are a pair of gloves and a pair of shoes. Family, guests and others are often subject of misapprehensions and, importantly, not all of these are dispelled by the resolution. The actions involving the Lieutenant become increasingly bizarre and the coup de grace is presented with great flair.

Clair and his production team appear to have caught the milieu of the 1890s with real skill. What adds immeasurably to one’s pleasure is that the film recreates the sense of the cinema of the 1890s as well. Most of the exteriors are actually studio based, but are extremely convincing. The seemingly random passing dogs, ubiquitous in early film, contribute to this sense of authenticity. Once the straw hat has suffered its fate the comedy develops and becomes ever more emphatic.

The film was screened in a fairly good 35mm print recently at the National Media Museum. We enjoyed a fine accompaniment on the piano by Darius Battiwalla. The print, from the British Film Institute archive, was 6,626 feet whilst the original release was 7,320 feet in length. The projection speed for the film’s premiere was recorded, 19 fps. This gives about eleven minutes difference in running times between the two versions. Apparently the UK release in 1930 had about a reel removed. There does not seem to be a record of what was cut, and not all the elisions in the film are clear. There are though two noticeable differences. During the ceremony of the Town Hall Fadinard imagines the Lieutenant wreaking havoc in his apartment. About half of this sequence is missing, the most dramatic part where Clair uses stop-motion effects: also seen in his earlier experimental films. Later when Fadinard visits Monsieur Beauperthuis he recounts the original accident, presented visually as a melodramatic stage version. All of this has been removed. In both cases the UK distributor seems to have removed the most unconventional treatment in the sequences. They presumably thought even then that English audiences like their ‘realism’. Darius also noticed that a couple of title cards were missing in the shorter version. These also relate to the sequences at the apartment of Monsieur Beauperthuis. In this case the distributor appears to have misunderstood the visual signal Clair adds for the audience at this point. In fact one can work out the sense of the sequence from the remaining visual sign. One other brief scene cut is an image of a priest and marital couple as Fadinard explains his situation to the Lieutenant. The oddity here is that there are two such inserts, but only one has been removed.

The continuity of the film remains in the shorter version, as does most of the comedy. Unfortunately the two main sequences that have been cut, Fadinard’s imaginings at the Town Hall and his presentation of Monsieur Beauperthuis, are among the highlights of the film. However An Italian Straw Hat remains one of the finest of the silent era’s comedies. It is certainly equal to the great filmic comedies made in Hollywood in the 1920s. Clair has a great comic touch and his filmic style, together with excellent production support, is always a pleasure. Whilst this film is the peak of his work in the 1920s the other features from that decade are certainly worth seeking out.

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3 Responses to “An Italian Straw Hat / Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, Rene Clair 1927”

  1. This film is absolutely wonderful, thanks for giving it such a thorough write up!

  2. Faisal J. said

    Reblogged this on That Dark Alley.

  3. […] a review from cinemalane that is pretty near the mark and here’s another one from early&silentfilm. One word of warning, of course you can watch the version on Youtube, but that is not one of great […]

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