René Clair - Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie
Programme note by Lenny Borger

UN CHAPEAU DE PAILLE D’ITALIE (Un cappello di paglia di Firenze) (Films Albatros, FR 1927)
Regia/dir., scen: René Clair, dalla piece di/from the play by Eugène Labiche & Marc Michel (1851); f./ph: Maurice Desfassiaux, Nicolas Roudakoff; scg/des: Lazare Meerson; cast: Albert Préjean (Fadinard, lo sposo/the groom), Yvonneck (Nonancourt, il suocero/the father-in-law), Marise Maia (Hélène, la sposa/the bride), Olga Tschekowa (Anais Beauperthuis), Vital Geymond (il tenente/Lieutenant Tavernier), Jim Gérald (Beauperthuis), Alex Allin (Félix, il domestico/the valet), Paul Ollivier (Vésinet, lo zio sordo/the deaf uncle), Louis Pré fils (Bobin, il cugino con un guanto/the cousin with one glove), Alexis Bondireff (il cugino con la cravatta/the cousin with the tie), Alice Tissot (sua moglie/his wife); data uscita/released: 12.1.1928; 35mm, 2229 m., 103’ (19 fps); fonte copia/print source: Cinémathèque Française, Paris.
Didascalie in francese / French intertitles

Live musical accompaniment, adapting themes from Nino Rota’s 1955 comic opera, performed by Angela Annese, piano.

Clair’s film of Un chapeau de paille d’Italie, adapted from the vaudeville of Labiche and Michel, has had more than one sound-track over the years; but equally the very successful theatrical text, a true classic of the genre, has inspired some three or more important 20th-century European composers, above all Jacques Ibert (who composed the incidental music for a production of the piece in Amsterdam, from which derived his wonderfully elegant 1930 Divertissement) and Nino Rota. Rota, already a composer of film music, and powerfully impressed by Clair’s film, between 1945 and 1954 conceived an extremely successful transposition into a comic opera – Il cappello di paglia di Firenze. This had its premiere in Palermo in 1955, and the subsequent production by Giorgio Strehler at the Piccola Scala of Milan ran for three successive seasons. It is still regularly re-staged in the major Italian opera houses. So we have now the possibility of adapting a kind of “pastiche” of the very lovely music Rota composed for Il cappello, as an appropriate accompaniment for Clair’s film. – Angela Annese

Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie was Clair’s breakthrough film, and his first undisputed masterpiece. It confirmed all the hopes producer Alexandre Kamenka had invested in him after the success of La Proie du vent. And, just as it restored Clair’s standing as the white hope of French cinema, it momentarily shored up the flagging fortunes of Kamenka’s Films Albatros, until recently the film industry’s Russian émigré studio enclave.
Kamenka had never fully recovered from the defection of his “stock company” of
émigré associates, directors, actors, and technicians (most centrally, actor Ivan Mosjoukine), who broke ranks with Albatros in 1924 to head up a new studio in Billancourt for the European consortium, Westi (which would notably produce Tourjansky’s Michel Strogoff and the first part of Gance’s Napoléon).
Kamenka brought in Jean Epstein and Jacques Feyder (and later Clair) to replace ex-house directors Tourjansky and Volkoff. But the hapless Feyder had the dubious honor of directing Raquel Meller in a glossy new superproduction of Prosper Mérimée’s
Carmen. An artistic miscarriage from the start (Meller, a pious Catholic, refused to play Carmen as the amoral, hot-blooded gypsy she was), the film’s mediocre box office performance scotched Meller’s brief claim to screen fame, sent Feyder into another professional exile, and rocked Kamenka’s Albatros to its very financial foundations.
Previously the standard-setter for the French industry, Albatros now fell back on more formulaic comedies based on popular theatrical properties. (A foray into international co-productions with Swedish, Spanish, and German partners proved no better than the
Carmen fiasco.) Albatros's handsomely produced, if minor, productions of theatrical comedies such as Jim la Houlette, roi des voleurs and Le Chasseur de Chez Maxim’s – both vehicles for Kamenka’s only remaining Russian star, Nicolas Rimsky – were successful enough to keep the company afloat. Were it not for Clair’s two feature comedies for Kamenka – not to mention the returning Feyder’s marvellously Clairesque adaptation of Les Nouveaux messieurs – the fade-out for Albatros might have come earlier than it did. (In the 1930s, Albatros wallowed into commercial productions of little artistic import by second-rank directors – only Jean Renoir stood out in the talent roster, but with his botched adaptation of The Lower Depths.)
Unlike Albatros’ other adaptations, which were recent stage successes of the Paris Boulevard, Eugène Labiche’s
Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie was a masterpiece of 19th-century farce comedy (or, more technically, the vaudeville, a genre of light comedy whose dialogue was sprinkled with song lyrics set to familiar tunes). First staged in 1851, it enjoyed regular revivals well into the 20th century and received an official imprimatur when the Comédie Française accepted it into its repertory in 1938.
It’s hard to believe, but the screen rights were first picked up by that most humourlessly high-minded of avant-garde directors, Marcel L’Herbier! Happily for every concerned, he graciously agreed to cede the rights to Kamenka for Clair to direct.
Though Clair, as a young critic, had eloquently denounced the cinema’s unhealthy dependency on drama and literature, Labiche’s play displayed inherent “cinematic” qualities of movement and rhythm that fired the young director’s imagination. In its time, the play surprised and delighted critics and audiences by its innovative dramatic construction and breathless pacing. Rather than a static situation comedy based entirely on dialogue, it created a “vaudeville de mouvement” – Labiche sent the entire cast on a wild-goose chase across Paris in search of the eponymous hat that will preserve a married woman’s honor and save the bridegroom hero’s bourgeois apartment from systematic destruction. In a sense,
Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie was the flip side of the second half of Entr’acte, where the funeral becomes a wedding, and the hearse is replaced by an item of woman’s headwear.
Clair wrote and directed
Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie in a blissful white heat. The script was completed (he would later claim) in eight days. As Pierre Billard notes, the entire film from first script draft to gala premiere (at Clair’s “alma mater”, the Théâtre des Champs Elysées), took a mere five months! “That suggests an impeccable sense of organization, an absence of production snags, but also something more: a coherent vision of the film from the very start, an impetus so powerful and so accurate that the directing of the film came in one steady flow and the editing done in the course of shooting.”
The “impeccable sense of organization” attested to the structured studio environment and team spirit that Clair would always require to do his best films. (Consider how Clair flourished at Tobis’s state-of-the-art Paris studios in the early 30s, turning out his first four talkies in three years, and then fumbled when he he changed studios and production teams.) Though small, Albatros’ Montreuil studio, even after the 1924 schism, retained its reputation for high production standards. (Sadly, Clair’s film would be the last shot at Montreuil – its lease expired the studio closed down after the film wrapped.)
Much of the studio's reputation at this time was due to the work of one man – Lazare Meerson. This was Clair’s second collaboration (of eight) with the brilliant younger Russian art director (both were born in 1898) who had replaced the gifted but more classically trained Alexandre Lochakoff as Albatros’ chief production designer. His contributions to the Albatros productions gave even the slightest of them a touch of class they might otherwise have lacked. (His evocative sets for
Carmen are one of the few good reasons for seeing that film today.)
Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, Meerson responded wittily to Clair’s intent to update the play’s action from the Second Empire to the turn of the century. By re-setting the play in 1895, Clair and Meerson evoked a not-too-distant past that was also that of birth of cinema. Léon Barsacq noted this double-edged intent when he described Clair’s film as a “gently ironic send-up of the Belle Époque petite bourgeoisie” and Meerson’s delightfully fussy interiors as “a spoof of the sets in primitive Pathé movies”. In a warmly judged program note for a 1940 screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Iris Barry recalled Clair’s abiding “affection for primitive films” and how he had once “clamored for a return in search of inspiration to the free and innocent style of the cinematic past... Now, in The Italian Straw Hat...he was beautifully able to humor his own predilection for this past by adapting Labiche’s play into a film which was not merely staged and costumed in the period of the cinema’s birth but which was to look ‘as though’ it had actually been filmed in 1895. Studio-produced though most of the interiors are, scene after scene painstakingly and brilliantly captures the very atmosphere and flavor of pictures taken 30 years earlier, as when the Lumière employees walked out of their factory at lunch-time and were eternally caught and recorded by the motion picture in a sunlit moment of time.” Speaking of “sunlit moment”, no appraisal of the film’s evergreen charm would be complete without mention of the crisp, gracious photography by Maurice Desfassiaux (Clair’s cameraman on Paris qui dort) and Nicolas Roudakoff.
Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie remains one of the wittiest and most elegant screen comedies ever made – a film even Clair detractors, allergic to the threepenny sentiments of Clair’s early talkies, cannot help but admire. The wit and elegance, of course, are the result of Clair’s unique comic vision, the purely visual gags (there are a mere two dozen intertitles in all!) and his now-mature mastery of film technique. No less important is his gracious direction of actors. Farce is one of the most difficult dramatic genres to stage, and the task is even more forbidding when being done for the movie camera. Reading the play, one delights in Labiche’s rampaging caricatures. In Clair’s film, a medley of European and émigré Russian actors is delicately forged into a perfect acting ensemble in a group portrait of the French bourgeoisie, headed by Clair’s fetish actor, Albert Préjean, as the harassed bridegroom Fadinard, Paul Ollivier (another eccentric Clair regular) as the clueless deaf uncle, not to mention Alexei Bondireff as the perplexed cousin with the crooked tie (in one of the great comic set-pieces in movie comedy), the luscious Olga Tschekowa as the owner of the Italian straw hat in question, and the Swiss Jim Gérald, who injects an usual note of pathos as the cuckolded husband.