René Clair’s (much embattled but ever resilient) reputation as one of the supreme stylists of screen comedy still rests essentially on the quartet of populist films he made in a breathtaking élan of creativity between 1930 and 1933. These comedies – Sous les toits de Paris, Le Million, À nous la liberté, and (the lesser known) 14 juillet – vindicated the art of the European sound film, released the early talkies from the artless yoke of canned theatre, and placed Clair in the élite of world-rank directors.
Ironically, Clair’s most vocal champions included the Americans, whose film industry had succeeded in keeping all but a handful of French films off local screens throughout the 1920s – Clair’s included. To most American reviewers, Clair seemed to have sprung fully formed out of a cultural void – indeed, Sous les toits de Paris was often described as his “first film”. And when a minor distributor released Clair’s then four-year-old silent comedy Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (under the title The Horse Ate the Hat) in New York in the summer of 1931, the critics sniffed. Variety dismissed it as a “bore”, adding that Clair, who had “previously made only one or two highly modernistic arty films [sic]” had “improved so much in the interim”.
That “interim” in fact goes back to 1923, when the 25-year-old novice, with little practical experience and the proverbial shoestring budget, made the first of six silent features and two shorts that would bemuse, startle, upset, and charm the French cultural establishment – and herald the arrival of an imaginative new talent.
Clair was born René Chomette in 1898, in the heart and stomach of Paris – the Halles food-market quarter – where his parents were prosperous soap merchants. During the “Great War”, he published his first poems and stories, and served briefly in an ambulance unit at the front in 1917.
Only weeks after the Armistice (11 November 1918 was also Clair’s 20th birthday), he made his professional debut as a journalist, writing a column on literature and the performing arts for a leading Paris daily, L’Intransigeant (and also, pseudonymously, penning songs for the great realist singer Damia).
Though aspiring to a literary and journalistic career, Chomette soon discovered that the movies paid better. In 1920-1921, he acted in four films: Le Lys de la vie, a self-fashioned vehicle for the American dancer Loïe Fuller; Le Sens de la mort, a morbid drama by Russian émigré director Jacob Protazanov; and two late serials by Louis Feuillade, L’Orpheline and Parisette. Careful to separate his bread-and-butter movie work from his other pursuits, Chomette adopted the metaphorical pseudonym of “Clair” (light).
Clair’s definitive conversion to film came with a brief but enriching apprenticeship with one of France’s most respected mainstream directors, Jacques de Baroncelli (whose then-assistant was none other than Clair’s older brother, Henri Chomette, a future avant-gardist and failed commercial director, whom screenwriter Henri Jeanson would memorably dismiss with his trademark cruel wit as the “Clair-obscur”).
This mini-retrospective (which marks Clair’s much-belated debut at the Giornate! – if one excludes last year’s screening of Prix de beauté, which Clair wrote but finally did not direct) is the rare opportunity to savor the midsummer fantasy of Paris qui dort (at last restored to its original 1925 release version), and delight in the madcap evergreen iconoclasm of Entr’acte (accompanied by a piano reduction of Erik Satie’s no less convention-busting score) and the breathlessly paced hilarity of that most perfect of stage-to-screen adaptations, Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie – three masterly exercises in warm, witty screen farce. It is also the occasion to discover Clair’s sadly underrated final silent comedy, Les Deux timides, and even the stylish melodrama of La Proie du vent, a non-comic film which Clair (unjustly) disowned, but which provided the final stepping-stone to technical maturity.
Let there be “Clair”! – LENNY BORGER
The Giornate would like to thank the director’s son, Jean-François Clair, for his support in preparing this program.