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November 15, 2005

Belated Birthday Bash with Rene Clair

Under the Roofs of Paris
Sous les Toits de Paris
Rene Clair - 1930
Criterion Region 1 DVD

It Happened Tomorrow
Rene Clair - 1944
Kino Video DVD

Last Friday was my birthday. Like everyone else, I share my birthdate with lots of famous and not so famous people like the King of the World, Buddy Holly's doppelganger, a girl, interrupted, and the last guy who took on King Kong. Of the few filmmakers I share a birthday with, the one I like best is Rene Clair. I was hoping to see a couple of films by him on what would have been his 107th birthday but the films got delayed in transit.

I first got acquainted with Clair as a student at NYU when I saw a private screening of The Ghost goes West and I Married a Witch. I don't remember either film too well now except that it was pretty obvious that the second film was the inspiration for a famous television series. While some critics may carp on the fact that Clair was no longer the innovative filmmaker that he was in the silent era and early thirties, what makes Clair worth watching is his sense of fun. At a time when too many alleged comedies are ham-handed scenes of name calling and verbal abuse, Clair's gentle good humor is especially to be appreciated. Cute might be even be a good adjective for Clair's films.

Under the Roofs of Paris may be technically out of date, but the story could still be contemporary with some adjustments. The basic plot involves a street singer competing with a small time gangster for the love of a Romanian girl. The singer, Albert, also has a friendly rivalry with Louis. The girl, Pola, plays hard to get, but proves to be relatively easy in her affections. One could easily imagine the story reworked with a current urban setting involving a rap artist, Les Garcons dans le "Hood". I don't know the history of the making of the film but it is a hybrid, part talkie, part silent. Clair plays with the sound track by having an accordian player play The Wedding March after Albert announces his "engagement" to Pola. In a later scene, a record player gets stuck playing during a fight. Clair also has Pola and Albert arguing in a dark room, with their shadows partially visible. While the humor is not raucous, and the story hardly important, Clair loves his crooks and schnooks enough to elicit smiles throughout the film. I also enjoyed seeing, as Louis, Edmond Greville, who later became a director of some note.

It Happened Tomorrow is enjoyable on its own terms. The story, told in flashback, is of a newspaper reporter in 1894 who is given a copy of the next day's newspaper by a mysterious co-worker. The film's lesson is that knowing the future can have unanticipated problems and not be the advantage one may imagine. This makes the film kind of like Paycheck, only with fewer chases and much fewer guns. Dick Powell is amiable enough as the ambitious reporter, but one winces when he is called "young man". More fun are Linda Darnell as a fake psychic, and Jack Oakie, sporting an Italian accent and facial hair.

Rene Clair's career is one that went quickly from being the future of filmmaking to a symbol of the past. Still, those who have seen his films, such as Vladimir Nabokov always seem to remember this filmmaker with a smile.

Posted by peter at November 15, 2005 02:49 PM


Peter, I'm also a huge fan of "Le Million".

Posted by: girish at November 16, 2005 08:59 AM

Happy belated birthday! I have been charmed by the Clair movies I saw, including "A Nous La Liberte," "I Married a Witch" and even "Flame of New Orleans." The one I would really like to see is "Prix de Beaute," with Louise Brooks. Anyway, it sounds like a good choice for a birthday celebration, bubbly and bright as a birthday should be.

Posted by: Campaspe at November 22, 2005 10:04 PM