Even though I realize it’s impossible for one viewer to have seen not just everything, but even every worthwhile thing, and that naturally there remains more I haven’t seen then otherwise (and surely it will always be), I can’t help but feel a sense of shame in admitting that until just a matter of days previous to this writing I’d not watched René Clair’s great early work LE MILLION. Yes, I’d heard much ado over its status as an indispensible object of the musical genre and knew a fair amount about Clair’s career including his troubled years in Hollywood (though I remember liking his I MARRIED A WITCH, catching it a few times via TCM back when I could still afford cable). But in this case my sense of personal inadequacy takes a back seat to revelation, for if it seems (almost) impossible to find a good contemporary musical these days the unpleasantness of this fact is only compounded by the seeming ease and assurance of Clair in crafting this film so early in the development of the sound film.
And LE MILLION does show a fair amount of growth adjustment from the silent cinema, but not in any way that detracts from its goodness. Clair is on record as being initially quite leery over the advent of synchronized sound in film due to his belief that the art form would end up bound to the conventions of the theatre, and his zeal for the cinema as a pictorial mode of expression is immediately evident in an opening traveling shot that presents the rooftops of Paris as something out of a miniaturist’s workshop run amok. It’s awesome in its brevity and presents us with a ceiling-window view of a celebration, a pair of interlopers inquisitive into just what the fuss is all about. From there, LE MILLION’s story is told in one extended flashback. It concerns Michel (Rene Leferve), a portrait painter burdened by debtors who discovers he’s won the lottery. The only problem is that the ticket is in the pocket of his suit jacket, a garment that’s been given away by his girl Beatrice (Annabella) to a thief posing as a homeless old man and attempting to elude capture by the police.
This wizened street-grifter known as Grandpa Tulip (Paul Ollivier) then sells the coat to a singer Ambrosio Sopranelli (Constantin Siroesco) wishing to complete his get-up in a performance of an opera titled “Les Bohémiens”. Need it be said that the attempts to retrieve the ticket take on a madcap quality? And that’s one aspect of LE MILLION that makes it such a success; its unhesitant engagement with the familiar. It isn’t just the use of a story possessive of such blunt simplicity that reinforces this attitude: Michel, who is engaged to Beatrice, is also something of a philandering ladies man; his friend/competitor Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert) is very much in the nice guy/jealous guy/second banana mold, having eyes for Beatrice himself; the mustachioed opera singer teeters on the brink of high-toned self-importance; and Michel’s lack of cash and the displeased pack of creditors that hound him help his character embody the archetype of struggling artist, a role often presented in comedies (particularly in this era) as something of a lifestyle scam, the perpetrator escaping the stigma of bum on a pure technicality, except of course in the eyes of those that comprehend it all as a big foist (early in the film one of his antagonists shouts at him accusatorily, “Murderer! Artist!”).
As befitting a movie populated with broad character types and well-established motifs, LE MILLION is feather light and crammed with activity. Fittingly the two chase scenes, one for Michel the other for Grandpa Tulip collide into each other, raising shenanigans to a level bordering on the anarchic, basking in the convoluted without ever lapsing into incomprehensibility. All the while musicality is key. Not only do we find characters routinely bursting into song either singly but more often collectively, advancing the narrative through well-calibrated bits of lyrical banter, but those dueling chases are routines of well rehearsed mayhem that spill forth with a musical precision. Indeed, LE MILLION features a deliberate rhythmic momentum that’s simply infectious, and along the way gags are delivered like a master jazz drummer smacking his snare or dropping bombs from his kick-drum as the plot thickens to the consistency of gourmet meringue.
Clair considered himself foremost as an entertainer, and this is essentially how he is remembered by most film buffs, but LE MILLION is also an exemplary showcase for its director as a spirited groundbreaker, an avant-gardist of unabashedly accessible disposition. Much has been made of Clair swiping the sound from a Rugby game and slyly synching it up with a group-scuffle for the jacket/ticket near the end of the film, and indeed the passage is simply exquisite, a bravura grace note that easily remains in keeping with the film’s crisp delivery. But I like even more how, earlier in the film, he employs the same tactic in a manner far less bold by joining together the regal sounding audio from some unidentified ceremony with the hilarious speech given by a neighbor child (“…may your happiness be ours”). Throughout the entire movie the vitality of sheer invention and fresh possibilities resonates from a story bristling with verve and panache, and it’s no surprise that LE MILLION was such an influence on comedians like Chaplin and the Marx Brothers.
Still, I get the creeping suspicion that many modern viewers would consider Clair’s film to be a quaint if amusing trifle at best. There is a lack of irony, detachment or subversion in LE MILLION that is quite opposite from the contemporary tendency to darken or reinvent or reinvigorate or satirize or unwittingly neuter “old” genres for modern audiences, an impulse/strategy that often manifests itself rather tritely and odiously as “this ain’t yer grandma’s _____!”. But I’m not going to use Clair’s film as an instrument with which to beat up on contempo cinema; if the movie marketplace today suffers from overdetermination and a reliance on the twin straight-jackets of test-marketing and demographics, this is because basically anything profitable on a large scale in this day and age is afflicted with this same problem. Not to oversimplify, but this is in large part a phenomenon of corporations investing in the arts, a practice quite different from the norm of LE MILLION’s 1931.
This is a significant part of why auteurs back then are different than auteurs right now. If old Hollywood feared or distrusted the specter of the artist, it still enabled films and filmmakers of high quality at a ratio greater than those it hindered and destroyed. Today, Hollywood generally doesn’t destroy artists either, because it doesn’t have to; it just ignores or neglects them, except when the rare synergy of money, prestige and reputation collude to produce something like THE TREE OF LIFE (and to be fair, 2011 has been a very good year for films by neglected veterans like Carpenter, Landis and Hellman. And yet Joe Dante’s THE HOLE still sits in distribution purgatory). If this feels like a digression from LE MILLION, well maybe, but it also isn’t, and not just because the movie’s plot (appealingly thin as it is) and the general behavior of present day Hollywood are both bluntly about the search for money. Ar-ar. No, I bring it all up in part to help place in context that, even with the intensity of obstacles, a new film in very much the same spirit as LE MILLION (if naturally quite different in form) can actually squeak, if briefly, into multiplexes across the land. Edgar Wright’s somewhat contentious SCOTT PILGRIM VS. THE WORLD reminds me very much of LE MILLION; both are very much enamored of the new and are completely conscious and committed to their status as movies as opposed to “realist” endeavors to get caught up in, avoiding the contrived through sincerity and lightness of tone. PILGRIM and LE MILLION join arms in a celebratory dance of Serious Fun, both laying a winding trail of glorious inevitability, for it’s as certain that Michel will retrieve his lost ticket (more certain, the film opens with a celebration after all) as Messer Pilgrim will eventually land his girl. These films aren’t about the epiphany or emotional rush of the ending; they are instead about the details of the ride.
And LE MILLION’s details ripen with age, whether it’s Michel or Prosper getting serenaded by their consciences, the beautiful Annabella in a ballerina outfit for the second half of the movie, Raymond Cordy’s indefatigable cabbie simply looking to get paid, the theatricality of the film seamlessly integrating with the theatricality of “Les Bohémiens”, a lanky dude in a police station clad only in boxer shorts and a bowler hat, or the essential harmlessness of Grandpa Tulip’s band of criminals, a group that identifies themselves in song (natch) as the “foot soldiers of inequality” (and who contrast quite starkly with the underworld of Lang’s M from the same year).
And it’s notable that LE MILLION lacks “bad guys” in any definable sense. Sure, a small mob relentlessly hounds Michel for money, and Prosper attempts to outwit his friend/rival and secure first half then all of the lottery winnings, but this is all lighthearted, comedic grist for the mill. For instance, when Sopranelli’s watch gets stolen it’s presented as an outlet for audience pleasure, but not at the singer’s expense. It’s just that in this film’s world everyone has their roles to play.
It’s hard to find fault with LE MILLION, particularly since it’s playful experimentation has aged so well, but if a masterpiece (and I wholeheartedly think it is) it’s elements of Serious Fun help to keep it appealingly modest. And while LE MILLION is getting older by the day, its energetic tone and succession of small beauties manage to keep it perpetually young. We should all be so lucky.