—Arthur Knight, The Liveliest Art
As any film enthusiast knows, the coming of sound to motion pictures in the late 1920's threw the film industry into a state of confusion. Filmmakers at first simply did not know what to do with the new invention. Recorded music scores were added to already filmed silent pictures, or newly filmed sound or musical sequences interpolated into them. The first all-talking pictures were merely brief newsreel segments or short recordings of novelty acts. Howard Hughes responded by re-shooting the entire movie Hell's Angels—already completed in 1928 as a silent—with sound, finally releasing it in 1930.
By this time, the studios had pretty much decided that sound was synonymous with dialogue. Talk replaced action, sound stages replaced plein air settings, and the addition of bulky sound recording apparatus severely limited the mobility of the camera. Both the concept of montage adulated by the Russians as the apogee of the art of cinema and the balletic aspects of silents—their artistic use of motion and movement—gave way to a static approach that reverted to the primitive notion of the movie as a filmed stage play prevalent before pioneers like D. W. Griffith showed the world a truly cinematic approach to filmmaking.
The French film director René Clair (1898-1981) refused to be limited by the addition of sound to image and became, along with Rouben Mamoulian and Ernst Lubitsch, one of the foremost innovators of ways to creatively combine the two. Having made several silent movies, he was a traditionalist (he once said that "nothing essential has been added to the art of the motion picture since D. W. Griffith") who was ambivalent about the coming of sound to movies. In two of his first sound films, Le Million and A Nous la Liberté (both 1931), he attempted to avoid obvious uses of sound and ended up creating two works that, even aside from being conspicuously novel in the ways they integrated sound with image, are just plain masterpieces.
Le Million is constructed on an elegantly simple premise. A penniless Parisian artist, Michel (Raymond Lefebvre), leaves his jacket with his girl friend, Béatrice (Annabella), a ballerina who lives across the hall from him, to be mended. Then he discovers that he has bought a winning lottery ticket and remembers that it is in the pocket of the jacket. There's only one problem: Béatrice has given the jacket to a petty thief called Le Père la Tulipe (Papa Tulip), who came through her skylight while being chased across the rooftops by the police. The rest of the movie involves the efforts of Michel to trace the missing jacket and retrieve the winning ticket.
Of course, the seemingly simple plot soon develops complications, and in the tradition of the great silent comedies, Clair keeps piling on the complications, each complication leading to yet more complications. First, Michel's friend, the sculptor Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert)—miffed that his own ticket isn't the winning one and that Michel refuses to divide the winnings with him if he can find the ticket—decides to track it down himself, taking time out along the way to sabotage Michel's own efforts. Then the jacket ends up in a junk shop, where an eccentric Italian opera singer called Sopranelli, taken with the jacket's authentic shabbiness, buys it to use as part of his act ("The Bohemians"!). And Le Père la Tulipe turns out to be not a smalltime crook at all, but the sophisticated mastermind of a gang of professional thieves. When he becomes aware of all the interest in the jacket, he decides to get it back himself to see just what makes it so valuable to Michel and Prosper. Finally, Béatrice, feeling guilty over giving the jacket away, also gets involved in the pursuit by trying to find the mysterious Le Père la Tulipe in the hope that he will lead her to the missing jacket. So we soon have four individuals simultaneously chasing the elusive jacket, now in the hands of Sopranelli, who has developed a very possessive attitude toward it and refuses to part with it.
Clair makes use of sound in several unusual ways. Michel's neighbors and creditors, eagerly waiting to celebrate his good fortune, act as a sort of operetta chorus, singing comments on the characters and the action. Likewise, Le Père la Tulipe sings out his instructions to the gang of criminals he commands. When Michel and Béatrice get to the Opéra Lyrique, they hide onstage behind the scenery while Sopranelli and his female partner perform a duet between quarreling lovers all of whose words and emotions apply equally to the concealed Michel and Béatrice. When dialogue is unnecessary, the actors simply mime speech and use emphatic physical gestures as if they are in a silent movie, sometimes with music playing on the soundtrack much as it might have in a silent movie theater.
The similarity of Le Million to classic silent film comedy—the comedy of Chaplin, Lloyd, and especially Keaton—is obvious in the near impossibility of describing in any real detail the plot of the movie. The numerous, rapid plot complications I referred to don't seem to unfold in a deliberately scripted way but to evolve spontaneously and unpredictably. They are often played out much as they would be in a silent comedy, with movement and wordless sight gags substituting for explanatory dialogue.
If I could use one word to describe the style of Le Million, it would be kinetic. Once events are set in train, the film never stops moving, always proceeding forward . . . forward. It is for its entire 83 minutes a moving picture in the most literal way. And it is unbelievably entertaining, amusing, and unlike anything you are likely to have seen before. Strictly speaking, it isn't even a musical, even though it contains music and singing. If the movie's style can be summed up in one word, so can its effect on the viewer. That word is charming.
A Nous la Liberté, released a mere eight months later, takes the imaginative sound techniques of Le Million and adds to them stinging sociopolitical satire and irony. If the whimsy and kineticism of Le Million are akin to the spirit of Keaton, then the focused social and political criticism of A Nous la Liberté are closer in spirit to Chaplin, but without Chaplin's flirtation with sentimentality. (Indeed, Chaplin has been accused of cribbing ideas from Clair in Modern Times.) The result is that A Nous la Liberté is an even richer and more thematically challenging experience than its predecessor.
The movie opens in a prison, where prisoners are sitting on each side of a long table assembling toy horses. One of the men conceals a file in his sock, and when he and his cellmate return to their cell that evening, they saw through the bars of the window and escape. However, only one of them, Emile (Henri Marchand), makes it over the wall; the other, Louis (Raymond Cordy) is captured by the guards and returned to his cell. Within a few months, Emile has become an entrepreneur and captain of industry, the owner of a huge and successful factory that manufactures phonographs. He has left all vestiges of his former life behind, gaining everything material he might ever have wanted: a lavish mansion, a ritzy limousine, servants, a beautiful mistress, and a slew of high-society friends.
When Louis is released from prison, he hits the road and before long discovers his former cellmate, technically a prison escapee and wanted man, luxuriating in his new life. Not only does he receive a cold reception from Emile, but he finds Emile a changed man. He is now an uptight, status-obsessed capitalist with no desire to renew the easy camaraderie he previously enjoyed with his old cellmate. Louis, though, sees his chance and is determined to use his hold over Emile to his own advantage.
In particular, Louis has fallen in love with a pretty young secretary at the factory, Jeanne (Rolla France), and presses Emile to introduce him and arrange a marriage. This whole idea of Emile being able to procure Jeanne for his old cellmate provides Clair with the opportunity to present a harsh indictment of capitalism. He implicitly compares Emile to a feudal lord and his workers to serfs by having Emile coerce Jeanne's uncle, who also works at the factory and doesn't want to lose his job by alienating the boss, to hand over Jeanne to Louis. He doesn't explicitly threaten the uncle but after presenting his proposal merely asks, "Vous comprenez?" (You do understand?) The pandering uncle does indeed understand and happily complies, for not only will he protect his job, but he will curry favor with the boss by having a niece married to a man who appears to be the boss's best friend.
Another way Clair skewers capitalism and the dehumanizing effects of the modern industrial environment is in the way Emile's factory is depicted. To get in, the workers must first pass through gates as they punch their time cards, the gates first excluding and then confining them. When we first see the main building from the outside, the first impression is of a vast, ultra-modern, monochromatic expanse built on an inhuman scale. Everything is composed of severe, straight horizontal lines and right angles. This is a sterile, featureless, and soulless place, a place where regimentation of form and behavior are pervasive. The closest thing to it we have seen in the movie so far in both appearance and atmosphere is the prison that Emile and Louis were in at the beginning of the movie.
Once the action moves inside, the resemblance to the prison is even more pronounced. The factory floor with its production line—another severe and soulless place—is laid out in exactly the same way as the work room in the opening scene at the prison, with conveyor belts substituting for the work tables. And it is framed and photographed in exactly the same way. Instead of prison guards, we see supervisors overseeing the production line and urging the workers on just as the guards at the prison did. The parallels between the prison and the factory are unmistakable.
Clair combines sound with action in many of the same ways he did in Le Million, using sung dialogue, silent dialogue with musical accompaniment, and sound effects that originate outside the frame (the cinematic equivalent of "noises off" in a stage play), among other devices. He is constantly playing with sound. Even the fact that Emile's factory makes phonographs seems an in-joke. And Clair creates one of the first examples—possibly the very first example—of a sound gag in motion pictures.
When Louis first sees Jeanne, she is standing in the second-floor window of her apartment singing a love song. He is immediately captivated and finds himself falling in love, responding to the sentiments of the song. When she walks away from the window, he ambles over to the door to her building and waits for her at the bottom of the stairs. When she emerges, the song is still going, but Jeanne is not singing. Just at that moment the music begins to falter and slow to a stop, and we (and Louis) realize that Jeanne wasn't singing at all but simply mouthing the words on a disc playing on one of the phonographs that Emile manufactures.
As we learn more about Emile's life, it becomes clearer that it is not as idyllic as it appears. His snobbish friends make fun of him behind his back. His chic mistress is conducting an affair with a gigolo and ends up running off with him. Then another former prisoner spots Emile and is soon joined by other former prisoners, who proceed to blackmail him. And the authorities have also spotted him and are preparing to arrest him. Emile's ideal life, it seems, is about to crumble.
The climactic sequence occurs at the inaugural festivities of Emile's newest, totally automated factory. With the police on their way to arrest him, Emile dedicates the factory then immediately presents it to his employees. "The machines will now work for them!" he proclaims. The self-made capitalist has just placed the means of production in the hands of the workers. Just before the police arrive, Emile and Louis—the former worshiper of materialism and his friend the romantic anarchist—dressed again as tramps, hit the road and are last seen walking in fellowship on their contented way to . . . who knows where?
Taken together, Le Million and A Nous la Liberté are twin landmarks in the history of cinema. They are records of one of the great filmmakers working at a level of intensive inspiration that few directors ever achieve and that Clair himself never again quite equaled in his long career. But beyond their historical importance, these are very entertaining films that can still surprise viewers, encourage them to reconsider the conventions of combining sound and image in movies, and in the case of A Nous la Liberté compel them to re-examine the prevailing values of Western culture toward ambition and success and remind them of the enduring disparity between the powerful and the powerless, the haves and have-nots.