Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Le Million (1931)

Two Rene Clair movies back-to-back. How can I avoid making comparisons?

And they are similar in some ways and vastly different in others.

Le Million is, like “A Nous la Liberté” a musical comedy. That is, a light comedy where people break out in song, usually in an entire choir and often with instrumental backing, all highly improbable and unrealistic, but apparently an established format already with the first sound movies. Indeed I have seen even recent movies following this format without claiming to be musicals and it never ceases to annoy me. In a musical you expect it and, well, that is how it works, but the illusion of realism flies swiftly out the window. I am not sure it works here. I would have been just as happy, had it been a soundtrack without pretending the characters were singing.

Grumpy grumpy.

The big difference between the two movies is the attitude towards earthly wealth. “A Nous la Liberté” claims that wealth is a burden and the striving for it are shackles that keep us in bondage. According to “Le Million” however wealth is the source of everything that is good and beautiful and certainly worth celebrating. Which they do. A lot. I cannot think of more radically opposite views and frankly that make me a little confused.

Well, “ Le Million” works best if you do not think too much but instead lean back and enjoy. Because it is actually fun. I found that the story and the outline of the movie, including most of the characters work well even today. I also feel pretty certain that there must be at least several remakes of it.

The story is so classic. Michel (René Lefèvre) has won a big price in the lottery but the ticket is gone! What to do? Well, he finds it, no worries. In fact we are told so at the very beginning. Two men crawl on the roof to a window to see where all the noise comes from and inside people celebrating. Talk about a spoiler! The story is then how all this came to pass, why they are celebrating tonight.

It gets a little complicated and I will save you from all the details.

We got two friends, the poor artists Michel and Prosper (Jean-Louis Allibert), desperately trying to keep their creditors off their backs, while they try to appear exclusive to lure rich patrons to get their portraits painted or sculpted. Then we have the two women, Vanda (Vanda Greville) one of these patrons whom Michel is also having a more amorous relationship to, and Beatrice (Annabella) Michel’s fiancé, who lives next door.

Beatrice is upset with Michel for wooing Vanda and Prosper would like to woo Beatrice. All the creditors would like money from Michel and the police would like to catch super crook Granpere Tulipe. Granpere Tulipe “borrows” Michel’s jacket while hiding from the police in Beatrice apartment and Prosper saves Michel by telling him they won the lottery only, where is the ticket? Well, in the jacket Granpere Tulipe has just taken.

Confused? It gets worse and involves hilarious scenes at the police station and in the opera, where the jacket has ended up as a prop for the famous tenor Sopranelli.

The two friends each want the price and are convinced the other will not share, so initial cooperation to find the ticket develop into a race where no dirty tricks are below them. Prosper gets Michel locked up in jail, Michel locks up Prosper with the (huge) primadonna at the Opera and both enter the stage during La Boheme to filch the jacket from Sopranelli. Granpere Tulipe suspects there is something fishy about the jacket he briefly wore and joins the hunt with his gang and we have an absolutely fantastic finale where the hunt for the jacket turns into a rugby game complete with spectators and whistles.

And just when everything seems lost Granpere Tulipe shows up with the jacket and the ticket and (quite unrealistically, but well, he promised Beatrice) gives it back to Michel. And the party is on.

I like the acting of the cast. The comic timing is good and the script works well and is even fun. My problem with the movie is these jumps out of character, particular when they absolutely have to sing. I have already mentioned it, to me it ruins the illusion and I am reminded that this is just a silly movie. I know this of course, but I like to be fooled.

Without that this would have been an excellent movie.

A curious detail, Raymond Cordy (Louis in “A Nous la Liberté”) is back as a querulous taxi driver and he is definitely one of the better characters here. Also he does not sing. At least I did not see him sing.

Definitely a happy happy movie for Sunday afternoon.

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