Not many extras but lots of fun
What was Paris like back in the twenties? I mean, what was it really like? Well, if you cared for such things as steady employment, working toilets, and central heating, it was pretty much hell. On the other hand, if you had an appetite for starving artists, charming mademoiselles, officious clerks, blundering gendarmes, elegant courtesans, and philosophical thieves, it was pretty much heaven. At least that’s the way René Clair tells it in Le Million, and who can argue with a genius?
Thanks to the good folks at The Criterion Collection, we can have Le Million better than brand new, in a sparkling digital restoration that lets us savor this near-flawless comedy over and over again. There’s even an interview with René thrown in for good measure.1
Le Million is the tale of a jacket and a lottery ticket, the sort of lighter-than-air farce that is easier to conceive than execute.2 Poor Michel (René Lefèvré) has not a sou and owes cash to tout le Paris. How can he afford to marry the lovely Beatrice (the charming actress Anabella, who became a minor star at Fox in the 1940s) and complete his portrait of the lovely Vanda (Vanda Gréville), much less keep himself in the fine suits and ties he prefers? The answer is a lottery ticket, worth a million florins. The cast sets out in dogged pursuit of the elusive ticket, bursting into song as the spirit moves them. Despite their best efforts, it seems the winning ticket will never be found, until matters are suddenly set right by “La Tulipe” (Paul Olliver), philosopher-king of the Paris underworld.
In the antediluvian days of film criticism (i.e., before the sixties), when Marxism ruled all, Clair was most famous for À nous le liberté (1930), a Chaplinesque assault on capitalism.3 In the forties, Clair came to Hollywood and directed a number of whimsical films, including I Married a Witch, which starred Frederic March and Veronica Lake. I found both films, available today on video, lacking the lightness and quickness that make Le Million such a constant delight.
- The interview, which runs for about ten minutes, is interesting though hardly scintillating. Clair briefly discusses Le Million and complains that sound had a bad effect on American film comedies because scriptwriters concentrated on words rather than action. What, Bob Hope wasn’t an improvement on Buster Keaton? [↩]
- The thunderous-but-funny Rat Race, currently in theaters, is a distant American cousin of Le Million. [↩]
- Turnabout being fair play, Chaplin generously helped himself to many of Clair’s ideas when he made Modern Times. [↩]