The Italian Straw Hat (Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, René Clair, France 1927)

Italian still 2

This is one of the classics of French cinema and one of the best films directed by René Clair. It was produced by Alexander Kamenka for Films Albatros at their Montreuil Studio. Films Albatros had started out as a film company of Russian émigrés, including the star actor Ivan Mosjoukine. However most of the émigrés had left Albatros for a new studio at Billancourt. Albatros had been in the forefront of French productions, but now it had to rebuild its success, relying on a series of comedy adaptation. The young René Clair turned in one hit, La Proie du vent (1927) and followed it up with this adaptation and updating of a famous French farce.

He was supported by an excellent cast and production team. The sets by Lazare Meerson and cinematography by Maurice Desfassiaux and Nicolas Roudakoff are all impressive. Most of the film, including many of the fine exteriors, were shot at the studio.

The film’s continued status is confirmed by it being included in Ian Christie’s The Peak of Silent Cinema:

René Clair may have become the forgotten man of classic French cinema, despite a prolific career that stretched from the dada short Entr’acte (1924) through the first French musicals of the early 30s, and up to the mid-1960s Yet his command of sophisticated comedy, both silent and sound, was second to none; and in this inventive adaptation of a vintage farce he offered a spirited alternative to the dominance of Hollywood comedy, at a time when both the French avant-garde and mainstream cinema had reached an impasse. Clair’s solution, in agreeing to film Eugene Labiche’s vintage stage play, was to update it to the belle epoque of 1895 and to shoot it with the utmost simplicity, in the style of early film. Labiche’s play was always a satire on petit bourgeois pretension, with the nurseryman as keen that his daughter should marry a ‘gentleman of leisure’ as Ferdinand is to secure his future. Everything that gets in the way of the wedding represents a threat to the social order that is being confirmed; and in this case most of the obstacles are objects, signs of property and status, which constantly threaten to get out of hand.

And Clair is equally alert to the satirical undercurrent, without ever losing sight of what Henri Bergson termed the “snowball effect… as an object rolls through the play collecting incidents as it goes”. The surrealists, who hated avant-garde pretension, saw that this was no mere

literary adaptation. With its puppet-like characters trapped in their roles, and decor that threatens to engulf them, it achieves the dream-like quality that surrealism prized­ while also remaining a thoroughly civilised, scathing and completely French comedy.

Sight & Sound November 2013

You can catch the film at the National Media Museum on Sunday May 18th with a live piano accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla.

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