Sunday, October 1, 2017

Rene Clair's early films part 2

Rene Clair

One striking thing about René Clair's The Italian Straw Hat (see René Clair's early films part 1) is how few intertitles it has, even though it is the adaptation of a play. Clair not only found visual means to convey information that in the play would have been related in dialogue, he introduced visual jokes (such as the clip-on tie and the tight, unfamiliar dress gloves and shoes) that tell us about the social status of the characters.

Like many other silent film directors, Clair dreaded the arrival of sound, which he called "the monster." In May 1929 he wrote,
Can the talking picture be poetic? There is reason to fear that the precision of the verbal expression will drive poetry off the screen just as it drives off the atmosphere of the daydream. The imaginary words we used to put into the mouths of those silent beings in those dialogues of images will always be more beautiful than any actual sentences. The heroes of the screen spoke to the imagination with the complicity of silence. Tomorrow they will talk nonsense into our ears and we will be unable to shut it out. [1]
But like some other directors making the transition to sound (Alfred Hitchcock comes to mind, as does, thanks to a friend, Fritz Lang) Clair found innovative ways to juxtapose sound and image. And he looked for stories to which sound would add an essential dimension.

Opening scene of Sous les toits de Paris

Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930):
At the time I was shooting my second or third silent picture, I heard a circle of street singers in Paris, on my way home from the studios. I thought how sad it was that I had no sound with which to make a picture. Four years later, sound came, and I returned to my street-singers idea. [2]
The film Clair wrote and directed was Sous les toits de Paris, in which the street-singer Albert (Albert Préjean) pursues the flirtatious neighborhood beauty Pola (Pola Illery). She agrees to become his fiancée, but unluckily Albert is arrested. He refuses to rat out the guilty thief whose stolen goods he is caught holding. (That he doesn't even particularly like the thief is beside the point; class solidarity is more important than personal feelings.) While Albert is sitting in a cell, Pola turns to Albert's friend Louis (Edmond Gréville) for comfort. When Albert is released, he learns the unwelcome news that Pola and Louis are in love. In the final shots of the film, he is back selling songs on the street, looking for another pretty girl.

In the silent Italian Straw Hat Clair's camera was often fixed; from the first moments of Sous les toits de Paris the camerawork is fluid. The film opens with a slow, continuous tracking shot that takes us from rooftops to street level. We hear voices singing the title song, first faintly and then increasing in volume as the camera approaches. It's soon revealed that what we're hearing is Albert leading a group of passers-by in the refrain from his latest number, "Sous les toits de Paris" (the songs were composed by Raoul Moretti, with lyrics by René Nazelles).

Albert (Albert Prejean)

As Albert leads the group in another refrain Clair pans up the side of a building, and we see the reactions of the residents on each floor: a pretty young woman (whom we will soon discover to be Pola) who is drawn to the music and the singer; a boy throwing spitballs at the crowd; a man exasperated by the noise; and a newlywed couple enjoying the impromptu concert. Later, as evening falls this same day, Clair will pan back down the building and we will hear each of the residents whistling, humming, singing, or picking out on a piano this opening song. Sound is essential to the gentle humor of these sequences, as the song is passed from person to person.

Pola (Pola Illery)

But where sound is inessential, Clair is reluctant to employ it. In his 1929 essay on sound film, Clair reports watching the recent release of Show Boat:
'Remember your father, remember your past, remember the old boat, etc.,' the old prompter in Show Boat said, to a weeping Laura La Plante. I stuffed up my ears, and then saw on the screen only two troubled people whose words I no longer heard: the vulgar scene became touching. [3]
To avoid banal recitation, throughout the film Clair gives us sequences where the dialogue is unheard. In the opening scene a pickpocket (Bill Bocket) working Albert's streetcorner crowd rifles Pola's purse, despite Albert's attempt to mime to her what's happening.

Pickpocket Bill (Bill Bocket) steals money from Pola's purse

After Albert finishes the song he pursues the thief, and they get into an argument in which we only hear their first exchange. Soundtrack music accompanies the rest of the scene, in which Albert takes the money back from the thief and heads after Pola. She has just met up with her dandyish boyfriend Fred (Gaston Modot), and they discover that her money has been taken. Fred goes back to confront the thief, but instead of threatening him, shakes his hand: Fred, we've just discovered, is the leader of the thief's gang.

Fred searches the thief and finds a purse on him; meanwhile, Albert catches up to Pola and pretends to have found her money on the sidewalk. Fred returns and offers the purse to Pola, who shakes her head: it's not hers.

The first triangle: Albert, Pola and Fred (Gaston Modot)

Fred shrugs, pockets the purse and walks off with Pola; the thief catches up to Albert and their argument continues, only to be ended by a sudden friendly embrace as a gendarme walks by. The action and the relationships among the characters are completely clear, and it all occurs without our being able to hear the dialogue (which in any case we can supply without effort).

Another scene shows Clair's ability to use sound to tell a story without visuals. Pola has been locked out of her apartment (Fred has stolen her key), and warily accepts Albert's invitation to stay at his place. When Albert turns out the light and crawls into bed next to her, the screen is almost completely dark, but we hear Pola's angry remonstrances and Albert's rather unconvincing protestations of innocence.

Pola: Will you leave me alone!

Eventually the light comes back on, and Albert is rubbing his face ruefully: he's evidently been slapped. Ultimately they both choose to sleep on the floor, on opposite sides of the bed.

When the alarm goes off in the morning, there's another visual joke: Albert, on the floor, fumbles around and presses the heel of Pola's shoe, and magically the alarm is silenced—

Albert presses Pola's shoe

—because Pola (who has gotten back into the bed during the night) has found the clock on the nightstand and turned it off.

Clair also uses unexpected diegetic sounds to avoid the obvious. During Albert's fight with Fred over Pola, the sound of a train roaring past drowns out the sounds of struggle. Later that same night, when Albert fights with Louis over Pola, they are in a bar where a record of Rossini's William Tell Overture is on the gramophone (and starts to skip).

When the two men reconcile, their conversation is shot through the glass pane of the bar doors, and so once again the dialogue can't be heard. (Shooting an unheard conversation through a window was a technique later borrowed by Sacha Guitry for his comedies.)

Louis (Edmond Greville) reconciles with Albert

In Sous les toits de Paris Clair used sound as a dramatic element and reconceived his approach to direction to adjust to the new medium. It was also the first in Clair's series of now-classic comedies set in the streets and cafés of working-class Paris and drawn from the lives of ordinary Parisians.

Next in the series: Le Million (1931)
Last time: Entr'acte (1924) and The Italian Straw Hat (1927)

  1. René Clair, reprinted in Cinema Yesterday and Today, Dover, 1972, p. 144.
  2. Quoted in John Kobal, Gotta Sing Gotta Dance, Hamblyn, 1970, p. 85.
  3. Clair, Cinema Yesterday and Today, p. 144

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