René Clair’s (much embattled but ever resilient) reputation as one of the supreme stylists of screen comedy still rests essentially on the quartet of populist films he made in a breathtaking élan of creativity between 1930 and 1933. These comedies – Sous les toits de Paris, Le Million, À nous la liberté and (the lesser known) 14 juillet – vindicated the art of European sound film, released the early talkies from the artless yoke of canned theatre, and placed Clair in the elite of world-rank directors.
Ironically, Clair’s most vocal champions included the Americans, whose film industry has succeeded in keeping all but a handful of French films off local screens throughout the 1920s – Clair’s included. To most American reviewers, Clair seemed to have sprung fully formed out of a cultural void – indeed, Sous les toits de Paris was often described as his “first film”. And when a minor distributor released Clair’s then four-year-old silent comedy Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, under the title The horse ate the hat, in New York in the summer of 1931, the critics sniffed. Variety dismiss it as a “bore”, adding that Clair, who had “previously made only one or two highly modernistic arty films [---] had “improved so much in the interim”.
That “interim” in fact goes back to 1923, when the 25-years-old novice, with little practical experience and the proverbial shoestring budget, made the first of his six silent features and two shorts that would bemuse, startled, upset, and charemed the French cultural establishment – and herald the arrival of an imaginative new talent.
Clair was born René Chomette in 1898. In the heart and stomach of Paris – the Halles food market – where his parents were prosperous soap merchants. During World War I, he published his first poems and stories, and served briefly in an ambulance unit at the front in 1917. Only weeks after the armistice (11 November 1917 was also Clair’s 20th birthday), he made his debut as a journalist, writing a colume on literature and the performing arts for a leading Paris daily L’intransigeant (and also, pseudonymously, penning songs for the great realist singer Damia).
Though aspiring to a literary and journalistic career, Chomette soon discovered that the movies paid better. In 1920-1921, he acted in four films: Le Lys de la vie, a self-fashioned vehicle for the American dancer Loïe Fuller; Le Sens de la Mort, a morbid drama by Russian émigré director Jacob Protazanov; and two late serials by Louis Feuillade, L’Orpheline and Parisiette. Careful to separate his bread-and-butter movie work from his other pursuits, Chomette adopted the metaphorical pseudonym of “Clair” – Light.
Clair’s definite conversion to film came with a brief but enriching apprenticeship with one of France’s most respected mainstream directors, Jacques de Baroncelli (whose then-assistant was none other than Clair’s older brother Henri Chomette, A future avant-gardist and failed commercial director, whom screenwriter Henry Jeanson would memorably dismiss with his trademark cruel wit as the “Clair-obscure”).
The 26th edition of the catalogue of “Le Giornate Del Cinema Muto”, pp. 65-66. Courtesy of Mr. Livio Jacob, President of the festival.
Text by: Lenny Borger