Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Watching early sound pictures, even the classics, can be a real chore. Le million is a
delightfully clever little farce that still charms. It takes place in an operetta-like fantasy
Paris where anyone can break out into song at any time, and it spins the old find-the-lottery-ticket
gag into a constantly changing series of comic reversals and romantic surprises. Often listed as
one of the great films of all time, Le million creatively treats its dialogue
and sound effects as if they were part of the music track.
Penniless artist Michel (René Lefèvre) is already in hot water with his
ballerina fiancee Beatrice (Annabella) for paying too much attention to his only customer, Vanda
(Vanda Gréville), when his many debtors close in. That's when his greedy pal Prosper (Louis
Allibert) brings the news that Michel's won a million in the Dutch lottery. Unfortunately, Beatrice
has given the old jacket containing the lottery ticket to Granpa Tulip (Paul Ollivier), a master
thief masquerading as a bum to evade the flics. Tulip sells the jacket to pompous opera tenor
Sopranelli (Constantin Siroesco), who wants to use it on stage. With the flics confusing Michel for
the escaped thief, Prosper doublecrossing his pal at every turn, and a small army of thieves also
searching for the lottery ticket, Michel has his work cut out for him - and a studio full of
debtors waiting to be paid.
René Clair is a classic French director who started as an actor with Louis Feuillade, and made
his feature debut with 1925's Paris qui dort (Paris Sleeps), a science fiction film about
a crazy ray that puts the whole city to sleep. Like most of Clair's output, it's fanciful and light;
Clair spent the 40's in Hollywood making exemplary comedies like I Married a Witch! and the
celebrated Ten Little Indians before returning to France to continue his career.
Le million is always cited as a major breakthrough in the use of creative audio at the beginning
of the sound era. It might be called a musical, but one that's liberated from the staginess of musicals
and early sound filmmaking. There's plenty of normal, natural dialogue, although the butcher
and grocer and Michel's other debtors form a chorus as vocal as the one behind singer
the action moves backstage at the opera, there's an effortless mixing of stage and screen
realities. What would be corny in a Warners musical is deeply touching here. Michel and Beatrice are
stuck on stage, hiding behind the scenery during a love duet by the impossibly fat singing stars.
She's angry, but they're slowly influenced by the romantic lyrics until all is sweetness and roses
again. It's pretty adorable to see the fairyland setting take over; Clair constantly shifts his
moods between different kinds of comedy & romance.
Ernst Lubitsch must have been watching Le million, for he certainly incorporated
the operetta format into his films with Maurice Chevalier at Paramount. Clair goes so far as to
make fun of Pabst's 3-Penny Opera by giving different stanzas of the same song to both the
cops and the crooks, with each profession proud of their service to society. There are enough chases,
mistaken identities, and who's-got-the-jacket gags for three comedies.
Refreshingly, the young lovers aren't totally idealized, at least not Michel, who really is chasing
Vanda's skirt when he should be paying attention to Beatrice. Annabella as Beatrice is just delightful,
and she spends most of the main setpiece at the opera in her ballet tutu, making Le million
seem even more like a modern fairy tale. It's the kind of place where crooks keep their bargains, and
cops cry during love duets.
How the great comedy writers and directors keep these things light is the real mystery. Nothing clunks
like a thudding comedy, but there're always bright shows like Christmas in July, Brewster's
Millions (the original), and Love Me Tonight to make us wonder how they do it.
Criterion's DVD of Le million is so much better than the mangled copy I saw in college, it's
like seeing a new movie. The print is intact and has great definition, even though it contains many
small scratches, as it should, for a very popular 70-year-old picture. Criterion has done an
incredible job cleaning up the audio, which I really heard here for the first time. The songs are
much cuter when they're clear.
A terrific extra is a 1959 TV interview with Clair. It's a fairly stiff set of questions about 'the
birth of sound', but finally having a face and voice to put to Clair's name is enough. There's a
brief clip from Le million in the interview, and its miserable condition, with the actor's
cropped off and inaudible sound, gives an idea what this picture used to look like.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Le Million rates:
Supplements: Still selection; 1959 TV interview with René Clair
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 5, 2002
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson