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This 1927 silent comedy is the first masterpiece by the enormously creative René Clair. The French director is said to have gotten his start in an experimental wave of Parisian filmmaking inspired by Russian artists displaced by the Bolshevik revolution. Clair began as an actor but soon moved on to writing and directing one of the best Avant-garde mini-classics, 1924's Entr'acte; the next year he made a whimsical Sci-Fi comedy about a "crazy ray" that puts all of Paris to sleep, Paris qui dort.
The Italian Straw Hat is a carefully constructed, gentle farce. Its source is a frequently revived 1851 stage play, a comedy of errors that takes place on a wedding day. Clair and Co. decided to move the time period to 1895 and to affect a film style reminiscent of the earliest French movies. Passers-by in street scenes behave as if they were spectators unattached to the film crew (although in period costume) and Clair finds bits of business with stray dogs and curious little boys. The film's art direction is extremely sophisticated -- costumes and settings are as important to the storytelling as the acting, and much more important than inter-title dialogue. Many sequences are carried by pantomime and camera direction alone, removing the need for the words written for the stage.
René Clair's direction is disarmingly simple. He holds off on most camera moves, even pans, but the picture is anything but static. He moves in for plenty of details and telling facial expressions, and then backs off to let comic slapstick scenes play wide. Clair's style is both organized and improvised, and he delights in letting utter chaos break up the formality of his careful compositions. Even more interesting, his direction shows a warm affection for his characters, even when he makes fun of them.
The basic story concerns a crazy wedding day. Young Fadinard (Albert Préjean of Princess Tam Tam and Jenny) is rushing to the altar when he leaves his buggy unattended at the roadside. His horse eats half of an Italian Straw Hat it finds on a bush -- a hat that belongs to the beautiful Anais (Olga Tschechowa 1), a married woman having an affair with the handsome Lieutenant Tavernier (Geymond Vital). The lovers pursue Fadinard back to his apartment, and refuse to leave: Anais cannot return home until Fadinard finds a replacement for the hat, or her husband (Jim Gérald) will find out. Fadinard tries to carry out this wild demand because Tavernier has promised to wreck his apartment if he doesn't -- the bride-to-be Hélène (Marise Maia) and her furious father can't understand why the groom is constantly interrupting the ceremony and excusing himself.
What might sound like an extended episode of a TV sitcom is anything but, thanks to superior direction and acting. The awkward situations reveal an amusing side to French culture, as the crazy but possible mix-ups disrupt what should be a moment of pride for the middle class. René Clair effortlessly communicates many jokes without titles of any kind. Fadinard shows the half-eaten hat to the perturbed young couple, and is amused to find that Anais wears a wedding ring while the Lt. does not; and one of her hairs is on the soldier's uniform as well. Fadinard's expression of delight is sincere, not "oo la la", but the Lt. isn't amused. A deaf uncle is unaware of a struggle going on right behind him, because his "listening horn" has been blocked with a piece of paper. At the wedding, Fadinard's clueless cousin doesn't realize that his clip-on tie is coming off, even when his wife continually elbows him. The minister gets the idea that something is wrong with his tie, and starts fiddling with it; which causes every man in the congregation to nervously check his tie. Clair's direction stays just ahead of us, so that we're taken by surprise as the joke snowballs. Like many situations in the film, the gag exploits middle-class insecurities concerning property or possessions.
Clair alters his filming style twice, in very interesting ways. Stuck at the church, Fadinard worries about the fate of his apartment, represented in an Entr'acte- inflected montage of his valuables and furniture being broken or magically thrown into the street; the last image is of the entire building being destroyed. The panicked groom later invades the home of a person said to have purchased a hat identical to that of Anais. Caught by the house's owner, he relates the story of why he needs the hat -- which is seen as a stage version of the events on the road. Fadinard casts himself as a noble hero trying to preserve the lady's honor. We become aware of Fadinard's big mistake way before he does, by reading the expression on the face of the homeowner -- who by coincidence is intimately concerned with the illicit affair in Fadinard's story.
Critics like to point out that The Italian Straw Hat is an attack on bourgeois values, as demonstrated when the wedding guests turn into a mob to recover their wedding gifts. They're happily dancing a quadrille one moment and then out for blood the next. Showing up at Fadinard's door, they're refused entrance by the dimwitted butler -- who was told not to let anyone in until the woman inside leaves!
Clair arranges his storytelling to make the film's first and final images reverse echoes of each other. The director continued this delicate kind of "just so" storytelling throughout his early career, in his fast trio of early sound classics Under the Roofs of Paris, Le million and À nous la liberté, but also his delightful wartime American films The Flame of New Orleans, I Married a Witch and It Happened Tomorrow. The bright and sunny The Italian Straw Hat is a must-see silent delight.
Flicker Alley and Blackhawk Films' DVD of The Italian Straw Hat is a handsome reconstruction of the full-length original film. David Shepard's restoration combines a vintage 35mm English negative with scenes found in a European print. Following notes from the film's French premiere, the film is shown at 19 frames per second, which results in the longer-than-usual running time. Previous to this DVD I've only seen 8mm shortened versions of the movie, which were of terrible quality and looked all wrong projected at 24 fps; René Clair apparently wanted to preserve the antique feel of the show even in its projection speed. The film comes with a choice of a Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra track and a piano track by Philip Carli.
Flicker Alley adds two film extras to the mix. Clair's 1928 short subject The Eiffel Tower is a visual poem to the Paris landmark that alternates between docu footage and interesting split-screen visual effects. Ferdinand Zecca's 1907 Fun after the Wedding is a genre precursor to the main feature, an amusing and rather formless comedy showing a wedding party improvising some silliness in a park. The players all appear to be stage comedians, happily mugging for the camera. An insert booklet contains two essays on the film and some notes on the music score by Rodney Sauer. As a DVD-ROM extra, the entire original play is also provided, in the form of a 1916 English translation. Once again Flicker Alley has brought forth a superior presentation of a silent classic.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Italian Straw Hat rates:
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