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Le million

Le million
Criterion 72
1931 / B&W / 1:37 / 83 min. / Street Date May 16, 2000 / $29.95
Starring Jean-Louis Allibert, Annabella, Raymond Cordy, Vanda Gréville, René Lefèvre, Paul Ollivier, Constantin Siroesco, Odette Talazac
Cinematography Georges Périnal, Georges Raulet
Art Direction Lazare Meerson
Original Music Armand Bernard, Philippe Parés, Georges Van Parys
Written by René Clair from a play by Georges Berr, Marcel Guillemaud
Directed by René Clair

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 Sopranelli. When 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 head half 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:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Still selection; 1959 TV interview with René Clair
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 5, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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