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Drôle de drame
ou L'étrange aventure de Docteur Molyneux

Drôle de drame
Home Vision
1937 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 94 84 109 min. / Bizarre, Bizarre / Street Date April 29, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Michel Simon, Françoise Rosay, Louis Jouvet, Jean-Louis Barrault, Nadine Vogel, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Pierre Alcover
Cinematography Eugen Schüfftan
Art Direction Alexandre Trauner
Film Editor Marthe Poncin
Original Music Maurice Jaubert
Written by Jacques Prévert from a novel by J. Storer Clouston
Produced by Corniglion Molinier
Directed by Marcel Carné

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

This completely nutty farce comes from the writing / directing team responsible for more serious fare like Quai des Brumes and Children of Paradise. It starts in a church meeting where a Bishop is railing against the author of a lurid mystery novel. A serial killer speaks up, saying how the crime book ruined his life. Then several policemen hidden in the audience, one dressed as a woman, leap up to try and arrest him. It goes on from there, with one surprise after another. The biggest surprise for us is that this is a French film from 1937. Besides a general ribbing of the English for being obsessed with crime stories, the picture manages to derail just about every tenet of polite drama. The title translates as 'funny drama', but it's much more than that.


Fussy, spoiled wife Margaret Molyneaux (Françoise Rosay) annoys her cook and butler, They quit, leaving her in the lurch when the intolerant Bishop Soper (Louis Jouvet) invites himself for dinner. Rather than face the humiliation, she cooks dinner herself and makes her husband Irwin (Michel Simon) tell a fib about her being out of town. Soper suspects murder, which starts a wild chain of events that turn the Molyneaux household upside down and most of the cast into wanted killers. Irwin has an eye for his wife's assistant Eva (Nadine Vogel) but she ends up spending most of her time in the attic with the amorous milkman, Billy (Jean-Pierre Aumont). A reporter takes up residence on the Molyneaux couch, when Irwin is a accused of murdering his wife and has to go into hiding. And drifting through the story is a real deranged serial killer (but a charming one), William Kramps (Jean-Louis Barrault), a madman who kills only butchers ... and who falls for Mrs. Molyneaux when in a drunken reverie.

Savant's already admitted his limitations with classic French cinema, as confessed in his review for the fascinating Les Dames du La Bois de Boulogne. This oddball entry must be in a class by itself, as it combines a comic farce with Black Comedy and even some fantastic elements. The nominal hero, Irwin Molyneux, is a connoiseur of exotic plants, some of which sway back and forth on their own when drunk, as several characters do later on in the film. The French recreation of a turn-of-the-century London is peculiar but charming, especially as interpreted by the great production designer Alexandre Trauner, who later worked on most of Billy Wilder's post-1957 work, and other wonderfully-designed films, like Land of the Pharaohs. This London is a selection of just-so interiors, linked by marvelously designed streets. A bed-and-supper inn in Chinatown has a wraparound background of London only briefly seen from an upper floor, that is a marvel of construction.

(mild spoilers)

The levels of farcical confection in this pretzel of a story are also fascinating. Class snobbery starts things in motion, as the lady of a household would rather go into hiding than admit that her servants have quit on her. While waiting for an inheritance, she's prevailed upon her husband Irwin to write a series of detective novels under the pen name Félix Chapel. The books have become extremely lucrative, but Irwin and Margaret keep the Chapel identity a secret so she can maintain her social status. The untraceable Chapel is the target of censors who would like to see him tarred and feathered. Serial killer William Kramps also wants the author dead, for inspiring his life of crime. Molyneaux becomes a wanted man on the Bishop's mistaken assumption that he's murdered his wife, a situation that ironically saves Irwin's life when Kramps catches up with him - as fellow murderers, Molyneax and Kramps become the best of pals!

The picture abounds in weird situations. The Chinese Innkeeper sends a sinister helper out for flowers, so the helper mugs a succession of gentlemen on the street, just to steal their lapel posies. Irwin has to pose as his own alter-ego Félix, wearing a beard for a disguise. When lynch mob finds out that their victim is innocent, they line up to express their regrets and best wishes, including one still carrying the noose. And the complications that ensue when the killer Kramps takes Irwin (in disguise) to meet the woman he loves, who turns out to be Irwin's own wife, are too many to number.

Michel Simon was already the grand old man of French film. He has some marvelous scenes, as when he interrupts a stone-drunk walk down a hall, to pitter patter deftly down a steep staircase, and then return to his dizzy stagger once again. Françoise Rosay is appropriately annoying as his wife, Louis Jovet is a humorously hypocritical Bishop, caught in a dalliance with a music hall performer named 'Daisy'. A very young Jean-Pierre Aumont (Day for Night) is a ridiculously cheerful milkman who ends up spending days in the attic with the lovely Nadine Vogel.

But best of all is specially-billed Jean-Louis Barrault, the mime from Children of Paradise. He does a fantastic job as the 'disembowler of butchers', a killer who has a poet's sensibility, rides a bicycle like a student, and figures that if he's caught he'll just escape again. He has adjusted nicely to the role of serial killer and woos Mrs. Molyneaux with words of kind endearment, at least until he sobers up and gets a good look at her face. He also has a bizarre rear-nude scene in a lily pond, like some kind of male nymph illusion.

All in all, this is an amusing & sophisticated black farce, proving beyond doubt that the Black Comedy didn't begin with Evelyn Waugh or American satires. Of special note are the stylized costumes, that have a strange antique look to them, but also tend toward exaggerated shoulders and odd striping. It's a very curiously designed film all around.

Home Vision's disc of Drôle de drame is a better-than average transfer of this vintage French title; the picture is always pleasing, if a bit grey-looking. The subtitles are nicely timed for the jokes, something not always accomplished on home video. There are no extras, but critic Jonathan Rosenbaum provides a witty and insightful set of liner notes. The interesting cover art might be original; the back cover and menus take a cue from the milkman played by Aumont. Home Vision is to be congratulated for this release, which has to be one of the more rare French films yet released in Region 1.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Drôle de drame rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 5, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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