UN CHAPEAU DE PAILLE D’Italie, 1927 (The Italian Straw Hat \ The Horse Ate the Hat)
Director: René Clair; from the play by Eugène Labiche & Marc Michel (1851); Photography: Maurice Desffassiaux, Nicolas Roudakoff; Titles: Lazare Meerson; Cast: Albert Prèjean (Fadinard – The groom).
From the catalogue of the “26 Pordenone Silent Film Festival” 2007 catalogue, pp. 75-77 (By the courtesy of Mr. Lovio Jacob, president of the festival)
UN CHAPEAU DE PAILLE D’ITALIE was clair’s breakthrough film, and his first undisputed masterpiece. It confirmed all the hopes producer Alexander Kamenka had invested in him after the success of La Proie du vent. And, just as it restored Clair’s standing as the white hope of the French cinema, it momentarily shored up the flagging fortunes of Kamenka’s Films Albatross, until recently the film industry’s Russian émigré studio enclave.
Kamenka had never fully recovered from the defection of his “stock company” of émigré associates, directors’ actors (most centrally was actor Ivan Msjoukine) and technicians, who broke ranks with Albatross in 1924 to head up a new studio in Billancourt for the European consortium, Westi.
Kamenka brought in Lean Epstein and Jacques Feyder (and later Clair) toreplace ex-house directors Tourjansky and Volkoff. But the hapless Feyder had the dubious honor of directing Raquel Meller in a glossy new super production of Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen. An artistic miscarriage from the start (Meller’ a pious Catholic, refused to play Carmen as the amoral, hot-blooded gypsy she was), the film’s mediocre box office performance scotched Meller’s brief claime to screen fame, sent Feyder into another professional exile, and rocked Kamrnka’s Albatross to its very financial foundations.
Previously the standard-setter for the French industry, Albatross now fell back on more formulaic comedies based on popular theatrical properties. A foray into international co-production with Swedish, German and Spanish partners proved no better than the Carmen fiasco. Albatross’s handsomely produced, if minor, productions of theatrical comedies such as Jim la Houllete, Roi des Voleurs and Le Chasseur de Chez Maxim’s – both vehicles for Kamenka’s only remaining Russian star, Nicolas Rimsky – were successful enough to keep company afloat. Were it not for Clair’s two feature comedies for Kamenka – not to mention the returning Feyder’s marvelously Clair-esque adaptation of Les Nouveaux messieurs - the fade-out for Albatross might have come earlier than it did; In the 1930’s, Albatross wallowed into commercial productions of little artistic import by second-rank directors –only Jean Renoir stood out in the talent roster, but with his Botched adaptation of The Lower Depths. Unlike other adaptations of Albatross, which were recent stage successes of the Paris Boulevard, Eugène Labiche’s Un Chapeau de Paille D’italie was a masterpiece of 19th century farce comedy (or, more technically, the vaudeville, a genre of light comedy whose dialogue was sprinkled with song lyrics set to familiar tunes). First staged at 1851, it enjoyed regular revivals well into the 20th century, and received an official imprimatur when the Comédie Française accepted it into its repertory in 1938.
Though Clair it’s hard to believe but the screen rights were first picked up by that most humorlessly high-minded of avant-garde directors, Marcel L’Herbier! Happily for everyone concerned he graciously agreed to cede the rights to Kamenka for Clair to direct.
Though Clair, as a young critic, had eloquently denounced the cinema’s unhealthy dependency on drama and literature, Labiche’s play displayed inherent “cinematic” qualities of movement and rhythm that fired the young director’s imagination. In its time, the play surprised and delighted critics and audiences by its innovative dramatic construction and breathless pacing. Rather than a static situation comedy based entirely on dialogue, it created a “Vaudeville de movement” – Labiche sent the entire cast on a wild-goose chase across Paris in search of the eponymous hat that will ,preserve a married woman’s honor and save the bridegroom bourgeois apartment from systematic destruction. In a sense Un Chapeau de Paille D’italie was the flip side of the second half of Entr’acte, where the funeral becomes a wedding, and the hearse is replaced by an item of woman’s headwear.
Claire wrote and directed Un Chapeau de Paille D’italie in a blissful white heat. The script was completed (he would later claim) in eight days. As Pierre Billard notes, the entire film, from first script draft to gala premiere took a mere five months! “That suggests an impeccable sense of organization, an absence of production snags, but also something more: a coherent vision of the film from the very start, an impetus so powerful an so accurate that the directing of the film come in one steady flow and the editing was done in the course of shooting.”
The “an impeccable sense of organization” attested to the structured studio environment and team spirit that Clair would always required to do his best films. (Consider how Clair flourished at Tobis’s state-of-the-art studios in the early 1930’s, turning out his first four talkies in three years, and then fumbled when he changed studios and production team). Though small, Albatros Montreuil studios, even after the 1924 schism, retained his reputation for high production standards.
Much of the studio’s reputation at this time was due to the work of one man – Lazare Meerson. This was Clair’s second collaboration (of eight) with the brilliant young Russian-Jewish art director (both were born in 1898) who had replaced the gifted but more classically trained Alexander Luchakoff as Albatros’s chief production designer. His contribution to the Albatros productions gave even the slightest of them a touch of class they might otherwise have lacked. (His evocative sets for Carmen are one of the few good reasons for seeing this film to-day).
In Un Chapeau de Paille D’Italie, Meerson responded wittily to Clair’s intent to up date the play’s action from the second empire to the turn of the century. By re-setting the play in 1895, Clair and Meerson evoked a not-too-distant past that was also that of birth of cinema. Léon Barsacq noted this double-edged intent when he described Clair’s film as a “gentle ironic send-up of the Belle Époque petite bourgeoisie” and Meerson’s delightfully fussy interiors as “a spoof of the sets in primitive Pathé movies”. In a Warmly judged program note for the 1940 screening of the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Iris Barry recalled Clair’s abiding “affection for primitive film” and how he had once “clamored for a return in search of inspiration to the free and innocent style of the cinematic past… Now, in The Italian Straw Hat…he was beautifully able to humor his own predilection for the past by adopting Labiche’s play into a film which was not meerily staged and costumed in the period of the cinema birth but which was to look ‘as though’ it had actually been filmed in 1895. Studio-produced though most of the interiors are, scene after scene painstakingly and brilliantly captures the very atmosphere and flavor of pictures taken 30 years earlier, as when the Lumière employees walked out of their factory at lunch-time and were eternally caught and recorded by the motion picture in a sunlit moment of time”.
Speaking of “sunlit moment”, no appraisal of the film’s evergreen charm would be complete without mention of the crisp, gracious photography of Maurice Desfassiaux (Clair’s cameraman on Paris qui dort) and Nikolas Roudakoff.
Un Chapeau de Paille D’Italie remains one of the wittiest and most elegant screen comedies ever made – a film even Clair’s detractors, allergic to the three penny sentiment of Clair’s early talkies, cannot help but admire. The wit and elegance, of course, are the result of Clair’s unique comic vision, the purely visual gags (there are a mere two dozen intertitles in all!), and his now-mature mastery of film technique. No less important his gracious direction of actors. Farce is one of the most difficult dramatic genres to stage, and the task is even more forbidding when being done for the movie camera. Reading the play, one delights in Labiche’s rampaging caricatures. In Clair’s film, a medley of European and émigré Russian actors is delicately forged into a perfect acting ensemble in a group portrait of French Bourgoisie, headed by clair’s fetish actor Albert Préjean, as the harassed bridegroom Fadinard, Paul Ollivier (another eccentric Clair’s regular) as the clueless deaf uncle, not to mention Alexei Bondireff as the perplexed cousin with the crooked tie (in one of the great comic self-pieces in movie comedy), the luscious Olga Tschekova as the owner of the Italian straw hat in question, and the Swiss Jim Gérald, who injects an usual note of pathos as the cuckolded husband.
The text was written by Lenny Borger.