[To read part one of this essay, click here. To read part two, click here.]
III. And The Winner Is...
... René Clair for À Nous La Liberté.
That's not the name I expected to see on my computer screen when I put my fingers on the keyboard. I fully expected to type "Howard Hawks for Scarface"—after all, Scarface is the best gangster movie of a decade characterized by great gangster movies, and it may well be the best gangster movie made before The Godfather—but in the end my heart decided that Scarface contained too many compromises to appease the censors, too much clumsy footage filmed by assistant director Richard Rosson, to make me comfortable telling you that this is the movie you want to see when you go exploring the films of Howard Hawks. And given the lack of so many signature Hawks elements—male comradery, strong women, fast dialogue, slow songs—giving Hawks the award for Scarface felt a little like giving Alfred Hitchcock an award for a screwball comedy; yes, he directed one, but it's not really what I'd think of a Hitchcock movie.
The other choice I strongly considered was James Whale who directed what I think is the most iconographic picture of the year, Frankenstein, which along with its sequel, Bride of Frankenstein (also directed by Whale), is the best of Universal Picture's cycle of horror pictures that began earlier in 1931 with Dracula and runs right up to this year's remake of The Mummy. The imagery of Frankenstein is so unforgettable that I could probably describe the movie to you in terms of its key scenes—the graveyard, the laboratory, the electrical storm, the tragedy of the little girl—and you could picture the movie in your head (and not just because Mel Brooks spoofed it so well in Young Frankenstein). Plus, Boris Karloff as the monster is easily the most recognizable creation in the long history of horror movies. But let's face it, there are aspects of Frankenstein that are pretty creaky by modern standards, and while I won't hold that against the finished product come best picture time, it is just enough to separate Whale from my choice, René Clair.
And why Clair? It's not just because he was Katie-Bar-The-Door's choice in the recent poll I conducted on the question—although any eighty year old movie that can make your wife's eyes light up deserves some sort of award—it's mostly because of all the movies that came out during the year in question, À Nous La Liberté comes the closest to being what I'd call a perfect little film, entertaining, inventive, insightful and without a false step. Plus in 1931 Clair also wrote and directed Le Million, another classic little comedy, making him one of the very few directors to have ever produced two must-see classics in the same calendar year. In the end, those factors were just too great to ignore.
À Nous La Liberté begins in prison where the inmates work at an assembly line making toys to earn their keep. The joke is that one of the inmates (Henri Marchand) escapes and winds up running a factory with an assembly line he models on his prison experience. His cellmate (Raymond Cordy), who was not so lucky during the escape attempt, winds up working at his friend's factory after his release. When the two meet, conflict is inevitable—but not the kind you'd expect, things like blackmail, scandal or any of those garden variety complications. No, the threat come from the anarchy that a true free spirit can unleash on the established order if he infects his fellow workers with his indifference to the inducements of materialism.
The result is a quirky blend of slapstick comedy and social criticism that has delighted audiences and influenced filmmakers for decades.
Not that À Nous La Liberté is a socialist screed straight out of Das Kapital, no matter what some critics have wanted to read into it. It's political in the way Duck Soup is political—a call to rebellion against regimentation wherever you may find it, whether at school, at work or at home—whipped up into a souffle so light even the staunchest plutocrat will want to tuck into it.
Actually, Clair's philosophical insights remind me mostly of Henry Miller who, once you get past the famously raunchy sex bits, was primarily focused on one question: why should I work for a living when what I want to do is write? For "write," Clair might substitute "make movies and nap in the sunshine," but it's the same question and given that the same yawning grave awaits you regardless of what path you choose, a fundamental one.
Besides, anyone here who has worked on an assembly line and can honestly say they found it fulfilling, interesting work, raise your hand. My own experience is limited—a summer job in my youth filling up plastic bottles with fruit juice—but it was the worst job I ever had and I don't think saying so makes either me or René Clair a left-wing anarchist.
The other theme of the movie, one Clair explored in Le Million, is the deference we pay to money and the people who have it, regardless of their underlying worth as human beings. Put a criminal in a suit, Clair says, give him money and a position of power, and suddenly we're kowtowing to him even when we'd have hauled him away in irons just the day before, and our reflexive willingness to do so goes a long way toward explaining the dot.com debacle, the housing bubble, Bernie Madoff and the seemingly endless parade of public figures who wind up in prison shackles for real. A criminal is a criminal, Clair reminds us, whether he's in prison stripes or pinstripes.
To make even this mild political message palatable, Clair set the entire movie, which is pretty near silent, to music with most of the dialogue coming in form of songs sung by an unseen chorus. The compositions by Georges Auric are bright and whimsical:
In life, liberty is all that counts
But man invented the prison cell
Codes and laws, do's and don'ts
Work, offices and houses as well
My old friend, life is great
When you're free to be yourself
o come on, let's emancipate
Here's to us two and liberty!
À Nous La Liberté was an international hit, and it was the first foreign language film nominated for an Academy Award in any category (for Lazare Meerson's art direction and set design).
Questions persist to what degree Clair's cinematic critique of industrialization influenced Charles Chaplin's 1936 critique of the same, Modern Times. The film's distributor, Films Sonores Tobis, filed suit against Chaplin, claiming plagiarism, and the suit dragged on for years as lawsuits often do. Clair himself refused to join the suit, considering any inspiration Chaplin might have drawn from À Nous La Liberté to be a great compliment. Personally, I take Chaplin at his word that he never saw Clair's movie, and in any event, as a lawyer I find the legal basis for the case against Chaplin thin at best. Clair was hardly the first person to lament the de-humanizing effects of the industrial age—indeed, Fritz Lang's Metropolis predates À Nous La Liberté by four years—and being one of the primary questions of the day, of interest to painters and politicians alike (not to mention, workers and factory owners), it should come as no surprise that two artists such as Clair and Chaplin would wish to address it.
Nor can an artist copyright an idea; it's the concrete expression of the idea that he owns, and to me at least, what Chaplin had to say in Modern Times bears less of a resemblance to À Nous La Liberté than does, say, Scarface to Little Caesar or The Terminator to Colossus: The Forbin Project; Gone With The Wind to Jezebel; To Have And Have Not to Casablanca, and on and on. As Kurt Vonnegut once pointed out, there are only twelve basic plots which we have been repeating for thousands of years and the question is not what happens but how it happens. And, to me at least, how Modern Times happens is wholly different from how À Nous La Liberté happens.
In any event, it doesn't much matter to me. To tell you the truth, even if Chaplin had broken into Clair's house and taken the movie right out of his wall safe, it wouldn't alter the fact that Modern Times is one of the greatest comedies ever made. As is À Nous La Liberté. Enjoy them both.
That's my opinion anyway and good luck proving otherwise in a court of law.
In any event, the suit was eventually settled for a nominal sum and Chaplin and Clair remained friends.
Clair never again had a year like 1931. He left France for Britain in 1935 and then for Hollywood after that, making amiable but mostly forgotten movies such as I Married A Witch and It Happened Tomorrow. He returned to France after the war and three times won the French Syndicate of Cinema Critics' award for best film. In 1960 Clair was elected to the Académie française, a highly-select group of so-called "immortals" who hold court over matters regarding the French language. That body's prize for the year's best film is named for René Clair.
Clair directed his last movie in 1965 and died in 1981. He is regarded as one of the most significant figures in French film history.
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