Review Written by: Brian Huddleston
Directed by: Rene Clair
Written by: Rene Clair
Produced by: Frank Clifford
Starring: Henri Marchand, Raymond Cordy, Rolla France, Paul Ollivier, Jacques Shelly, Andre Michaud, Germaine Aussey
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Rent it
I was astounded at the genius of such an early sound film. Before Modern Times
graced the world, Clair made a sharp comedy about how The Industrial Age may have started because of an escaped convict. Such a wild premise is played to the hilt as Émile (Henri Marchand) makes a daring escape from prison with help from his buddy, Louis (Raymond Cordy). Émile is able to create a vast phonograph industry which seems to be a booming venture for the economy of the city. It seems that if one doesn't work at this plant, their ability to live will be difficult. As Clair takes us into this plant we see a large assembly line of men, each partaking in the creation of phonographs as they move down a conveyor belt. To add to the organization of the industry, we see that the men's lunch breaks are designed in much the same way as the jobs they work. We watch as bowls of different types of foods move down the conveyor as men grab whatever seems to satisfy their fancy for the day. The facility is ran so much like a military installation that guards march around making sure the phonographs continue down the assembly line like drill sargeants.
Within the film, though, we realize Émile's past will come back to haunt him as Louis gets out of prison and fate finds him on the phonograph assembly line pushing down the product. Louis is such a head-case that he can't seem to keep himself out of trouble. A woman named Jeanne (Rolla France) catches Louis's eye and he can't get her out of his heart. He gazes lovingly at her, seemingly always from a distance. He follows her to the phonograph factory as we see more men preparing for their new life as employees. Soon Louis sees a much different Émile than the tramp that broke free from prison's slumber. He's costumed with the finest of suits, a little hat and cigar a puffing. This is a man who has made his way into society without being caught. That, I believe, is the main comedic jab that Clair takes towards society. We all know those "higher-up" characters are crooks. Well, soon Émile and Louis are forming a friendly bond and living it up under the wonderful means of wealth. However, Louis desires Jeanne so badly and plugs Émile into trying to arrange a marriage with her through the proper channels (by co-ercing the uncle, through possible career advances). Jeanne is, however, in love with another factory worker and we see that Louis's love will perhaps not be returned. Ultimately, Émile's life gets worse as his prison cronies get out of prison and plan to blackmail him for the proper benefits.
This is a film that I feel is worth a look from those who enjoy Chaplin-esque comedies and sharp, perceptive jabs at the growing modern age where society is forming into something other than the liberty that Émile and Louis seek. Towards the end where Émile has created a new assembly line (totally ran by machines), here's another chance to take shots at the age of industry where men will soon be kicked to the curb while a choice few reap the benefits.
The special features on the Criterion disc are quite interesting. We have an interview with his wife who speaks on René Clair. It's mainly about their relationship and his early entry into the film industry. There are two deleted scenes, one called "The Singing Flower" (about these flowers which sing to Louis) and the other being "The Magic Park" (a scene where we see Louis and Jeanne sitting at a table opposite her true love and their walk into a park where she breaks away from Louis). These two deleted scenes are not high quality and really of any importance to the ultimate story. There's an audio story (read by Historian David Robinson) about Tobis Production Company and their attempts at trying to sue Chaplin for plagarizing when he created Modern Times
. Many might find this interesting, but I felt it was rather dull and overlong. There's also a "Surreal Ballet" called "Entr'acte" which was created by Francis Picabia, Erik Satie and Clair for which most consider pioneers in the French film industry. My mediocre ratings for audio and sound aren't an attack on Criterion as on time itself. As far as buying it, this may be a worthy buy for those who love Chaplin-esque satires. I figure the Criterion comes at a pretty hefty price, so I'd suggest renting it.