UN CHAPEAU DE PAILLE D'ITALIE
(An Italian Straw Hat)
Director: René Clair
Production: Albatros; black and white, silent, seven reels; running time: 114 minutes. Released 1927; re-released 1984.
Screenplay: René Clair, from the play by Eugene Labiche and Marc Michel; photography: Nicholas Roudakoff, Maurice Desfassiaux; editor: Henry Dobb; design: Lazare Meerson; music: (1984 version) Benedict Mason; costume designer: Souplet; artistic adviser: Alexandre Kamenka.
Albert Prejean (
Fadinard, the Bridegroom
); Marise Maia (
); Vital Geymond (
); Olga Tschekowa (
Anais de Beauperthuis
); Paul Olivier (
); Jim Gerald (
M. de Beauperthuis
); Yvonneck (
The Bride's father
); Alice Tissot (
); Bondi (
The Man with the necktie
); Pré fils (
The Man with the glove
); Alexandrov (
); Valentine Tessier (
); Volbert (
Clair, René, Un Chapeau de paille d'italie , in Masterworks of the French Cinema , New York, 1974.
Schwob, René, Une Melodie silencieuse , Paris, 1929.
Bardeche, Maurice, and Robert Brasillach, Histoire du cinéma , Paris, 1935; revised edition, 1954.
Viazzi, G., René Clair , Milan, 1946.
Bourgeois, J., René Clair , Geneva, 1949.
Charensol, Georges, and Roger Regent, Un Maître du cinéma: René Clair , Paris, 1952.
Manvell, Roger, The Film and the Public , London, 1955.
Solmi, A., Tre maestri del cinema , Milan, 1956.
De La Roche, Catherine, René Clair: An Index , London, 1958.
Amengual, Barthélemy, René Clair , Paris, 1963; revised edition, 1969.
Mitry, Jean, René Clair , Paris, 1969.
Samuels, Charles Encountering Directors , New York, 1972.
McGerr, Celia, René Clair , Boston, 1980.
Barrot, Olivier, René Clair; ou, Le Temps mesuré , Renens, Switzerland, 1985.
Greene, Naomi, René Clair: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1985.
Dale, R.C., The Films of René Clair , Metuchen, New Jersey, 2 vols., 1986.
Billard, Pierre, Le mystére René Clair , Paris, 1998.
Close Up (London), November 1928, June 1929.
Variety (New York), 8 September 1931.
Potamkin, Harry, "René Clair and Film Humour," in Hound and Horn (New York), October-December 1932.
Causton, Bernard, "A Conversation with René Clair," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1932–33.
Jacobs, Lewis, "The Films of René Clair," in New Theatre (New York), February 1936.
Whitebait, William, in New Statesman (London), 25 November 1944.
Schwab, Paul, in Ciné-Club (Paris), October 1947.
Sight and Sound (London), July 1950.
"Clair Issue" of Bianco e Nero (Rome), August-September 1951.
Image et Son (Paris), January 1956.
Berti, V., "L'arte del comico in René Clair," in Bianco e Nero (Rome), March-April 1968.
Baxter, John, "A Conversation with René Clair," in Focus on Film (London), Winter 1972.
Brown, Geoff, in The Times (London), 28 April 1984.
Cole, Hugo, in Guardian (London), 30 April 1984.
Positif (Paris), February 1987.
" The Italian Straw Hat ," in The New York Times , vol. 141, B4 and C18, 14 May 1992.
Télérama (Paris), no. 2353, 15 February 1995.
Brown, G., "Tricks of the Trade," in Village Voice (New York), vol. 40, 4 July 1995.
* * *
If movement is the life of cinema then René Clair's delightful comedy qualifies. Taking an old boulevard farce from the end of the nineteenth century he has imbued it with life and vitality and given it a treatment that would have gladdened the heart of his acknowledged master, Mack Sennett. Apart from the early French and Italian comics, and of course Max Linder, comedy has not been a characteristically European contribution to the cinema. In this film of Clair's however there is comedy, farce and a shrewdly observed satire on bourgeois mores of the previous two centuries.
It is a drama of objects which Clair keeps up in the air with the skill of a Chinese conjurer. The hat itself, boots, bow ties, clocks all play their part in this funniest of films.
Suspense, parallel action, and mistaken identity are all used in the best of traditions. The satire is kind and gentle, and the characters are delightfully created with a disarming innocence about their follies and pretensions.
The story set in 1889 concerns a bridegroom on his way to his wedding who has the misfortune to have his horse eat a lady's straw hat which he has to replace. The lady in question is a married woman out flirting with a handsome young officer in the Bois de Vincennes. She has a jealous husband and can not arrive home without the hat. The wedding takes second place in the desperate effort of Fadinard, the groom, to get a replacement. The wedding guests grow impatient. The clandestine pair settle down in Fadinard's flat and threaten to wreck it. There is much to-ing and fro-ing before the dilemma is resolved and the wife can be found sleeping peacefully at home by her husband with the hat lying intact beside her.
In between all this Clair's inventiveness and his observation of people makes for a highly entertaining film. The mime sequence of the wedding by the pompous and wordy mayor is surely one of the great moments of cinema when the signal of the disarrangement of a man's bow tie is taken up mistakenly until the unease spreads to every man in the congregation.
Clair is well served by his actors, many of whom were to remain with him as part of the repertory in his future comedies. Albert Prejean as the distraught Fadinard, the tongue-in-cheek voluptuousness of Olga Tschekowa, poor deaf old Uncle Vesinet with his ear-trumpet getting everything wrong and being buffeted about in situations he does not understand, is beautifully played by Paul Olivier. The bossy woman with the hen-pecked husband is another dominant character in the film. Jim Gerald as the jealous husband creates another unforgettable Clair character.
The mise-en-scène is served by many talents. Lazare Meerson's feeling for the period is captured in the decors while the costumes by Souplet contribute in no small degree to the total creation.
There is another important aspect of the film. It is an Albatros Production, the head of which, Alexandre Kamenka, was artistic adviser on the film. Albatros was the production Company of the Russian Émigrés in Paris who not only produced striking films with their own units but also promoted young French directors like Clair, Jacques Feyder and Jean Epstein.
The style set in Un Chapeau de paille d'Italie was to be developed further with the coming of sound which Clair used with great originality but still retaining his childish delight in human foibles and eccentricities of character.