Just to prove that there's nothing new under the sun, court cases were brought against filmmakers for plaguarism back in 1938. Most interestingly to me, some of the counter thinking, director René Clair refused to have anything to do with any suggestion that no less a talent than Charlie Chaplin stole his film, titled in the French À nous la liberté, seven years later to make Modern Times, pointing out instead that if Chaplin had been influenced by his film he would be very flattered.
There are many obvious similarities but one huge difference at least: this is a musical, of all things for 1931, while Chaplin was attempting to extend the lifespan of the silent film with Modern Times, allowing only some synchronised sound. My guess is that Clair borrowed a lot from Chaplin to make this film and Chaplin borrowed a lot back to make Modern Times. It just highlights how important the public domain is and how important the free interplay of culture as building blocks.
We open with a bunch of prisoners making wooden horses in what must be the French equivalent of a chain gang. One of them (Louis, number 119) promptly escapes, but his partner in crime doesn't make it. Louis starts a phonograph company and quickly becomes a huge success, running what must have been a very profitable industry. His factory of course works precisely the same way that the prison did, with fascistic supervisors replacing the guards and phonographs replacing the wooden horses.
The equivalent of Chaplin's little tramp is the other prisoner, Émile, who escapes much later on and of course ends up working in his former cellmate's factory. Naturally he gets to be the proverbial spanner in the works, in a very Chaplinesque manner, partly through the his simple level of intellect and partly through the situations he finds himself in. He also gets to romance a girl who works at the factory, much to the displeasure of his martinet supervisor who has designs upon her himself.
As a film in itself, it's a joy. It's innovative, quirky and funny. There are various endings to plot themes, both happy and sad, fitting and ironic, calm and riotous. The direction by René Clair is spot on and the soundtrack by Georges Auric is awesome. Apparently the action on screen was choreographed around the music instead of vice versa, which makes for a powerful comedic ballet. The acting is excellent, not just by the leads Raymond Cordy (Louis) and Henri Marchand (Émile), but by the supporting cast too, especially the ladies: Rolla France is the epitome of innocence as the object of Émile's devotion, and Germaine Aussey is elegant as Louis's wife.
It's a fascinating film, not only for the Chaplin connections which could form a thesis all on their own, and not only for the political motivations that were entirely intended. This was designed as a satire on the industrial revolution and how it affects the class structure, always a favourite French theme. The comparison between being a prisoner and working on the production line is made entirely obvious, right down to the numbers they all have to wear, but there's far more going on, from the strata of power at the factory to Louis's cheating wife to the slapstick dinner party.
What surprised me most was how this fits into the history of cinema. I've got used to the progression of American film from the silent era to the clumsy advent of sound and into the precodes, but I haven't seen enough old world cinema to find a similar definable progression there. This one has a lot of scenes firmly rooted in silent film, from nods to Metropolis right down to that old silent slapstick favourite, the literal kicking of ass, and they're duly acted out silently. As much as it looks back though, it looks forward. Other parts are right out of the precodes, not that the French ever had to leave them.
Most of all though, there's the intriguing use of both sound effects and soundtrack that reminds on occasion of M and points to a particular innovative period in European film that didn't happen in the States at all, as far as I can tell. Early sound in Hollywood is generally an exercise in clumsiness but it happened a few years earlier. In Europe silent film held out a little longer but was replaced by innovation right off the bat, as the European filmmakers presumably didn't have to go through the same learning period. Fascinating stuff.
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