For the second year in a row, The Criterion Collection and the Sundance Channel are partnering to present a selection of cinematic works from around the world in the "The Sundance Channel Presents Classic World Cinema from The Criterion Collection" program. These films will air on the Sundance Channel Saturday and Sunday nights at 9:00 P.M. ET/PT during July and August 2002, offering viewers something "different" for their summer viewing pleasure. "Le Million", directed by René Clair, airs on Saturday, August 10th, and "Day of Wrath", directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, airs on Sunday, August 11th. (For more information, visit http://www.sundancechannel.com/feature/?sContent=August2002.)
Baz Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge!" contended for quite a number of Oscars in March 2002, and its critical and commercial success helped feed reviving interest in the musical as a cinematic form. Yet, I feel that the tumultuous camera work, editing, and bombastic musical selections harm the genre rather than celebrate it. If you want to experience a joyful musical, you're better off spending your time watching one of the first musicals ever made, René Clair's "Le Million".
In the movie, struggling Parisian artist Michel (René Lefèvre) barely ekes a living drawing portraits of fashionable young ladies. Béatrice (Annabella), his fiancée, is often jealous of the pretty girls who parade in and out of Michel's studio. On the day that his creditors come to hound Michel about his debts, Prosper (Louis Allibert), his "friend", informs him that he's just won a million guilders in the Dutch lottery. Ecstatically, Michel runs to Béatrice's room to retrieve his lottery ticket, which he has been keeping in his jacket.
It would seem that the heavens had just smiled upon Michel, but it turns out that Béatrice has given the jacket to a thief pretending to be a homeless man in need of clothes. Thus begins Michel's odyssey to recover his jacket and his ticket. Tracking down the thief leads Michel to an opera singer who happens to be singing at the opera house where Béatrice performs as a ballet dancer. Along the way, policemen, creditors, and a taxi driver continue to badger Michel. Will our hapless hero have a happy ending? Sure, but not without a few bumps along the way...
Ever the observant humanist, Clair peppers his movie with plenty of touches that pokes fun at social conventions. For example, when one of Michel's neighbors insults him, she yells, "Murderer! Artist!" as he scurries past her in the stairwell.
"Le Million" isn't quite an all-out dance-and-songs fest the way that Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are. Rather, think of another French film, "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg". Characters go about their business as if nothing was happening, but they suddenly burst into song. The lyrics aren't poetic per se since everyone's singing about normal, every day activities. This touch of music adds to the levity of a film that delights in mistaken identities, friends taking advantage of one another's mishaps, and physical comedy.
Pay close attention to Clair's use of sound. Since "Le Million" was among the first long-form sound movies, it still exhibits the qualities of a silent feature. For example, quite a number of passages are montages of action with only music playing in the background (no dialogue is heard, even if the characters are speaking to one another). Sometimes, the characters hear their thoughts as songs playing in their minds, and they look about them wildly before realizing that the music is in their heads. The film also features radically post-modern uses of sound. In one scene, Clair imposes the din of a soccer match over the tumult of a group of people tossing Michel's jacket backstage at the opera house.
Released in 1931, "Le Million" looks every bit its age on DVD. From beginning to end, every frame of the film bears the burden of scratches, marks, video noise, specks, and dust imprints. The 1.33:1 (full-frame on 4:3 monitors) black-and-white image has faded somewhat as lighter shades tend to blend into one another. While the print appears to be stable, its physical defects are a bit hard on the eyes, especially so after repeated viewings of New Line's DVD release of "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring".
The film's audio elements have withstood the test of time much better than the print used for Criterion's video transfer. Other than some moments of hissing (which occur when the film looks its worst, an expected coincidence), the Dolby Digital 1.0 French track sounds free of most defects. Dialogue, singing voices, and music are clear and unwavering. The lack of dynamic range is understandable since this is a mono track.
Optional English subtitles support the audio.
The DVD includes only a handful of extras. There's a 1959 television interview with René Clair in which the director discusses the use of sound in cinemas. There's also a stills gallery of production photos.
As with all of Criterion's DVDs, color bars have been included to help viewers adjust monitors to proper viewing levels.
A glossy fold-out provides chapter listings, an essay about the film, film credits, and DVD credits.
René Clair's "Le Million" danced its way into my heard with effortless charm, wit, and grace. The physical humor has much more class than what we see in those stupid Adam Sandler "comedies" (more like Chinese water torture ceremonies). Cute but not coy, sweet but unsentimental, this musical shames the likes of "Moulin Rouge!".