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Among the influential surrealist filmmakers who rose to prominence in the 1920s, French director Ren Clair was undeniably the "nice guy" of the group. A former actor and journalist, Clair became a Dadaist celebrity with his early shorts like "The Crazy Ray" and "Entr'acte" (both 1924) and made the jump to silent feature films, most notably the vaudeville adaptation The Italian Straw Hat in 1928. Rather than shocking viewers with extreme or disturbing imagery like his peers, Clair instead adopted a whimsical approach in which he carried viewers into a strange but charming world of his own creation.
By the end of the decade, sound was moving in quickly and had already overtaken Hollywood. Clair was famously resistant to the idea of sound films, but he adapted gracefully in 1930 with the classic film, Under the Roofs of Paris. That would prove to be a watershed release for French cinema, proving a sound musical comedy could become an international success.
However, Clair's second venture into sound would prove to have an equally shaky beginning with the following year's Le Million. Working with his usual art director, Lazare Meerson, and cinematographer Georges Prinal, Clair created one of his indelible cinematic environments but had issues with the source material. Clair had long cited Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett as primary cinematic influences, but the return to vaudeville material in this case turned out to be a play written in 1900 by Georges Berr and Marcel Guillemaud. Clair felt the material was too stage bound and artificial, which caused him to attempt to leave the project during preproduction.
However, when the producers at Tobis insisted he stay after they already had 25,000 francs invested, Clair decided to stay and make substantial changes to the source material. "I kept the beginning and the end," he explained in an interview from R.C. Dale's The Films of Rene Clair (1986). In between, the director contrived numerous flourishes and scenarios to make the source material more cinematic, and he even went back to the film after turning a final cut. Feeling the end result was still too static, Clair added the famous, elegant rooftop shots which have since become an indelible part of the film's legacy.
The story itself is a slight but diverting framework for Clair to experiment with sound and image as the narrative follows a winning lottery ticket whose owner, starving artist Michel (Ren Lefvre), realizes his good luck has fallen into jeopardy since it's in a jacket pocket now in the possession of his girlfriend Batrice (Annabella) and perhaps a thief who's hiding out at her place. Accompanied by roommate Prosper (Louis Allibert), he and apparently everyone else in his neighborhood become involved in the pursuit of that one crucial ticket.
In her 1980 book on Clair, Celia McGerr remarked that in Le Million the "surreality arises from the familiar behaving in a most unfamiliar way. It is the fullest example we have of the uniquely Clairian universe, and ironically it is sound which allows him to create its surrealism." However, overseas critics at the time didn't have the benefit of such a perspective given Clair's limited number of complete features at the time. Instead it was warmly received as a creative diversion, with The Los Angeles Times finding it full of "novelty, gayety, a rollicking humor and such expressive pantomime."
Later the same year, Clair cemented his reputation as France's preeminent cinematic export with another success, nous la libert, which continued his unorthodox use of sound on film. After two more features he would go to England in the mid-1930s to work for London Films on The Ghost Goes West (1935), a stepping stone to a brief but significant Hollywood career that would carry him through the rocky years of World War II.
By Nathaniel Thompson