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Million, Le

Million, Le(1931)

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teaser Million, Le (1931)

A comic operetta credited with profoundly influencing the likes of Rouben Mamoulian (Love Me Tonight, 1932) and the Marx Brothers (A Night at the Opera, 1935), Rene Clair's Le Million (1931) not only toys with the conventions of romantic comedy but also the very language of cinema, especially the newly-developed element of recorded sound.

Set in a charming, fairy-tale Paris, Le Million's zig-zagging plot involves Michel (Rene Lefevre), a starving artist and unapologetic womanizer, who never seems to paint or sculpt, because he's too busy fleeing his creditors and juggling his romantic conquests. Michel sees a reprieve from his daily woes (at least the financial ones) when he realizes the lottery ticket he has purchased is worth a million florins. Unfortunately, the winning ticket is in the pocket of a jacket that his fiance (Annabella) has given to a fleeing criminal named Grandpa Tulip (Paul Ollivier). Thus is set in motion a complex series of flights and pursuits, as Michel -- and his envious best friend Prosper (Louis Allibert) -- dash through the streets of Paris, searching for the jacket as it is passed through the hands of a network of comical characters.

Seemingly everyone is engaged in some form of masquerade and performance, be it the gruff Grandpa Tulip (who is actually a suave criminal mastermind, who commands a band of "foot soldiers of inequality") or the outlandish operatic tenor Ambrosio Sopranelli, who takes possession of the jacket and uses it as a stage costume.

In this world of theatrical stages, artists' studios and wardrobe rooms, nothing is as it appears. In one magical sequence, Michel and Beatrice hide behind some stage scenery as they spy on Sopranelli. A reverse angle reveals that the scenery in which they are hiding is a Deco-style landscape. While Sopranelli and a female vocalist sing a love song, Michel and Beatrice lapse into a romantic reverie, carried away by the splendor of the moment. Suddenly, the painted cardboard bushes and trees take on symbolic value. The two lovers occupy their own private dream world -- or so it appears until Clair reveals a stagehand dumping handfuls of paper petals from the catwalk.

To further enhance the film's air of intentional theatricality, the filmmakers utilized painted backdrops for many of the studio interiors. These delicate low-contrast paintings form a neutral background against which the actors are sharply pronounced, a unique effect that illuminates Clair's determination not to neglect the film's visual aspects, while wrestling with the technical challenges of audio.

Le Million was produced by Films Sonores Tobis, a subsidiary of the German company Tobis. In his book City of Darkness, City of Light: Emigre Filmmakers in Paris 1929-1930, Alastair Phillips writes that Tobis became a powerful force in the French cinema because it marketed itself as technological and artistic defense against "the onslaught of American-led competition." Phillips theorizes that Clair was hired by Tobis because he would make films that reflected the character of French culture, rather than merely imitating the flood of Hollywood imports.

Indeed, Clair was very cautious not to follow the herd when it came to making films at the dawn of the sound era. He was one of a number of filmmakers who feared that sound technology would prove an impediment to cinematic expression. "I was not against the use of sound," Clair said in a 1957 interview, "I think the use of sound was something very good to add to the motion picture, you see. What we were fearing was that [by] using the words we would kill all the possibilities of invention that we had in the silent times. What I wished was to keep all what we had won, using the silent medium, and add to it the sound. But we were afraid of the dialogue, because if you use dialogue you go back, automatically, to the old stage technique, and we wanted motion pictures to be always something new."

"I tried to make my picture as silent as possible, and to use sound not only as a background but to use sound dramatically, to make it useful to add something to a picture."

Clair didn't merely accommodate sound...he exploited its potential to illuminate characters, generate laughs, and invest his film with new dimensions of meaning. In an interview with the Manchester Guardian, noted screenwriter Sidney Gilliat (The Lady Vanishes, 1938) singled out Le Million as the film that revolutionized the use of sound, and lamented the fact that no film since had been so innovative. "Looking back over 60 years or so, I often feel the most surprising thing in movie development has been the virtual total lack of follow-up to Rene Clair's use of music in, say, Le Million... I felt certain that a truly integrated use of music, a free and natural employment of its uses and benefits, would have developed after those early Clairs. But what have we had? Practically nothing. I always wanted to try it, but never got off the ground."

The film's most commonly-noted use of sound occurs near the climax, when the jacket falls to the stage, and the vying ticket hunters rush onto the boards and try and wrest it from the others. Clair dubs in the whistles and cheers of a football game, delivering a clever commentary upon the farce with a piece of audio completely unrelated to the plot.

Variety reported the film's cost at $80,000, and called it, "fanciful, with no attempt at probability, but is highly entertaining."

Le Million premiered in New York on May 20, 1931, at the Little Carnegie Playhouse. In his review in The New York Times, Mordaunt Hall wrote, "It is a combination of farce, burlesque, travesty and satire, all of which is sharpened with keen wit."

The comedy is framed by a sequence in which two men peek into the skylight where a noisy party is underway. The revelers offer to explain the cause of their joy, and recount the story of the missing ticket. In the version initially released in the U.S., the two observers are British. Because subtitling was not common practice, the English-speaking viewer was kept abreast of the action by periodic cutaways to the two Englishmen, who explained significant plot details. Hall wrote, "This clever idea does not spoil the frolic, for each one of these interruptions only takes a few seconds and they are so adroitly conceived that they become part and parcel of the tale." It is not known if Clair filmed these sequences, which are missing from prints circulated today.

Rooftops and skylights play a key role in Le Million, echoing Clair's 1930 film Sous les toits de Paris (Under the Roofs of Paris, 1930). The opening scene offers a marvelous visual effect, panning from a shot of two lovers saying goodnight, soaring over a series of rooftops, stopping at the twilight where the celebration is underway. Watching the shot, one expects to see an optical wipe, or some evidence of how the effect was carried out. But the impossible traveling shot is seamless. Clair achieved the effect through the use of a foreground miniature. When the camera pans away from the couple, it moves laterally on a set of tracks, in front of which an array of forced-perspective models have been constructed. At the other end of the dolly, the miniature ends and beyond it is a full-scale set of the rooftop/skylight.

The sound-on-film process with which Le Million was shot resulted in an image that is almost square (as opposed to a standard 1.33:1 aspect ratio, which is slightly wider). Later in the sound era, when prints of Le Million were made, the top and bottom of the frame were cropped because the squarish image had been expanded to fill the rectangular frame. In the 1950s, a "new edition" of the film was created by the distributor Filmsonor, which preserved the integrity of the image. As a result, Le Million has a taller-than-average image (sometimes referred to as the "Movietone ratio") that has been "pillarboxed," meaning narrow black bars appear down the sides of the frame. A new opening title sequence was tacked onto the head of the revised print.

Just a few years after making Le Million, Clair gave up his post as the bastion of true French cinema and came to Hollywood, where he directed such films as It Happened Tomorrow (1944) and And Then There Were None (1945). He eventually returned to France, but his later achievements could not compare with the innovative films of his early career.

Director: Rene Clair
Screenplay: Rene Clair; Georges Berr, Marcel Guillemaud (play)
Cinematography: Georges Perinal, Georges Raulet
Art Direction: Lazare Meerson
Music: Armand Bernard, Philippe Pares, Georges Van Parys
Cast: Annabella (Beatrice), Rene Lefevre (Michel Bouflette), Louis Allibert (Prosper), Paul Ollivier(Granpere Tulipe), Constantin Siroesco (Ambrosio Sopranelli), Raymond Cordy (Le chauffeur de taxi), Vanda Greville (Vanda), Odette Talazac (La cantatrice), Pitouto (le regisseur), Jane Pierson (l'epiciere), Andre Michaud (le boucher), Eugene Stuber (le policier), Pierre Alcover (le policier), Armand Bernard (le chef d'orchestre).

by Bret Wood

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