Cast & Crew
On his way through the woods to his marriage, Fadinard's horse eats the hat of a married lady spending here a few moments with her lover. Fadinard has to find the very same rare hat to avoid her dishonor. This will greatly disturb his own marriage.
Rene Clair's The Italian Straw Hat - THE ITALIAN STRAW HAT - Rene Clair's Fin de Siècle Comedy of Manners is now on DVD
The dapper Albert Préjean stars as Fadinard, a jaunty bachelor aristocrat whose journey to his own wedding hits a complication when his horse wanders away on a country road and chews on a lady's hat resting on a tree branch. Up from the bushes pops a very Prussian-looking military officer (Geymond Vital) followed by a woman (Olga Tschechowa), whose hair and dress are just disheveled enough to tell us exactly what they've been up to. The timing is perfect and the performances priceless as the officer straightens his uniform as he fixes a fierce gaze on the hapless groom and the woman attempts to look nonchalant. They may have been caught in flagrante, but any shame or guilt is channeled into outrage at Fadinard's interruption. The officer gives chase and delivers an ultimatum: replace the hat to protect the woman's honor (she is married, and not to this officer, as a quick survey of their ring fingers confirms). The woman faints, dropping and rising through the negotiations like a yo-yo, and the officer (who apparently suffers from serious anger management issues) starts smashing up the place and promises to dismantle Fadinard's home one piece of furniture at a time if he doesn't deliver by the end of the day.
Thus Fadinard must sneak out of his own wedding in search of what turns out to be a rare woman's straw chapeau while keeping the entire episode a secret from his bride (Marise Maia) and father-in-law (Yvonneck), a jolly fellow who manages to drag the entire wedding party into the middle of the mad scramble. Along with the compounding narrative complications are swapped shoes, mixed up clothes, even a party that comes crashing into the wrong house, while the distinctive personalities in the swirl of characters contribute their own comic flourishes. Given all that activity, Clair's pacing is actually quite measured. He takes time to let the personalities fill out each scene and define the humor, from the increasingly anxious Fadinard and the slow-burn officer who faces every frustration by grabbing another piece of furniture to smash to a deaf uncle who is oblivious to everything around him but fakes it anyway.
The original stage farce, Un chapeau de paille d'Italie, debuted in 1851 and was regularly revived well into the twentieth century. Clair appreciated the play's narrative complications, momentum and movement and when Albatross Films acquired the rights, Clair wrote a screen adaptation (in a mere eight days, he later claimed) and updated the setting to "la Belle Epoque" of 1895 Paris, which is also (as critics have noted) the birth of cinema. For a story precipitated by simple plot mechanisms, Clair manages to develop it into a lively character comedy, and for all the narrative complications and criss-crossing character trajectories, Clair gets by with under forty intertitles and conveys the rest visually. He opens the film up (the scene of the horse eating the hat is not seen in the stage version) but more importantly he gives the stage farce a distinctly cinematic treatment, from his perfectly-timed cross-cutting to his flights of imagination. While the wedding party toasts the nuptials, we get carried into Fadinard comic nightmare visions of the officer destroying his home, and when he later tells the complicated story to a would-be ally, Clair illustrates it as a Victorian stage melodrama played out in exaggerated poses against a painted backdrop: it's become his own personal tragedy, with him as the tormented hero.
The penultimate silent feature from Rene Clair didn't get to American screens until 1931, after the surprise stateside successes of his early sound masterpieces Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) and Le Million (1931). Released in a version cut by an entire reel, at a time when sound films had complete displaced the silents in American theaters, the film was dismissed and largely ignored. This edition, restored by David Shepard from a vintage 35mm English negative (with English-language inserts intact) and deleted scenes and shots from an original European print, marks the first American release of the complete, uncut production. It's mastered at 19 frames per second, which to my eyes looks absolutely right for the action.
Flicker Alley's disc is beautifully mastered with mostly strong, clean images (the difference in film quality between the sharp footage from the English negative and the somewhat softer restored footage from the European print is noticeable but not glaring) and features two separate scores: a lively compilation score arranged by Rodney Sauer for the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra (taken from musical pieces available to movie theater music directors of the era-Sauer explains his choices in an essay in the accompanying booklet) and solo piano accompaniment by Philip Carli. Also features two silent shorts, La Tour (1928), a documentary on the Eiffel Tower by Clair, and Ferdinand Zecca's 1907 comedy Noce en Goguette, along with a booklet with essays on the film and the music.
To order The Italian Straw Hat, click here. Explore more Rene Clair titles here.
by Sean Axmaker