Director: Rene Clair
Starring: Rene Lefevre, Annabella, Paul Ollivier
I make it no secret that I love musicals. They’re comfort films, they pick me up when I’m down, they make me happy. But I don’t love all musicals indiscriminately; I tend to prefer musicals where the musical numbers are incorporated into the everyday lives of the characters over those that have to use the stage as a “reason” to have song and dance. I think this coincides with my love of heavily stylized film; having characters spontaneously break into song and dance, while troubling to many of my fellow blogger friends, is something I love, as it reinforces that this movie is taking place in a different world. The world of the movie musical is usually one full of sunshine and happiness. I welcome this alternate reality. When I first encountered Rene Clair’s superb Le Million, it was as if I had unearthed The First Musical Ever. While Busby Berkeley (rightly) gets a great deal of credit for popularizing the movie musical with his raucous films, I give Rene Clair the credit for introducing, or at least legitimizing, the idea of incorporating music into the everyday action of his films.
The story is very simple: Michel (Lefevre), a broke artist, unexpectedly wins the lottery. This is great news, as it will allow him to pay off his many debtors and maybe even marry pretty Beatrice (Annabella) who lives in the apartment across the hall from him. Problem is, he left his winning ticket in his jacket pocket, the same jacket that Beatrice just lent to Grandpa Tulip (Ollivier), a Robin Hood-esque figure who runs a petty crimes syndicate dedicated to stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Michel must track down his missing jacket and missing ticket in order to claim his winnings.
Le Million is a musical, but not a traditional one. There are few, if indeed any, “musical numbers” in terms of what we think of today as big showstopping song and dance numbers. Instead, there is an almost constant use of music and sound throughout the film which, accompanied by an irrepressible sense of whimsy, establishes the mood if not the specific logistics for so many great musicals to come. There are many small musical touches that aren’t combined into fully realized “songs.” For example, the scene where all of Michel’s debtors marching up the stairs in unison as they sing (well, more like chant) about how they’re about to get paid isn’t strictly speaking a song, but it’s a great example of how Clair approaches his world in Le Million. The couple of Michel and Beatrice make up after their required fight (this is a musical, after all, of course the lovers have a fight about something or other) in an incredibly clever setting, stuck on the stage of an opera while the couple in the show sings a love ballad to each other. Would I call this a musical number? No, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a very winning use of a love song that isn’t sung by the hero or heroine. And then there is the unexpected yet ridiculously charming “football game” over the missing suit jacket, where Clair pipes standard crowd noises over the film as the men turn the jacket into a football, complete with tackles and huddles.
The plot of Le Million is simple enough and the comedy broad enough that this could have been a silent film, but it’s the above scenes that make me glad it isn’t. Yes, silent films had musical scores, but they were simply scores, no sound effects, and it’s really the sound effects that shine brightest here. It’s odd to think of someone actually inventing the concept of the “sound effect,” but Rene Clair does a fantastic job in Le Million of incorporating sound smartly. Too many early sound films were nothing but cacophonous excuses to cram as much rhythmic noise (NOT music) into the ears of the audience that they never stopped to think about sound as a storytelling technique. This does NOT apply Le Million, as it is quiet when it needs to be, and jubilantly loud when it needs to be, and most of all, using all manners of sound – dialogue, music, and effects – to tell its tale. Sound furthers the story and adds to the overall charm. If this were not a primitive musical, if this were instead a silent film, it would not be Le Million, but something inferior.
Le Million is irrepressibly fun. It exists in a world where it is never cloudy, and although our characters may encounter problems, never fear, for they will find a way out. People occasionally start walking in time with one another singing a few snatches of song with one another. A suit jacket becomes a football. This right here, all of these things, these would become the Great Hollywood Musical in future years as film evolved. It is all here, in a distilled, primitive form, but there for the taking. It is so easy to see how a film like Le Million, in just a year or two, would lead to the Fred and Ginger musicals like Top Hat or Swing Time, and then, in a few more years, to the Technicolor extravaganzas like Singin’ in the Rain. While hardly emotionally or intellectually taxing, Le Million to me is a sure thing. A sure thing to pick me up, a sure thing to make me smile, a sure thing to usher in a cheery mood.
Arbitrary Rating: 8.5/10