Combustible Celluloid
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With: Albert Préjean, Geymond Vital, Olga Tschechowa, Paul Ollivier, Alex Allin, Jim Gérald, Marise Maia, Valentine Tessier, Alice Tissot, Yvonneck
Written by: René Clair, based on a play by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel
Directed by: René Clair
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 105
Date: 18/03/2013

The Italian Straw Hat (1928)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Chapeau Plateau

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

René Clair (Under the Roofs of Paris, À nous la liberté) was once considered to be among the finest directors in the world, but his reputation has fallen since the latter half of the 20th century. With this masterful silent-era comedy, Clair captures something of the spirit of Chaplin and a bit of Lubitsch, but manages something unique. It's a madcap, sophisticated comedy of the highest order.

It's 1895, and charming groom Fadinard (Albert Préjean) is on the way to his wedding when his horse finds a straw hat hanging from a bush and proceeds to munch on it. He discovers that the hat belongs to a lady (Olga Tschechowa), who is having an extramarital tryst in the bushes with a soldier, Lieutenant Tavernier (Geymond Vital). The lady cannot go home to her husband hatless, and so, being a violent type, the lieutenant demands that Fadinard replace it, or face the consequences. Fadinard sets about this task, but finds that -- of course -- the hat is an exceedingly rare type, and simply walking into a hat store isn't going to do the trick. Worse, he has his own wedding party to placate.

Astonishingly, Clair directs all this with a cool head. There are no goggle-eyes or giant pratfalls; Fadinard handles his predicament with a suave good nature. Even the "deaf uncle" character with the ear horn keeps his dignity. More amazingly, Clair gets away with relatively few intertitles; it's an almost purely visual film. Even the scene in which Fadinard realizes the infidelity of the couple is done entirely through images. But best of all, the film is still very, very funny.

Flicker Alley has released the film to DVD, and it's yet another superior job from them. The movie looks gorgeous, with a choice of two scores, a simple piano score by Philip Carli, or a full orchestral score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Bonuses include two short films, Clair's La Tour (1928) and Ferdinand Zecca's Fun After the Wedding (1907). There is a detailed liner notes booklet and a copy of the original play is a DVD-Rom extra.

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