In the final scene of Frank Capra’s classic weep-fest, It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s young child proclaims, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings.” Well, as far as this reviewer is concerned, every time I’m in a theatre and an audience member laughs at vulgar, cheap, and unoriginal scatological humor, the artistic medium of cinema begins to die. Of course, it’s not the filmgoer’s fault but that of the filmmaker and while it’s the dramatic films that earn all of the awards and make us weep, one seldom appreciates just how difficult it is to create a perfect comedy, possibly since in its very nature, it’s supposed to look so spontaneous and effortless.
There are comedic rules and classic adages served up time and time again such as given enough time, even the most heartbreaking tragedy can be unspeakably humorous, repetition (especially in threes) leads to the most chuckles, and that certain consonants are funnier than others. However, when it comes to foreign comedies, unless one speaks the language, the last rule goes right out the window so new rules for just what makes something funny must be invented.
With this in mind, imagine the alternately terrifying and liberating feeling of crafting a musical comedy in France back in 1931, before all the advice had been summarized and before filmmakers hoping for a quick laugh crammed in as many toilet scenes as possible. Not only did famed director René Clair manage to live up to this challenge adapting Georges Berr’s play with co-writer Marcel Guillemaud but as noted by The Criterion Collection, their finished result, Le Million, would not only change the face of musical comedies forever, especially here in the states, but also inspire the masterful comedians Charlie Chaplin and The Marx Brothers. By employing the oldest trick in the comedic book that simpler is better, Clair and his comedic cohorts started with a simple premise and then began stacking up the obstacles like dominoes, building and building it with tremendous effect, weaving gorgeous circles and patterns to delight our senses until they knock it all down for our unparalleled amusement.
Opening with a merry celebration, the bulk of Le Million rewinds itself to relate the unpredictable events that transpired over the course of that particular day. Soon we’re introduced to the flirtatious painter Michel (Rene Lefevre) who finds he’s guilty of the sin of omission when the beautiful subject (Vanda Greville) he’s been leading on discovers that Beatrice (Annabella), the woman she assumed was his neighbor, is in fact his long-suffering fiancé. And by now Beatrice has grown infinitely weary and annoyed by both Michel’s favorite hobby of entertaining beautiful models as well as the fact that he’s endlessly indebted to creditors, thereby perpetually postponing his promise that they will eventually wed.