The Italian Straw Hat (René Clair / France, 1928):
(Un Chapeau de Paille d'Italie; The Horse Ate the Hat)

Those awful hats, as Griffith would say, just one of them is enough to unbalance the bourgeoisie’s inane carrousel, much to René Clair’s delight. The opening with the camera on the bride’s floral crown gives an anticipatory sparkle of Ophuls, but already the tempo is allegro, the wedding is afoot and the tuxedo collar is much too starched. The groom (Albert Préjean) races through Manet landscapes and stumbles upon the the married madame (Olga Tschechowa) in the bushes with the peeved lieutenant (Geymond Vital). Mauled by a hungry horse, the lady’s chapeau must be replaced to keep the indiscretion from being exposed, so off scrambles the groom to locate the rare Italian brand, "by fair means or foul." Shrugging servants, chases around tables, and copious fainting spells ensue. The original Labiche-Michel farce has its 19th-century proscenium, and Clair toys with it like a grand chest of puppets: The screen is reverently archaic one moment, and on the next it bobs and weaves to the beat of an expressionistic quadrille. The scuffle while the deaf old uncle sits in the foreground is modulated into a deep-focus gag in La Règle du Jeu, the impatient soldier’s demolition of the nuptial chamber is a flickering fantasy realized in L’Age d’Or. (More surrealism: A pillow thrown out of the window flies right back up, but the bronze cherubs holding up a clock end up as a piece of debris in the street vendor’s cart.) A bit of misinterpreted pantomime rippling through a congregation, the plumed giantess at the hat shop, the subtle flash when a frantic story synchs up with a cuckold’s discovery: One curlicue after another of comedic expressiveness. An early Clair peak with objects (loose ties, missing gloves, clogged ear trumpets) arranged like floating integers in a Kandinsky swirl, a whirlwind disguised as a genteel pirouette. With Marise Maia, Alexis Bondireff, and Alice Tissot. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

Back to Reviews
Back Home