Film Title: The Italian Straw Hat
Studio: Films Albatros
Silent or Talkie: Silent
- Albert Préjean
- Geymond Vital
- Olga Tschechowa
René Clair is today remembered as one of the most influential directors of early French cinema. Over a forty-year career his reputation among critics, historians, and filmgoers has gone from acclaim and admiration to scorn. After being denigrated as “old-guard” by the influential French film journal Cahiers du Cinémathe in the 1950s, in 1962 he became the first film director to be voted a member of the Academie Française. After a series of avant – garde films in the mid-twenties, he had his greatest commercial and artistic success to date with the release of Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie (The Italian Straw Hat) in 1928. His first sound film Sous les toits de Paris (1929) was followed by Le Million (1931), A Nous La Liberté! (1932), and Quatorze Juillet (1933), and for many, these four early sound films represent Clair’s most creative period. The success of those films lead to a hurried American release of his silent film of three years earlier, The Italian Straw Hat, re-titled The Horse Ate the Hat. Alas, the interval between the film’s initial release in Europe and its American premiere coincided with the advent of sound films. The Italian Straw Hat was not favorably received by U.S. critics or audiences. It was deemed a bore, or dated and archaic. Ten years later, Iris Barry, original film curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, wrote an essay reappraising Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat, and critics and historians began to discover or rediscover the film.
The Italian Straw Hat reveals a master of comedic film construction that can hold its own among early-undisputed masters of the form such as Chaplin, Lubitsch, Keaton, and Lloyd. Based on an extremely popular 1851 stage farce by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel, Clair chose to set his film in 1895, which not coincidentally, was also the year of the birth of film. As Iris Barry noted in her 1940 essay about the film, “Clair had an immense affection for primitive films. Now in The Italian Straw Hat he was beautifully able to humor his own predilection for this past by adapting Labiche’s play into a film which was not merely staged and costumed in the period of the cinema’s birth but which was to look as though it had actually been filmed in 1895.”
As in most farces, the plot itself is simple: Ferdinand, a young bridegroom on his wedding day is momentarily distracted, and his horse begins to eat a straw hat hung on a branch by the side of the road. He is confronted by an angry hussar, Lieutenant Travernier, who has been enjoying a tryst with a young married lady in the bushes. If Madame should return home to her husband without the Italian straw hat, her reputation would be ruined! The Lieutenant threatens to smash up Ferdinand’s apartment and then kill him in a duel the next day should Ferdinand not be able to secure an exact replacement for the hat toot sweet, no matter that the hapless Ferdinand has a wedding, a bride and a bundle of relatives to contend with.
Clair meticulously populates the screen with an ensemble of actors who are able to pull off some exquisitely crafted characters. Even before we see the incident with the horse, we are introduced to the wedding party making preparations for the big day. There’s the lovely bride who unfortunately has had a straight pin slip down the back of her neck and lodge somewhere within the folds of her wedding gown. The bride’s father is subjected to a pair of boots that are just too small for him. Cousin Bobin has misplaced one of his gloves during his attempt to assist Papa in squeezing into his boots. Another cousin is having trouble keeping his necktie on straight. And finally Uncle Vesinet is nearly deaf and something seems to have gone wrong with his ear trumpet. Clair uses these characters and others in crafting some brilliant sight gags during the course of his film. The actors play it straight (no hamming it up), and the result is some truly hilarious moments, moments that are equal to those of other perhaps better known films of the silent comedic screen.
Once again Flicker Alley, in association with David Shepard and Film Preservations Associates, has done an incredible job of bringing this film to home screens. In fact, this production marks the first time this film has been seen in its entirety by American audiences. For its 1930 English territories release an entire reel’s worth of scenes was excised. To make matters worse, the film was presented at the standard sound speed of 24 f/s rather than at 19 f/s as Clair originally intended that it be shown. The result was that all the action appeared sped up with characters unnaturally cavorting across the screen. For this DVD release, the film is projected at 19 f/s and movement appears normal. The picture was mastered in high definition from the vintage 35mm English negative, with the missing and truncated scenes restored form an original European print. The difference in quality of the two sources is noticeable, but does not distract. The film is presented with a period-inspired score compiled by Rodney Sauer and performed by the Mont Alto Orchestra. Also available is a piano score composed and played by Philip Cardi. All intertitles are in English, with optional subtitles of the original French text.
Also included on the disc are:
• La Tour (The Eiffel Tower) (1928) – an 11 minute short film by René Clair.
• Noce en Goguette (Fun After the Wedding) (1907) – a 9 minute film typical of those that inspired Clair.
• A DVD-ROM extra of the complete 1851 play by Eugène Labiche and Marc Michel in an English translation from 1916 as The Leghorn Hat.
• 15-page booklet containing a contemporary essay on the film by Lenny Borger, Iris Barry’s original 1940 essay, notes on the score by Rodney Sauer, notes on the restoration, complete credits for the film and many photographs
This is a delightful, little-seen silent comedy well presented on this DVD release. It is a true piece of film history, available for the first time in America, that also proves to be very funny indeed. If you’ve gone through the Keatons and Chaplins and Lloyds, give this a try. It is every bit as engaging as its better-known American contemporaries.
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