Le Million (AKA: The Million) – 1931
Director – Rene Clair
Starring – Jean-Louis Allibert, Annabella, Raymond Cordy and Rene Lefevre
Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in the musical genre. Films like Chicago, Moulin Rouge, and most recently Nine have been reminding people that, at one point in filmic history, the musical was king. Ever since the advent of the “talkie” the desire to see something more, a brilliant new spectacle has inspired audiences to come back to the theaters again and again. Eventually, thanks to many different factors, the dissolution of the studio system, wars both hot and cold, and the drive for realism in film, the musical receded into the background eventually getting lost altogether. But people forget how revolutionary this genre actually was, which is a perfect example of why films like Le Million should be seen…to remind us.
The story is a rather simple one, Michel a poor, yet overly amorous artist, is swamped by his debts and hounded by his creditors. Good news comes when he learns that he’s won the lottery, but the bad news is that his girlfriend, jealous of his flirting, has given away the coat containing the winning ticket to a passing stranger running from the cops. From this point the mad dash to recover the coat, and claim the money starts at a fevered pitch.
The story itself does little to imbue the feeling of joy one gets while watching this movie, instead it is in the performances, the sight gags, and the musical numbers. At times, the routines come from out of nowhere, springing to life at the tail end of a sentence, while others are a little more elaborate and choreographed. Either way, each song, and accompanying dance, spread the fun further and further along to such a degree, that I wish it had been longer (and it is a real rarity for me to say that about a musical)!
Set up and executed in much the same way as a stage play, each of the main sets (the artist’s studio, the opera house, the resale shop, etc.) consisted of painted backdrops and was decorated with props. The actors played out their scenes, transforming the open space to fit the needs of the story, rather than finding specific locations for each set. The most memorable scene may very well have been the opening shot, panning across the rooftops of Paris, combining matte painting and live action rather seamlessly given the timeframe in which it was filmed. Despite the fact that one of the most striking shots in the film was also the first one, the excitement builds continuously throughout, culminating in the beautifully conceived and realized Opera scene, where the two main characters are stranded with each other, hiding onstage during the performance. Everyone sits on the edge of their seat, waiting for the curtain to drop so the chase can resume.
Released just 4 years after the debut of sound in motion pictures with The Jazz Singer, Le Million utilizes music, sound effects, orchestration, and silence better than a lot of films released today. A lot of the films prat-falls and sight gags are garnished with cymbal crashes, and blasts from the brass section. Missing dialogue is filled in with music cues, and chase sequences and crowd scenes are juxtaposed through the addition of traffic sounds and other sound effects.
The bottom line is that this film is great fun, even if, like me, you are not a big fan of musicals or gratuitous singing. Don’t get me wrong, I like music, but singing and dancing for singing and dancing’s sake doesn’t take the place of plot and naturalistic acting in my book. That being said, Le Million pulls it off anyway. Definitely worth my, and your, time!