I review the American home video debut of Rene Clair’s silent comedy classic The Italian Straw Hat, beautifully restored to its original length by David Shepard and released on DVD by Flicker Alley, for the Turner Classic Movies website.
Rene Clair’s reputation is primarily built on a trio of comic masterpieces of the early thirties that added the expressive possibilities of sound to film comedy without sacrificing the fluid style and creative imagery from the height of the silent era. Apart from dimension of sound, however, his mastery of cinema comedy first burst onto the screen in mature form in his 1927 masterpiece The Italian Straw Hat (Un chapeau de paille d’Italie), a fleet, lightfingered gem with the befuddled energy and knockabout momentum of a Harold Lloyd movie, the criss-crossing characters of a screwball comedy and the continental attitude and sparkling wit of a Lubitsch film.
The original stage farce, Un chapeau de paille d’Italie, debuted in 1851 and was regularly revived well into the twentieth century. Clair appreciated the play’s narrative complications, momentum and movement and when Albatross Films acquired the rights, Clair wrote a screen adaptation (in a mere eight days, he later claimed) and updated the setting to “la Belle Epoque” of 1895 Paris, which is also (as critics have noted) the birth of cinema. For a story precipitated by simple plot mechanisms, Clair manages to develop it into a lively character comedy, and for all the narrative complications and criss-crossing character trajectories, Clair gets by with under forty intertitles and conveys the rest visually. He opens the film up (the scene of the horse eating the hat is not seen in the stage version) but more importantly he gives the stage farce a distinctly cinematic treatment, from his perfectly-timed cross-cutting to his flights of imagination. While the wedding party toasts the nuptials, we get carried into Fadinard comic nightmare visions of the officer destroying his home, and when he later tells the complicated story to a would-be ally, Clair illustrates it as a Victorian stage melodrama played out in exaggerated poses against a painted backdrop: it’s become his own personal tragedy, with him as the tormented hero.