I was released on DVD more than a month ago but my review of the Eclipse set Presenting Sacha Guitry is now featured on the Turner Classic Movies website. The four disc set features four films from the 1930s, Sacha Guitry’s most prolific and creatively exciting period: The Story of a Cheat (1936), arguably his masterpiece and undeniably his first burst of cinematic invention and experimentation, The Pearls of the Crown (1937), Désiré (1937) and Quadrille (1938).
It’s no exaggeration to call Sacha Guitry the Noel Coward of France. On the contrary, it’s an understatement. Playwright, artist, essayist, screenwriter, film director, theatrical impresario, star of stage and screen and all around bon vivant and cultural wit, Guitry was one of the most famous–and prolific–artistic personalities in France between the World Wars. And yet, after directing and starring in more than 30 features between 1935 and 1957, his legacy is practically unknown in the United States, even to film buffs and Francophiles, in part because he never dabbled in Hollywood like fellow stars Maurice Chevalier and Charles Boyer and Jean Gabin, in part because his witty French confections didn’t travel stateside. Presenting Sacha Guitry, a four-disc set from Eclipse (the budget-minded imprint from Criterion), reveals just how creative, innovative and clever a filmmaker he was. Consider it a reintroduction to one of the most important and influential French filmmakers of the thirties.
What a couple of weeks for DVD collections. They’re usually paced through the year until the Christmas rush, when the emphasis is on the new, the familiar and the cult. Well, Christmas came early this year for fans of classic cinema, and of course it hit while I’ve been traveling and have had less time than usual to explore them. So I’ve sampled my way through each of these sets, seeing two or three films from each collection and dipping my toe into the supplements (which is a moot point for some of them). I wish I’d had more time to view and more time to reflect and write, but as I’ve got a single weekend before I’m off again, I’m going to get through these before they are completely outdated. I present them chronologically: oldest films to most recent.
Presenting Sacha Guitry (Eclipse Series 22) (Criterion)
How did the reputation of actor, playwright and filmmaker Sacha Guitry, once the toast of French theater and cinema and popular culture, so slip into obscurity over the years? In the United States, at the very least, he is barely a footnote and his films all but impossible to see. This box set of four comedies from the thirties, written and directed by leading man and defining personality Guitry, goes a long way to correcting both oversights. The Story of a Cheat (1936) takes the idea of narration to a new level in a comic memoir of a reluctant scoundrel (“What have I done to the Lord that people constantly solicit me to engage in crime?”) recounting his life in snappy flashbacks with running commentary. The visual credits sequence alone (which surely inspired Orson Welles’ visionary trailer to Citizen Kane) is a treat. The Pearls of the Crown is even an even more intricately cut bauble of a lark, a tale that bounds through history (and multiple languages) and over the globe to trace the journeys of seven perfect pearls, and once again teases the audience with its tongue-in-cheek storytelling and droll self-awareness when it comes to actors playing multiple roles.