The Italian Straw Hat (1928)

Director: René Clair

When I reviewed Clair’s A nous la liberté, I summed it up as slight but charming, which description I’d probably also apply to this. Clair’s career actually started in fairly rocky fashion, though he rapidly made up for it; indeed, according to the Flicker Alley DVD booklet, the producers of Abel Gance’s Napoleon came close to replacing Gance with Clair on that troubled production. Just think how different Kevin Brownlow’s life could’ve been as a result. Anyway, that never happened, but this did, apparently it was Clair’s real breakthrough… an adaptation of an 1850s stage farce (the text of which is handily included as a DVD-ROM extra), in which a man, Fadinard, en route to his wedding has a mishap when his horse eats a straw hat belonging to a woman having an affair with an army lieutenant. The latter charges poor Fadinard with the awesome responsibility of finding the exact double of the hat so as not to arouse her husband’s suspicions; this is going to be problematic cos 1) Italian straw hats are kind of hard to find and 2) that wedding, remember? A perhaps slightly overlong trail of complications ensue. Like I said, “slight but charming” does pretty much sum it up; The Italian Straw Hat is kind of inconsequential, and yet parts of it really are screamingly laugh-out-loud funny (the scene during the wedding dance where Fadinard imagines the lieutenant smashing his furniture is priceless, as is the bit where the latter throws a cushion out a window, and it gets thrown back in the window by a policeman passing by and lands in the chair it had been sitting on). And it is quite remarkable how a dialogue-based stage plays translates so well to the silent screen with comparatively few words really being necessary; the story is so clearly told (and quite subtly at times; cf. the bit near the end where the lieutenant look at Fadinard’s new bride just a little longer than necessary. Clair doesn’t need words at that point at all). On reflection I suspect this is a film that’d work well with an appreciative audience.

One tangential thing that did puzzle me. Clair had a fondness for the primitive films of the early cinema and to a certain degree wished cinema would go back to that, and so to that end he updated Labiche & Marcel’s play from the Second Empire to 1895 (the annus mirabilis of cinema, of course). And yet, for all the attention to period detail, I never got the impression of the film actually having been shot in 1895 that others (e.g. Iris Barry, in her vintage review in the DVD booklet) have done; I didn’t get the feeling of the old Pathé films from the turn of the century that he was apparently trying to evoke. I don’t know. Maybe it’s because The Italian Straw Hat is itself inescapably a period piece now; it carries its own inherent nostalgia quite apart from the feeling of same Clair supposedly wanted to create in his viewers at the time. After all, Clair’s film is now closer in time to when Labiche & Marcel originally wrote the play than it is to us now…

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