The history of Cinema is a long one – when you think about the technical advances, the changes in style, the milestones that paved the way for new voices and points of view to come along, a lot gets lost in the grand sweep of things. There was a time when finding out about a historic film or a notable trend in film history required an enormous amount of work in research and digging. Film Societies were springing up in order to preserve and promote the historic nature of film. Now, it’s just a case of seeing if its being streamed, is on YouTube via a collector, on DVD or via a cable channel on Demand.
But even so, there’s lot to discover and a lot to be reminded of.
The name René Clair may not ring bells with the casual filmgoer, or even the beginning film student. But he was an important and highly influential filmmaker both in the U.S. and in his native France.
René Clair was a French filmmaker and writer. He first established his reputation in the 1920s as a director of silent films in which comedy was often mingled with fantasy. He went on to make some of the most innovative early sound films in France, before going abroad to work in the UK and USA for more than a decade. Returning to France after World War II, he continued to make films that were characterized by their elegance and wit, often presenting a nostalgic view of French life in earlier years. He was elected to the Académie française in 1960. Clair’s best known films include The Italian Straw Hat (1928), Under the Roofs of Paris (1930), Le Million (1931), À nous la liberté (1931), I Married a Witch (1942), and And Then There Were None (1945).
In this interview with the film critic and historian Arthur Knight, done via WNYC-FM in New York on November 22, 1958 (sixty years ago!), Clair talks about the then-current state of film in both America and France, where he returned after an extended exile brought on by World War 2.
As Wikipedia puts it:
Clair’s reputation as a film-maker underwent a considerable reevaluation during the course of his own lifetime: in the 1930s he was widely seen as one of France’s greatest directors, alongside Renoir and Carné, but thereafter his work’s artifice and detachment from the realities of life fell increasingly from favor.The avant-gardism of his first films, and especially Entr’acte, had given him a temporary notoriety, and a grounding in surrealism continued to underlie much of his comedy work. It was however the imaginative manner in which he overcame his initial skepticism about the arrival of sound which established his originality, and his first four sound films brought him international fame.
Clair’s years of working in the UK and USA made him still more widely known but did not show any marked development in his style or thematic concerns. It was in the post-war films that he made on his return to France that some critics have observed a new maturity and emotional depth, accompanied by a prevailing sense of melancholy but still framed by the elegance and wit that characterized his earlier work.
However, in the 1950s the critics who heralded the arrival of the French New Wave, especially those associated with Cahiers du Cinéma, found Clair’s work old-fashioned and academic. François Truffaut wrote harshly of him after seeing The Flame of New Orleans: “We don’t follow our elders in paying the same tribute to Renoir and Clair. There is no film by Clair which matches the invention and wit of Renoir’s Tire au flanc…. Clair makes films for old ladies who go to the cinema twice a year.”
André Bazin, the founding editor of Cahiers, made a more measured assessment: “René Clair has remained in a way a film-maker of the silent cinema. Whatever the quality and importance of his recent films, expression through the image always predominates over that of the word and one almost never misses the essence if one can only vaguely hear the dialogue.” It was also in a special number of Cahiers du Cinéma reviewing the current state of the French cinema in 1957 that Clair received one of his most positive appreciations: “A complete film author who, since the silent era, has brought to the French cinema intelligence, refinement, humor, an intellectual quality that is slightly dry but smiling and in good taste…. Whatever may follow in his rich career, he has created a cinematic world that is his own, full of rigor and not lacking in imagination, thanks to which he remains one of our greatest film-makers.”
Such appreciations have subsequently been rare, and the self-contained artificiality of Clair’s films, his insistence on the meticulous preparation of an often literary script, and his preference for filming in studio sets rather than on location increasingly set him apart from modern trends in film-making. The paradox of Clair’s reputation has been further heightened by those commentators who have seen François Truffaut as the French cinema’s true successor to Clair, notwithstanding the occasions of their mutual disdain.
As a reminder, here is that discussion between Arthur Knight and René Clair from November 1958.
And as another reminder, if you are fan of Black & White films of the 1940s – a trademark René Clair film: