Archive for Les Trois Masques

The Monday Intertitle: Loose Lip Synch

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2014 by dcairns

passur

There’s a lot to enjoy in Alain Resnais’s PAS SUR LAS BOUCHE (I’m slowly familiarising myself with his post-sixties career, aided by the fact that Fiona seems to enjoy all of them, despite never having cottoned to MARIENBAD.) In fact, what is there NOT to enjoy in it? But most enjoyable of all may be Lambert Wilson (above, right).

Lambert is playing Mr. Eric Thompson (NOT Emma Thompson’s dad, the one who re-voiced The Magic Roundabout for the BBC), an American in Paris, and with his exquise comic timing he is partaking in a proud French tradition — the unconvincing American. For while his attempts to speak French clumsily and with an American intonation are quite good, they’re not exactly believable, and that adds to their hilarity.

The first French talkie was LES TROIS MASQUES (1929), a Pathe-Natan shot at Pinewood by special arrangement with John Maxwell, the Scottish lawyer-turned-exhibitor-turned-producer who had been working with Alfred Hitchock. Pathe head Bernard Natan seems to have gotten along well with Scots — his TV company was co-founded with John Logie Baird. But LES TROIS MASQUES is a dreadful film, stilted and static in the manner associated with the worst of early talkies. It’s as if British reserve somehow soaked into the celluloid and stifled any Gallic joie de vivre.

chique

Much, much better is CHIQUÉ, a forty-five minute comedy set in a Montmartre dive and exploiting that old joke about the American tourist who doesn’t realize the apache dance is an act. Adrien Lamy plays the American, who says things like “Pas Anglais! Amurrican I am!” He’s wonderfully, hilariously awful. The film is everything its predecessor is not — fluid, rhythmic, pacy, atmospheric, alive. Pierre Colombier directed it, and went on to make Pathe-Natan’s best comedies.

Another early precedent for Lambert’s perf must be the 1931 film version of the same operetta, co-directed by Nicolas Rimsky, who also plays Thompson. A Russian playing an American in France — I assume he’s enjoyable, but I haven’t tracked down the film.

My faulty memory tells me there are other examples of Frenchmen playing Americans, also Brits playing Americans, and also Americans who aren’t actors playing Americans, but I can’t seem to put a name to them. Let me know if you think of any!

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Everything in the Resnais film is in quotes — a theatrical piece from a bygone age performed, archly, on artificial sets by artistes who disappear by slow dissolve each time they start to exit a scene, with a sound midway between applause and a batting of wings. Such artifice courts sterility, but in Resnais’s hands it’s both funny, the way it would have been on stage in 1925, and something else — a scientific experiment in temporal bilocation, perhaps.

Talkie

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on November 14, 2012 by dcairns

Britain really lucked out with its first talkie — what made Hitchcock’s BLACKMAIL great was that he’d made it first as a superior silent. Shooting sound scenes and dubbing Anny Ondra made it less great in most ways, but it was so good to begin with it survived the conversion. It took Hitch several more films before he could repeat the trick, internalizing the balance between dialogue and purely visual storytelling.

LES TROIS MASQUES is your Pathe-Natan film for this week. It’s officially the first French talkie, but because no sound stage was ready in France, it was shot in England, at the studio of John Maxwell, the Scottish barrister turned movie mogul who also produced many early Hitchcocks. Although already filmed in 1921 as a silent, this version is every inch the early talkie, with all the longeurs that implies. The camera never seems to be in entirely the right place, as if it’s shunted sideways to make way for a microphone, or maybe another camera. Scenes trundle on, mere records of time passing, and though pleasing design (by future director Christian Jacque) means there are some attracting images, nothing catches dramatic fire. Use of sound is generally for novelty value rather than really creative, with some background music and a storm scene no doubt adding interest, and the novelty of hearing their own language spoken probably wearing off for French audiences before the film ends.

Still, this was a throwing down of the gauntlet. While other producers in France saw sound as a death-blow, Bernard Natan seized it as an opportunity — films that spoke French in their original form would have an edge in the marketplace over dubbed American films. That might not be enough to conquer Hollywood, but it could allow the national cinema to carve out its own personal space — and it did. And this after MGM’s vice-president Arthur Loew had declared that, thanks to talking pictures, in ten years time English would be the only language spoken in the world. Against this background, the decision to make French talkies looks momentous.

Director Andre Hugon would make several films for the company, and to his credit he does throw in a few close-ups here, saved for moments of maximum dramatic impact. The film is in fairly wretched condition, with no good elements known to exist, and my copy comes from a VHS off-air recording which is likewise showing its age, so the movie may have other virtues obscured by the poor resolution.

Still, this was just the beginning, and the studio’s very next production, filmed on French soil, would be fluid and even dynamic, and creatively intermingled visual and auditory rhythms. It’s a slight piece, but I think it’s worth posting in its entirety…

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