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René Clair in England and America

3.01.2011

The career of René Clair followed a similar trajectory. After his initial sound films in France attracted international acclaim, Clair was lured to England in 1935 to direct the comedy The Ghost Goes West for producer Alexander Korda’s London Films. The film tells the tale of an eighteenth-century Scottish laird who dies with his honor besmirched and so haunts his castle until the blot can be lifted from his name. Over a century later, his debt-ridden descendant sells the castle to an American businessman, who has it torn down and reconstructed in Florida. The ghost, however, continues to haunt the relocated castle, to the general consternation of all concerned. The Ghost Goes West was a substantial hit, and Clair, who at one point during production became so annoyed with Korda’s interference that he threatened to bolt, soon set his sights on Hollywood, where he thought he would have more artistic freedom and better technical facilities and distribution.

It did not turn out that way. Clair’s American films have their merits; I Married a Witch (1942) is a lighthearted forerunner to the long-running television series Bewitched: glamorous witch falls in love with unsuspecting mortal and predictable complications ensue. Much better was Clair’s And Then There Were None (1945), based on the Agatha Christie mystery novel Ten Little Indians. Clair manages to make a potentially grisly situation into a light, frothy comedy; people are trapped on an island while a homicidal maniac kills them off one by one, the twist being that the killer is one of the ten, and a race soon develops to unmask the murderer’s identity. Using his customary reliance on tightly synchronized musical cues and sight gags, and shooting almost entirely on indoor sets (even for the exterior sequences), as was Clair’s custom, the director gives the film a light, fantastic touch that seems simultaneously unreal and yet beguiling.

The picture was Clair’s most successful in the United States, and perhaps his most fully realized since À Nous la liberté.

He stayed in America for the duration of the war, as did Renoir, but he returned to France in 1947, where he directed many more films including Le Silence est d’or (Man About Town/ Silence Is Golden, 1947); La Beauté du diable (Beauty and the Devil, 1950); and Les Belles de nuit (Beauties of the Night, 1952), but never recapturing his former stature and success. In 1950, Clair recut À Nous la liberté to eliminate many of the film’s most poetic and whimsical elements, in the process robbing it of much of its youthful innocence and charm. Unfortunately, this is the version that survives today on DVD. His work in France, in its original form, is playful, light, and graceful. His sound films after the early 1930s fail to live up to his early promise.

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