There was a day when to love movies meant a thirst for the full century’s worth of the form and loving all of its timeline’s eruptions equally. That a film was old and in black and white were never reasons to exclude it from the discourse. This was when silent films were still shown on public television, when film criticism freely compared Renoir and Ford to new directors, when grubby urban retro theaters could trot out a double bill of “Sherlock Jr.” and “The Cameraman” on badly beaten TV prints and there were still enough interested college students to half-pack the house.
Has this day finally passed, in spirit as well as lifestyle? I can’t decide — on one hand, the typhoon of new, fast, loud, sparkly distractions has never been more overwhelming, and often the very idea of paying attention to anything more than a few decades old seems openly scorned. On the other, silent cinema, for example, has never been more available to us, carefully restored and digitized for home use by the score every year, as well as streaming on YouTube (where a lot of young and not-so-cash-heavy inquirers I know go and dig into sequential swatches of Feuillade, von Stroheim, Gance, and Pabst). The numbers might be small, but they’re persistent and, apparently, tireless.
I dare to say that it’s foolish to call yourself a cinephile or movie lover, should you care to do so, if you don’t have the attention span required to watch silent cinema. But of course it’s just a matter of focus and perspective, not patience. Semi-forgotten beauties like René Clair’s “The Italian Straw Hat” (1927) require far less patience from me than contemporary romantic comedies or franchise blockbusters — for one thing, Clair’s farce is as subtle as the smell of the wrong woman on a shirt collar. And it’s that kind of late 19th-century farce we’re dealing with, although it seems that Clair’s movie, revamped from an 1800s stage play, is where the traditional comedy of manners morphed into screwball.
Famous but long unseen in the U.S. and only newly restored to its original length, “Straw Hat” takes place over a single wedding day, an occasion plagued from the beginning by portents of disaster — a pin lost down the back of the bride’s dress (she twitches for the rest of the film), a missing glove, a dress shoe that needs three men to jimmy on. But the real crisis begins when the groom’s carriage horse gets away from him en route, and half-eats a straw hat it finds in the bushes — which belongs to a married woman caught with her britches down (figuratively speaking) with a soldier in the brush. Soon enough, the dragoon and his hilariously swoony mistress find their way to the groom’s house and demand he replace that hat — without which she cannot go home.
And so the dominoes fall, as the groom worries about his townhouse being destroyed from the inside out by the impatient dragoon and tries to replace the rare hat even as the wedding proceeds through its own debacles. For all of its misunderstandings and brawls and head-butts, the story is almost an extended episode of “Seinfeld,” but what makes Clair’s film magical is how he shoots it, in simple master shots (unusual for the catapulting style fest that was the pre-talkie film scene in 1927-28), which may be the best vehicle for comedy ever invented. The full-body reactions of Albert Préjean’s distracted groom or Paul Ollivier’s stone-deaf uncle or Olga Tschechowa’s constantly fainting demimondaine need whole rooms and get them, and Clair’s touch is palpable in the performances, which are among the driest and deftest I’ve ever seen in a silent comedy.
The ensemble broadens out to dozens of characters, all of them preoccupied with their own narratives. Of course, there’s a steady drip of class satire aimed at the fin de siècle French bourgeoisie, with the same iconic sport made of pompous jerks in top hats that Clair would make in “À Nous la Liberté,” and absurd imagery that would also resurface a few years later in Buñuel’s Surrealist anthem-film “L’Âge d’Or” (which could be, in a few ways, considered a remake). Simply, it’s essential viewing if you’re devout about your movie love.