A trousers tug o' war. Image: Silent London

A trousers tug o’ war. Note the director’s cheeky staging. Image: Silent London

Conventional wisdom tells us the world was a simpler place before the popularity of cars, computers and celebrity culture.

We’re not so sure about this, now that we’ve seen the 1927 silent French comedy The Italian Straw Hat (Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie). This film, adapted from a popular and frequently-produced French play, is set in 1895 and takes place during the course of a single, complicated day.

It’s a truly funny film that makes you fall in love with the characters while it pokes fun at society’s conventions.

The Plot: As a young groom-to-be (Albert Préjean) drives his horse and buggy to his wedding, he encounters an unexpected snag in a thickly-treed lane. While he tends to the problem, his horse wanders ahead and starts eating a woman’s straw hat that has been left on a bush.

Unhappily for everyone, the hat belongs to a married woman (Olga Tschekowa) who is having a… um… tête-à-tête with a solider (Vital Geymond), a man who is not her husband.

The hat is half eaten before anyone realizes what’s happened, which causes A Problem for Tschekowa: She cannot go home to her husband with a half-eaten hat, because there would be too many questions. But she also cannot be seen in Polite Society with no hat at all, because that would be improper.

Geymond, an ill-tempered military man, angrily blames Préjean and demands he replace the hat – Or Else. Préjean, the poor slob, reluctantly agrees.

If buying headwear for another woman on your wedding day weren’t complicated enough, it turns out the stupid thing is practically an endangered species; it’s imported from Italy and hardly anyone in Paris keeps it in stock. Quelle tragédie!

Meanwhile, the bride-to-be (Marise Maia) and her mildly eccentric family prepare for the wedding. As they leave for the ceremony, well-wishers bid them adieu, as captured by director René Clair‘s innovative style:

An overhead view of friends and neighbours giving well wishes to the bride and her family. Image: lsdj flkadsf

The bride and her family depart for the wedding. Image: Gartenberg Media

Clair became celebrated in France for his use of avant-garde filmmaking techniques – both in the silent and early sound eras – which are evident in The Italian Straw Hat. For example, in one scene, the distracted Préjean imagines the angry Geymond destroying everything in his house. Clair pushes this scenario to the extreme: Préjean’s overactive imagination has Geymond tearing out windows and doors with his bare hands. If we weren’t laughing so hard, we’d feel quite anxious for the wretched Préjean.

This film scampers through the wedding day (and the city of Paris) at a frantic pace. It’s almost as though Clair’s camera has both eyebrows raised as it races to record events.

The film is also a mischievous wink at the early French film industry. In the companion booklet to the Flicker Alley DVD, Lenny Borger notes the costumes and sets are designed to look as though The Italian Straw Hat were filmed in 1895. “By re-setting the play in 1895,” writes Borger, “Clair…evoke[s] a not-too-distant past that was also the birth of cinema…. [S]cene after scene painstakingly and brilliantly captures the very atmosphere and nostalgia of pictures taken 30 years earlier…”

Pauline Kael, the American film critic, once said, “[It’s one] of the funniest films ever made…so expertly timed and choreographed that farce becomes ballet.”

She’s right, you know. The Italian Straw Hat is a delightful film that reminds us we humans have a remarkable way of making life ridiculously complex.

Note: The only fully complete edition of The Italian Straw Hat available to North American viewers is available from Flicker Alley on DVD here, or you can stream it here.

The Italian Straw Hat: starring Maryse Maia, Yvonneck, Albert Prejean. Written & directed by René Clair. 1927, B&W, 105 mins.

This post is part of The Silent Cinema Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Lauren Champkin. Click HERE to see the other fab posts.

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29 Comment on “The Complexities of an Italian Straw Hat

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