The Italian Straw Hat

by Leonard Maltin
May 18, 2010 6:11 AM
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How can a film that’s more than eighty years old seem fresh and modern? That’s the marvel of Rene Clair’s silent gem The Italian Straw Hat (1927), which has been lovingly restored by producer David Shepard for DVD release through Jeffery Masino’s Flicker Alley. If you’ve never seen the picture, you owe it to yourself to experience its wit and charm, which is comparable to the finest work of Ernst Lubitsch…yet it is distinctly, unmistakably French. While its source material (an emblematic stage farce written in 1851) was already well-worn by the late 1920s, Clair put his own stamp on it by changing—

—the setting to 1895, just before the birth of the movies. (Included on the DVD is a 1907 short by Ferdinand Zecca called Fun After the Wedding, which almost plays like a blueprint for the feature, made twenty years later.)

A number of filmmakers have tried to translate classic farce to the screen, without success. Clair manages to pull this off without ever seeming theatrical. He understood that it wasn’t just the piling-up of funny situations but the proper orchestration of every ingredient that mattered. His pace never flags, his actors never falter, and both his staging and editing are remarkable. In fact, the timing of his cuts within a scene is one of the reasons the film feels so contemporary.

Flicker Alley’s superb presentation does the movie proud. A booklet includes informative essays by French film expert Lenny Borger and the Museum of Modern Art’s founding film curator Iris Barry, who was apparently the first American to champion this picture. (It was released in the U.S. after Clair’s first talkies enjoyed great success. Cut down and projected at the wrong speed, it was poorly received.) Rodney Sauer, of the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, also contributes an interesting piece about the source music he chose for his evocative score. One can also listen to the brilliant Philip Carli provide his own piano interpretation on an alternate track.

According to the DVD notes, this marks the first time Americans have had the opportunity to view the film in its original form. “The film was mastered in high definition at 19 frames per second from the original 35mm negative used for the English release in 1930. As that version had been subjected to about twenty edits, all the missing pieces were restored from an original French print. Intertitles are in English, with optional subtitles of the original French text.”

A second bonus short, Le Tour (1928) offers Rene Clair’s visual impressions of the Eiffel Tower. There are even more bonus features available via DVD-ROM, including the text of the original play that inspired the feature.

Bravo to Flicker Alley for giving such tender loving care to this worthy film and bringing it to DVD.

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