Leo McCarey, Charley Chase and René Clair Walk Into a Bar…

Rene Clair’s Last Silent Completes the Boomerang Arc of French Comedies To America and Back

(image above sourced from SFSFF press/downloads page, whose image credit reads “Poster courtesy of the Cinémathèque Française”)

There are a few occasions I can recall from many years ago when, after playing for a film at MoMA, I went home, fired up my dial-up modem, and sent emails to silent film compadres in NYC telling them to come to the repeat screening I was going to accompany. They were French films I’d discovered and been really impressed with during the show (yes, I had to play them “cold”) — Julien Duvivier’s La vie miraculeuse de Thérèse Martin (1930), Ivan Mosjoukine in Feu Mathias Pascal (1928) and most importantly René Clair’s Les Deux Timides (1928).

The René Clair film is one of my many favorite silent comedy features. I’ve discovered that anyone I’ve talked to about it who’s seen it shares this opinion. Folks know the silent Clair Paris Qui Dort (a/k/a The Crazy Ray) and The Italian Straw Hat. More people have seen the Dada short Entr’acte, with and without its Satie score, than both of these features combined.

The fun discovery for me with Les Deux Timides was how much it resembled Hal Roach 2-reel comedies of the mid-to-late 1920s. The plot twists, the character and relationship-based situational humor, and the French farce structure that many of the Roach comedies have. Crazy Ray and Entr’ Acte have been available in 16mm for decades and are film school staples. Straw Hat was restored with English subtitles maybe 15 years ago or so, and those of us who’ve seen it have probably noticed its comic heroes resemblance to Charley Chase, inadvertent or not.

It was precisely this back and forth trajectory or influence — deliberate or not —  between French and American silent comedy from Max Linder to Charley Chase (and his collaboration with director Leo McCarey) to René Clair that led Dave Kehr (MoMA), Steve Massa and me to select Les Deux Timides for the Silent Comedy International series that runs Nov 23 to Dec 2 at MoMA.

Why haven’t you seen or even heard of Timides? Most probably it’s because the film has only been available in a 35mm print with French titles, and therefore hasn’t been shown as often. I know that was a stumbling block when we’ve considered it for the monthly silents series I co-program at the Cinema Arts Centre, despite my raving about how great and hilarious a film it is. That’s not as much of an obstacle now, though.

In 2016, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival premiered a new restoration they’d produced, a 4K digital scan of the original title negative and the original French camera negative, both of which had been preserved by the Cinémathèque Française. There are 35mm prints of the restoration at the Cinémathèque Française and as part of the SFSFF Collection at the Library of Congress. There is also a DCP of the restored edition with English subtitles available, which is what we’ll be showing.

Come see Les Deux Timides Sat Nov 24 at 1:30pm, and at 3:30 you can whip out your smartphone or tablet (since dial-up modems are now long-gone) and tell your friends to come to the repeat on Nov 28 at 4pm.

Ticket info for the MoMA shows is here. Read the SFSFF’s festival entry about the film here.

Here’s a slideshow about the film made by the SFSFF:

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