If Jean Renoir’s Boudu Saved From Drowning (1931) seems familiar to modern viewers, that might be because it’s the source for Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986), which presented the same material in new clothes with added modern complications (and a longer running time). Renoir’s original is simpler and more straightforward. A tramp, Priape Boudu (Michel Simon), attempts to drown himself in the Seine, but his act is witnessed by middle-class bookseller Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval) who has been ogling women through a telescope. Rushing to his aid (“One of our own class is rescuing him,” notes another middle-class onlooker in some kind of reflected glory), Edouard saves Boudu and finds himself saddled with the ungrateful fellow. Not surprisingly, Boudu’s presence in the Lestingois household turns their little bourgeois world upside down with the precision of French farce.
Renoir laces his film with little barbs at the foolishness and hypocrisy of the middle class, but, being Renoir, he’s never really unkind to anybody. This gives the surprisingly fluid early talkie a rather sweet—if undeniably earthy—tone. Seen today, the film takes on an extra quality in that it’s an invaluable look into a Paris from 78 years ago—a world that in many ways no longer exists, but is here captured forever on film. That, however, is merely a bonus. The film needs no justification outside itself as a rich, funny, rewarding experience.