René Clair’s Under the Roofs of Paris (1930) is usually cited as the first French talkie or as evidence of Clair’s immediate mastery of sound. But by rights it ought to be thought of as a kind of utterly charming trip through time to a pre-WWII Paris—a place you normally only see in still photographs (think Brassai). Assessing the film on its technical merits, frankly, does it a disservice, since it catches none of the feeling of the film—and its technical merits are, if not exaggerated, not quite the breakthroughs film-history books paint them as.
Actually, calling the film a talkie is a bit of a misnomer, since it’s really only a part talkie, though that doesn’t mean it’s anything like those Hollywood hybrids that were common in 1928 and 1929. There are no intertitles. It’s simply that Clair only uses dialogue when it’s necessary. A great deal of the time, the film is silent with a synchronized musical score. It doesn’t feel awkward or forced. It merely feels like the filmmaker isn’t interested in talk for its own sake. This is also why and how Under the Roofs of Paris stands out from so much of the Hollywood product surrounding it.
Nearly all of its most famous sequences were obviously shot silent and the sound added later. As a result, it has much more in common with the last—and most sophisticated—days of the silent film than with the early talkie. In fact, the sequence so often cited as evidence of Clair’s mastery of the new medium—a shot (actually, the approach is used twice) where his camera travels all the way from the roof of a multistory building to the ground floor, while we see what’s going on through the windows—is a variant on the amazing shot moving up the seven floors of the shaved set in Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927). It’s the exact same technique—a camera mounted on an elevator—only with sound added after the fact. That doesn’t keep it from being quite wonderful, but it does keep it from being groundbreaking.
But that’s OK. If Clair was influenced by Borzage, so what? The actual opening of the film (as it stands now, since Clair removed a scene from the beginning of the movie in 1950) was just as obviously a tremendous influence on Rouben Mamoulian’s opening sequence in Love Me Tonight (1932), which took it to new heights. It’s the nature of art—and it always has been.
And the film itself? It’s a slight, but wholly charming story involving a street singer, Albert (Albert Préjean), his friendship with a petty crook, Louis (Edmond T. Gréville), and their love for a Romanian girl, Pola (Pola Illéry), who is also connected to a more accomplished (but far from significant) criminal, Bill (Bill Bocket). What plot there is mostly concerns Albert being framed for a robbery—by Bill—just as he’s about to marry Pola, whereupon Louis thinks nothing of taking his place in her affections.
The story is largely inessential, however. What counts—apart from the glimpse into a long-vanished world and the remarkable technique of the film—is how surprisingly compelling the lives of these characters are. Clair always evidenced a shrewd eye for casting inherently likable and sympathetic performers for his films, but here he has outdone himself. Even with (or perhaps because of?) the limited dialogue, the relationships of the three leads feels very real, very believable. They aren’t the most admirable characters in the world, but you care about them. Both the friendship between Albert and Louis, and Albert’s love for both his friend and Pola come across as touchingly genuine. Even Pola—quite the most dubious of the three—manages to convey that she cares about both men and knows which one truly loves her.
Very often when you finally catch up with a legendary film, it’s something of a letdown—especially if it takes years and years for you to see it. That’s not the case here—that is once you get past the idea that Under the Roofs of Paris isn’t quite the technical wonder it’s long been considered (often in books from 40 or 50 years ago that were obviously written more from memory than from having the film at hand). Clair’s achievement is actually better than a technical marvel; it’s a human one.