An Italian Straw Hat, Barbican, 19 February 2012

An Italian Straw Hat (1927)
An Italian Straw Hat (1927)

The Barbican silent film and live music season continues in fine style with this sophisticated, satirical French comedy. René Clair’s film is a period piece, set in 1895, the year the Lumière brothers first unveiled their cinématographe, but was released just as the talkies were changing cinema for good – or ill. With few intertitles and plenty of visual humour, An Italian Straw Hat is classic of silent cinema, which Pauline Kael described as  “so expertly timed and so elegantly directed that farce becomes ballet”. Contemporary reviews praised its:

“Delightful social irony and hilarious situations welded into divertingly sustained comedy. Amusing characterisations which are ironic criticisms. Witty situations and deft development. “

Albert Préjean stars as a hapless bridegroom whose journey to his own wedding is interrupted when his horse chews up a woman’s hat. She demands a replacement, which is easier said than done, and the groom is soon tangled up in a series of comic misunderstandings. An Italian Straw Hat is more than farce though, it uses the absurd premise as a route into a sly attack on bourgeois narrow-mindedness. The Silents Are Golden website sums it up this way:

The plea for intelligence, for rising above petty worries like lost gloves, for refusing to be constrained by petty convention, make An Italian Straw Hat a crusader in human propaganda. The sublimely naturalistic sets, the superb uniformity of the acting, and the flawless action continuity are the measure of René Clair’s technical proficiency.

If you’ve seen René Clair’s short silents, such as Entr’acte and Paris Qui Dort, or his later work including the Sous les Toits de Paris and A Nous la Liberté your appetite will already be whetted. Stop reading this blog, and book yourself a ticket.

An Italian Straw Hat screens at the Barbican on 19 February 2012 at 4pm. Piano accompaniment will be provided by Andrew Youdell. Tickets begin at £7.50 and you can buy them here.

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