René Clair James Shelley Hamilton - Essay

James Shelley Hamilton

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Clair has somehow come to be looked on as a satirist, though he hasn't an atom of the passion and indignation that puts the force into all great satire. For the most part he has found his fellow men, particularly his countrymen, odd and amusing creatures, whose petty ways he enjoys making an amiable show of on the screen. If the people are simple and not too malicious (like many of his Parisian underworld characters and his vagabonds) he is apt to be kindly and rather gentle with them, though completely frank. With middle-class pretentiousness and arrogance his portraiture moves definitely toward caricature, with a sharp, witty edge. Hitherto he has kept his locale in France, and his plots generally farcical.

In Le Dernier Milliardaire he has gone outside of France, into a mythical kingdom called Casinario, and he has picked the butts of his fun-making from all over the world…. There is no one to feel tender about in this film—everyone is the comic victim of the love of money…. (p. 13)

Casinario is perhaps a miniature of a topsy-turvy world, trying to maintain its place in the universe by desperate efforts to keep whirling faster. It is dizzying and hilarious, with several of René Clair's favorite actors in it to provide a lot of fun. The moral—if by chance the young lovers who run away supply a moral—seems to be that if you can escape to a desert island you can be happy though naked—if you have a radio.

Le Dernier Milliardaire comes nearest of all Clair's films to showing where he stands as a social commentator. Human stupidity and selfishness and folly, with their resulting woes to the race, do not stir him to reform or revolution or even bitterness—he remains amused and, though intensely interested, detached. Perhaps he is convinced that there must be a different kind of human being before there can be a different kind of world…. (p. 14)

James Shelley Hamilton, "Exceptional Photoplays: 'Le dernier milliardaire'," in National Board of Review Magazine, Vol. X, No. 9, December, 1935, pp. 13-14.