The similarities between the two films make for a nice segue. Both are musicals. Both cast common street gangs and scruffy criminals in sympathetic roles. Both were adapted from successful stage productions. Both are directed by significant and admirable pioneers of early cinema. Both titles refer to money! But we also see a significant divergence taking place here (beyond the obvious difference between three pennies and one million florins!) as the Brecht/Pabst cynicism of Threepenny Opera becomes established as a counterpoint perspective in film, while Clair's lighter, happier touch settles in as the norm for film musicals of the era (and for decades beyond.)
Le Million, like Clair's previous production Under the Roofs of Paris, takes us into an affectionate portrayal of the Parisian underclass, focusing its attention on the plight of a poor young artist, Michel, and his scruffy companions. The opening shot actually picks right up where Under the Roofs... began, with yet another extended crane shot that takes us from wherever God sits when he watches poor humans endure their daily toils, right down into one particular neighborhood in one little city in the world that just happens to be none other than gay Paree. This film opening must be one of the most striking of its time - an elaborate set was built that allowed human actors to be present at the beginning and end of the shot, with a meticulously designed "forced perspective" model of the neighborhoods filling the space and time in between. Basically, two separate life-sized sets of balconies and roofs were built with the miniature buildings situated in line for a slow tracking shot. One of the few special features on this disc provides a still photo of the prop that gives some idea of the amazing craftsmanship that went into creating the shot:
click on photo to see more detail - the camera tracking rails are on the right, the miniature is in the foreground and the full-size stage in the background.
After the camera pyrotechnics draw us in, we're quickly introduced to a frolicsome scene of celebration as two men representing "us" peep in through the open skylight window. From there, the entire film is a flashback as we meet Michel +going about his business of wooing pretty young women and staving off a host of annoying people to whom he happens to owe some money. In the process of shaking loose from their efforts to collect on their accounts receivable, he gets mixed up in a police pursuit of another wanted man, this one a gang leader, Grandpa Tulip, whose flight across the rooftops of Paris happens to land him in the apartment of Michel's fiancee, Beatrice. Needing a disguise, Tulip appropriates Michel's torn and beaten old jacket, which Beatrice intended to mend. No great loss, one would imagine, until Michel realizes that a winning lottery ticket, with a prize of one million florins, is still in the pocket of that jacket! When he and Prosper discover that Beatrice no longer has the jacket and that it's now in the possession of someone else, the chase commences and a whole series of amusing plot twists and conniveries ensue that keep viewers highly amused over the course of the next hour or so.
Le Million rightfully takes its place as a milestone in the early years of films with sound. Clair and many of his peers remained leery of the potentially destructive effects that might arise from including dialog in movies. He feared that the camera would get lazy, allowing actors to just speak their lines, watering down the techniques and vocabulary that had been developed in the era when visuals had to express most of what the viewer received. However, Clair was able to not only embrace the new technology, he also gave important lessons in how it could be creatively applied. Probably the most famous use of sound in this film is a culminating chase scene where various parties who've all learned about the jacket's lucrative content converge to see who finally gets to grab the loot. Clair cleverly melds the soundtrack of a football game (complete with crowd roars and referee whistles) to the ensuing farandole. The sound we hear has no natural connection to the jostling that takes place as the jacket exchanges hands, but of course it provokes mirth in the viewers who instinctively recognize the link. This was an important technical innovation that (imo) went on to reach its fullest fruition in cartoons, with their expanded freedom to radically switch characters from one context to another.
Unfortunately, I can't provide a clip so you'll just have to watch the film yourself if you want to see it. But this next scene gives a nice sampling of the atmosphere and creative application of sound engineered by Clair. The clip features a light operatic duet singing "We Are Alone in the Woods," the lyrics of which are slyly appropriate to the situation that Michel and Beatrice find themselves in. No subtitles here, sorry, but listen carefully and brush up on your high school French if you want to get the jokes!
Sitting next to most of the other offerings I've reviewed here so far, Le Million happily takes its place as light, accessible fare. Clair achieved quite a bit here, smoothing out the conventions that future musicals would build on so that individual characters and group ensembles could convincingly break into song and push the story forward at the same time. He also incorporated elements of stage musicals that fit sensibly into the narrative and demonstrated new possibilities for using sound effects in addition to musical accompaniment to punctuate humorous and suspenseful moments on the screen. Most of all, his storytelling conveyed a generous warmth and frisky fondness for the struggling artists and hard-pressed stragglers of society. The compassionate humor and skill demonstrated in Le Million keeps the film fresh, charming and accessible to this day.