Le Voyage Imaginaire (René Clair / France, 1925):

The knockabout early scenes follow a bouquet of flowers from the boss’ drawer to the maiden’s trash bin to the lothario’s lapel while a Gallic version of Oliver Hardy watches nonplussed, just another day at the office. The old palm-reader the employees flock to is just peddling superstition for coins, the real magic is in dreams, or so realizes the meek bank teller (Jean Börlin) asleep at his desk. Freed from work and reality, the rêveur goes gallivanting in the woods and foils wrongdoers with a swift kick in the pants; an opening in a tree trunk gives way to a toboggan ride into a fairyland of balloon-filled halls and portals snapping like mandibles. That’s where René Clair’s kinship with Keaton makes room for a tribute to Méliès, a netherworld of sudden and continuous transfigurations: scraggly crones morph into nymphs when kissed, the hero’s beloved co-worker (Dolly Davis) is turned into a mouse and chased by Puss in Boots, he himself becomes a bulldog and faces a tiny guillotine. Oversized flowers and a fountain with papier-mâché crocodiles adorn the playground, where one can already spot Glinda the Good Witch or Dorothy’s slippers. Scarcely out of breath, Clair keeps the inventions coming with a jaunt across the Notre Dame towers and a climax at the wax museum, with the Reign of Terror re-enacted at midnight by historical dummies with painted eyes. (Charlot rushes to the rescue, literally, in a scuffle that leaves the floor littered with heads and limbs.) Renoir darkens the fantasy in La Petite Marchande d’Allumettes, the enchanted leaves which shower the embracing lovers turn to sawdust in Le Million. With Albert Préjean, Jim Gérald, Paul Ollivier, and Marguerite Madys. In black and white.

--- Fernando F. Croce

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