(1931)4.5Tom WienerWhat's the point of escaping from a real prison if you only wind up trapped in, say, a factory job, or a loveless marriage, or the strictures of high society? That's the question René Clair poses in this oddly paced but totally winning comedy. Emile (Henri Marchand) is the con who makes good on his escape, leaving his pal Louis (Raymond Cordy) behind to fill out his sentence. By chance, persistence, and talent, Emile turns from a slob to a potential snob, a successful manufacturer of phonographs. Marchand, who looks like the young Jackie Gleason, thus accomplishes the transformation, in Gleason character terms, from the Poor Soul to Reginald Van Gleason III. But Emile is no ordinary captain of industry; he actually wants his workers to enjoy more freedom, and to that end, he's looking to mechanize his factory without downsizing his work force. A blackmail plot almost spoils his plans, but a well-timed wind storm saves the day. At the end, the two pals are almost back where they started but happier than ever. Clair's sound effects and musical interludes may feel dated to contemporary audiences, but they mark this film not as a quaint artifact but a forward-looking historical document. The factory scenes may be reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, but Clair's work preceded Chaplin's by several years. Among the extras on the DVD edition is an essay by Chaplin scholar David Robinson on the plagiarism lawsuit brought against Chaplin by the producers of À Nous la Liberté, a suit of which Clair wanted no part. He said he would have been honored if Chaplin had used his film as inspiration, acknowledging his colleague's unmatched virtuosity.