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Le Million: Pioneer of Sound sample essay

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Rene Clair’s masterpiece Le Million, is a fascinating movie about the adventures of a struggling artist Michael. The story takes place in Paris in 1930. The main character Michael has lost a lottery ticket that had solved all his financial problems and won him a million, and the entire movie revolves around this lost ticket. The movie is a musical comedy, which is not only worth watching because of its plot and comic scenes, but also because of the play, the irony, the sorrow, and most importantly, the sound, which revolutionized the entire filmmaking industry.

While modern movie directors invest millions of dollars attempting to attract clients by visual effects, the situation was much more different 70 years ago, when Le Million had been shot. Nearly all movies of that period were silent. This fact does not mean that movies were boring and senseless, they were simply in the different league, in the different dimension, so to speak. In addition, all movies of that period were black and white, which renders the movie original and even mysterious. With such attributes, Le Million is a work of art, which does not classify to something we call a great movie nowadays. However, it is still a wonderful movie as compared to contemporaries, because of the use of visual effect and sound.

Le Million is one of the first Rene Clair’s sound movies. In general, Le Million was one of the first sound movies of the age, and that is why it is even more valuable. Although the sound in that movie is of lower quality than latest 3D-surround systems, for a movie of 1930’s the sound was fine. Unlike in A Nous La Liberte, where songs were a rare occasion at all, in Le Million there is low quality sound with noise, distortions, and other signals of lower fidelity soundings. But despite the low quality of sound in both movies, they are similar in that there is much singing going on. However, in Le Million, characters both talk and sing, though not like in many other musicals, - here they walk in one moment, and unexpectedly begin singing in the following moment. Talks and general sounding is abundant as compared to A Nous La Liberte, in which music is in the background during the entire movie. In A Nous La Liberte, although it is a pioneer and must not be criticized negatively, there is a huge contrasting experience of random sounds emerging and disappearing. The viewer can hear music, then a sudden sound of a glass crashing, and then music again; or listen to a flower singing, and then listen to background again. With Le Million it is totally different. This movie is closer to the modern ones because of the constant sound support comprising songs, background music, and talks.

But one specific feature that makes Le Million a pioneer and a masterpiece is the way Rene Clair technically arranged the sound, and synchronized it with the visual representation. Not only he reproduced the sound of reality in the movie, but he also revolutionized movie industry by adding specific sound effects that affected and enhanced visual representations. In other words, he managed to combine the sound and visual parts in such a way that sound was the exact copy of the visual part, and in combination they enhanced the viewers’ perception immensely. Just like in modern movies music is an important part that sets the tone of a particular scene, the same way Rene Clair first achieved this effect in Le Million, which differentiates this movie from the other contemporaries.

Surely the use of sound in Le Million is remarkable, but since it is one of the first sound movies, there are many traces of silent movies. For example, there are several spots when heroes think in songs. They then look around several times before realizing that it is their mind that sings this song. Other examples are several spots where the sound of nature and reality are not played at all, but only background music is played. Moreover, there are several spot where characters talk, but remain silent, and the only thing that is heard for several seconds is the fancy background music. This is the primary characteristic of a silent movie, and obviously Rene Clair could not help avoiding the habitual procedures.

In general, the use of sound in Le Million has revolutionized the filmmaking industry. The fact that the movie was accompanied with a soundtrack to it was worth calling it a masterpiece. But Rene Clair used this sound in such a way that none of the movie directors of the world had ever used it. As mentioned above, characters’ thoughts are presented to the viewers are music. Although this resembles the traditional musical, this is something none of the contemporary movie directors had done before.

Although Le Million is a musical comedy, it is not simply made of happy dances and songs like American contemporaries. Contrarily, Le Million expresses the real life of its characters, Michael, Prosper, and Beatrice in particular. They do not just go around Paris singing songs about how great it is to live in this wonderful town (though Rene Clair did make the town look wonderful), but they sing about casual things of life, which are not necessarily pleasant and nice. The plot of the movie, which is based on hunting a coat with a lottery ticket inside, makes many of the scenes not so happy as they usually tend to be in other musical comedies.

Instead of making sound simply accompany the visual part of the movie, Rene Clair makes the sound of the movie equal to the visual representation. Unlike other directors, who simply add music, talks, songs, and choirs, Rene Clair technically synchronized the sound with pictures very effectively, making the entire movie worth admiration. He achieved this effect (which later very many movie directors used as a model) by transmitting sound and picture together, but not separately. When he needed the viewer to feel surprised, he did this by a certain sound or set of sounds, when he wanted the viewer feel sad, he did this by certain music, and so on. When Rene Clair wanted to stress a particular moment and make the viewer perceive a certain emotion, he did this with the help of sounds. The visual part was the content, while the sounds that he used molded the form of every scene. This is the effect that we see in every modern movie, especially in thriller and horrors. We anticipate something horrible to happen because of the certain sound, and in combination with a certain scene this perception is zoomed and enhanced so strongly that it may make us feel creepy all over. What Rene Clair did in Le Million is the first test version of this creepy effect, and this makes him an outstanding movie director, and Le Million a masterpiece. Moreover, the soundtrack was a single recording.

Another fact that proves the movie to be a masterpiece is that Charlie Chaplin plagiarized many Rene Clair’s ideas about this movie. Chaplin has produces his own version of Le Million entitled Modern Times. Later he was sued for such a blatant steeling of intellectual property, but this issue goes well beyond the topic of concern of this paper and will not be discussed any further.

Ultimately, Le Million is a musical comedy, which is different from the movies of the same period. The technical work that makes Le Million different from the others is this new and revolutionizing use of sound in conjunction with the visual representation. While other movies of 1920’s – 1930’s only used sound as an addition to the visual part, and did not take much from it, Rene Clair maximized the use of sounds and music in Le Million and literally equaled its importance to the visual part. Thus, Rene Clair made the sound as important in the movie as the pictures. In addition to the sound of the movie, the play of actors, the plot, and the comic parts are also performed very well. But what differentiates the movie the most is the use of sound.


1. Thompson, K. and Bordwell, D. Film History: An Introduction. McGraw-Hill. 2002.

2. Geiger, J. and Rutsky, R. Film Analysis: A Norton Reader. W. W. Norton & Company. 2005.

3. Schwartz, D. A brilliant lighthearted musical comedy that is one of the early films to be shot in sound. From Sover, at 2002.

4. Heilman, J. Le Million (Rene Clair) 1931. From MovieMartyr at 2002.
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