Le grand career

A delightful series shines a new spotlight on French comedian Pierre Étaix

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On the bedroom highway in Le Grand Amour.

arts@sfbg.com

FILM In the 1950s and '60s silent comedy — which had hitherto seemed as extinct and useless as the dodo — experienced a popular revival, sparked by a Walter Kerr article in Life magazine and sustained by television broadcasts, compilation documentaries, the general rise of a cineaste culture, and the still-breathing status of a few old favorites. (Buster Keaton, for one, spent a very busy last 15 years making guest appearances on both the big and small screen.) That nostalgic interest didn't greatly effect new Hollywood movies of the era, however, apart from a brief vogue for bloated homages like It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), The Great Race (1965), and Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines (1965), exercises in slapstick elephantiasis that placed mistaken belief in the notion that bigger is always better.

In France, by contrast, at least a couple notable careers emerged devoted to honoring and elaborating on the tropes of silent comedy. The obvious one belonged to Jacques Tati, whose elegant orchestration of the clash between progress and fallible humanity made the modern world its subject while pretty much dispensing with sound (or at least dialogue) cinema altogether.

But Tati also had a protégé of sorts, Pierre Étaix, who had his own similar yet distinct run of films that made comparatively little impact outside France. If they're almost entirely unknown to us today, that's in large part because legal complications kept them unavailable for many long years. It's only recently that they've been restored and re-released, reaching the US in a traveling retrospective that lands at the Christopher B. Smith Rafael Film Center this weekend and next. "Pierre Étaix: Lost and Found" is well worth crossing the bridge for — the five features and three shorts it encompasses represent a decade of work for the most part so delightful it seems downright perverse we're just now making their acquaintance.

Smitten by circus clowning at an early age but also developing considerable skills as a musician and designer, Étaix began a stage career in his late teens. But it was his talent as an illustrator that caught the eye of Tati, for whom he became an assistant during the four years of preproduction on the writer-director-actor's third feature Mon Oncle (1958). After that Étaix returned to live performance with considerable success, his comedy act at one point opening for quintessential Gallic pop idol Johnny Halladay. It was suggested he try making short films, and the elaborate second such effort, Happy Anniversary, wound up winning the 1963 Oscar for Best Live Action Short.

Still, his producer was reluctant to commit to a feature, so Étaix and his writing partner Jean-Claude Carriere wrote a script episodic enough that it could be released as several separate shorts if necessary. The Suitor (1962) put the star's flexible prior character — an approximate cross between Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Steve Carrell — into a series of awkward courtships in response to his exasperated parents' concern that he will never marry. (The funniest involves his wrangling an extremely drunk woman home from a nightclub.)

It was a success, prompting the much more ambitious Yo Yo (1965), an absurdist microcosm of 20th century history with his titular protagonist reeling from Roaring Twenties to World War II to the gray flannel suit corporate era. The next year's As Long as You're Healthy retrenched a bit — it really was three separate shorts strung together (a fifth was rather inexplicably cut and released separately as Feeling Good). Three were amusing; the fourth, involving a farmer, a hunter, and two picnickers creating havoc for each other on a rural day out, is a masterpiece of slapstick intricacy.

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