It is amazing how quickly some directors mastered sound film almost immediately. Both Ernst Lubitsch in Hollywood and Rene Clair in France adapted to the sound film apparently without effort, and produced some of the earliest masterpieces in their respected countries. Their strategies, however, differed slightly. While Lubitsch employed microphones from beginning to end, Clair, much like Hitchcock in Great Britain with his earliest sound features, blended silent and sound techniques. In UNDER THE ROOFS OF PARIS, Clair has essentially produced a silent film with numerous talking sequences, usually relatively static scenes with conversation and singing. The reason for this was primarily the incapacity of the earliest microphones to accommodate much music. Clair is so masterful in his use of the camera, however, that he makes a virtue out of necessity, and one can only notice the silent nature of much of the film if one looks for it.
Anyone familiar with the work of Andrew Sarris knows that Clair, like Lubitsch and Hitchcock, is placed in his "Pantheon' of the greatest auteurs in the history of film, and one can easily believe it watching this remarkable film. While many early sound directors saw sound as a gimmick, Clair saw it as an opportunity to expand the capacity of film to tell a story.
The story is not like anything that would have been told in Hollywood. The story is boy meets girl, boy kinda gets girl, boy loses girl, and the girl stays lost. A note of danger and sadness underscores the entire movie, despite the sharp humor and song. Albert, a young man who makes his living by selling sheet music in the street, falls deeply in love with Pola, whom he rescues from a petty gangster. While in jail, his best friend befriends Pola, and she falls in love with him. The contrast between Albert, who loves with great constancy, and Pola, who throws her affection from the gangster to Albert to his friend Louis with little or not transition, could not be greater. In the end, while one regrets for Albert's sake that he does not end up with the girl he loves, one cannot help but think that he can do better. Interestingly, Albert is played by Albert Préjean and Pola, who is supposed to be Romanian, is played by Pola Illéry, who was indeed Romanian.
I can't stress enough how enjoyable this film is. Seventy-four years later, the viewer doesn't have to cut this film the tiniest bit of slack to love it. It isn't an artifact, but a vibrant, adorable excursion into the Parisian underworld of 1930. It was not merely one of the first great French sound films made, but one of the great musicals of all time.