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By Phil Hall | October 23, 2009

BOOTLEG FILES 306: “Le Roi des Champs-Élysées” (1934 French comedy starring Buster Keaton).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the last public screening.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: No official version has been released.



A few weeks ago, I wrote a column on Buster Keaton’s 1931 “Parlor, Bedroom and Bath.” I wasn’t planning to return to Keaton for some time, but an opportunity arose to view another obscurity from the Great Stoneface’s post-silent output: the 1934 French comedy “Le Roi des Champs-Élysées.”

What is Buster Keaton doing in a French movie? Funny that you should ask…

In early 1933, Keaton was fired from MGM. Despite maintaining box office popularity in the aftermath of the cinema’s transition from silent to sound productions, Keaton’s alcohol-fueled reckless behavior created more production expenses than the studio wished to absorb. No major studio would touch Keaton, since his firing tagged him as a liability, and he could only gain work at the tiny Educational Pictures operation, where he toiled in cheap two-reelers.

If Hollywood wasn’t calling, Paris was. American-born producer Seymour Nebenzal had enjoyed success in Germany, steering such classics as G.W. Pabst’s “Pandora’s Box” and Fritz Lang’s “M” to the screen. The rise of Hitler forced Nebenzal to relocate to Paris, where he hoped to pick up his production output. Although Keaton was viewed as a pariah in Hollywood, he still enjoyed audience popularity in Europe – both from his silent films and the MGM-produced French- and German-language versions of his sound films. (Keaton did his non-English dialogue phonetically for those versions, which were made exclusively for export.) With no offers at home, Keaton agreed to Nebenzal’s $15,000 invitation to star in a French movie.

“Le Roi des Champs-Élysées” opens with a genuinely amusing sequence. Keaton, dressed in a top hat and tuxedo, is riding in the back of a convertible through the streets of the French capital. He is tossing what appears to be money into the street, but the paper is actually advertising circulars with a reproduction of the French franc on one side and the marketing message on the other. He returns to his employer’s office to pick up more of the circulars, but accidentally takes two pile of real cash along with this circulars. He creates chaos as he tosses out currency (not realizing its value) – Parisians knock each other over grabbing for the free-floating francs. Upon returning to his main office, Keaton discovers what he has done – and he is promptly fired.

Keaton visits his mother at a theater where she is a script prompter. He somehow gets his head stuck in a medieval helmet and wrecks a musical revue by setting off the mechanism that causes the stage to spin. Nonetheless, he winds up getting cast in the theater’s next production: a gangster drama, in which Keaton plays a convict.

While relaxing outside of the theater in his convict costume, he is mistaken for an American gangster who just broke out of jail. The gangster’s followers believe Keaton is their captive leader – not realizing that the real gangster (also played by Keaton) is trying to reconnect with his mobster stooges.

Keaton is taken to the gangster mansion, where he struggles to bluff his way through his dilemma. The real mob boss eventually shows up, which leads to a frenetic chase through the mansion and then into the streets. Keaton manages to secure the attention of the police, who join the chase. Everyone winds up back in the theater, where a major fracas between the gangsters and the police is mistaken for the stage show.

According to Keaton biographer Jim Kline, the star did not receive any screenplay credit for “Le Roi des Champs-Élysées,” which is curious since the film is packed with plot twists and sight gags from a number of his silent classics (including “Hard Luck,” “The Goat,” “Convict 13″ and “The High Sign”) plus his 1932 MGM feature “Speak Easily.” This explains the film’s wildly disjointed nature story, where the theatrical setting and the mistaken identity confusion seem to come out of nowhere. There is also an extended sequence with failed suicide attempts – it has nothing to do with the film, but it enables Keaton to remake some of his earlier gags. This recycling is a shame, since the opening portion is a refreshingly original boulevard comedy that provides a rare opportunity for Keaton to flourish in his unlikely but distinctive surroundings.

The film also provides a strange love angle that seems to be shoehorned in as an afterthought. Keaton’s love interest (Paulette Dubost) is a girl who benefits from Keaton’s accidental distribution of money. She is supportive of Keaton’s bumbling and rewards him at the film’s denouement with a passionate kiss. Keaton, breaking out of his stoic persona, reacts in a decidedly non-Keaton manner: by exclaiming “Oooo, baby!” and breaking into a smile when returning her kiss.

“Le Roi des Champs-Élysées” was shot in French, but it contains long stretches where Keaton is not required to offer any dialogue, thus maintaining his preference working in a near-silent environment. For the relatively few sequences where Keaton needs to speak, an unbilled French actor with a squeaky voice dubbed in the dialogue. It is not clear why Keaton was not allowed to do his lines phonetically, particularly since the dubbed voice is clearly ill-suited for the actor.

Despite some elaborate sets – including the theater and the booby-trapped gangster mansion, Nebenzal needed to cut corners with the production. The film’s production took a rushed 12 days to complete and the climactic auto chase was lifted from one of the producer’s earlier films, “The Testament of Dr. Mabuse.”

Paramount Pictures (which never previously considered Keaton for a starring contract) picked up the European rights to “Le Roi des Champs-Élysées.” However, the studio passed on the U.S. release – the studio did not distribute non-English films in its home country. No U.S. distributor wanted the film, since the market for foreign films was still very limited. Thus, the film made no impact in helping to revive Keaton’s cred in his own country. The film was never theatrically released in the U.S., and it was unknown for years until historian William K. Everson brought a print over (without subtitles) for occasional screenings at Keaton retrospectives.

Today, “Le Roi des Champs-Élysées” can be located on DVD in either the subtitle-free print that Everson presented and in a specially subtitled version. Considering Keaton’s status today, it is somewhat surprising that the film has never been picked for proper commercial release. That may happen some day, but until that time one has to dig into bootlegged DVDs to experience Keaton let loose in Paris. La vie est belle!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Kellye says:

    I am a big Buster Keaton fan. I have seen practically all of his early works and I believe he is so brilliant of an entertainer and director. After his marriage failed, and he lost his studio, his talent has been hard to find. I was so entrigued when I saw a brief clip from this film that has him smiling in the end. And it summed up in that one happy moment that we as fans were allow to view, being the great stone face he was still there. But it was beautiful and I wish to purchase a copy of this movie. Good or bad acting–he had talent and it will surface in this movie too. I would accept a bootleg of this movie if you could contact me as to how I may arrange it. If you have the subtitled version, that would be great.

  2. Kellye says:

    How can I get a copy of Le Roi des Champs-Élysées movie on dvd and what is the cost?

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