CAPSULE: CHARLESTON PARADE (1927)

Sur un Air de Charleston

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jean Renoir

FEATURING: Catherine Hessling, Johnny Hudgins

PLOT: In 2028, an explorer from Africa in a futuristic flying sphere visits a devastated Paris, where a scantily-clad flapper with a pet gorilla teaches him how to do the native dance—the Charleston.

Still from Charleston Parade (1927)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a cute time-capsule oddity, but it’s also throwaway fluff—it lacks weird heft.

COMMENTS: Jean Renoir was an early cinema pioneer, and the son of famous impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Catherine Hessling was Renoir pere‘s last muse and model, and Renoir fils‘ first wife and leading lady. Jean’s cinema career would eventually result in conventional, realist stalwarts like The Grand Illusion (1935) and Rules of the Game (1937), but the short “Charleston Parade” shows him at a playful, experimental early stage. (Renoir did not make much money from his silent films, and actually sold his father’s paintings to finance them). “Charleston Parade” was made in three days on a lark. It was condemned in Puritanical America because of the amount of skin Hessling displays, along with her salacious dancing, and probably because of its racial and anti-colonial subtexts as well. Many of the director’s fans seem to think of this slice of Gallic zaniness as an embarrassment that Renoir would probably wish he could take back. I, on the other hand, wish more of the director’s movies were this unhinged. Every great director owes it to his fans, and himself, to make at least one weird movie.

The African explorer’s flying sphere (a nice effect for the time) lifts off from civilized Africa heading for the wilds of Europe. Cut to a ruined street in Paris where a flapper in short-shorts and a camisole tugs on a rope connected to an ape. Her legs are splayed lasciviously. The explorer lands on a pole. He is played by a black man dressed in a minstrel getup and made up to look as if he was wearing blackface.  After some slapstick mugging and bumping and grinding the flapper ties the explorer to a pole and begins a savage dance, shown in both fast and slow-motion. The explorer requests to use a telephone, which the flapper creates by drawing an outline on a wall in chalk. She dials up some angels (disembodied heads with wings attached, played by the crew, including Renoir himself). The rest of the film consists of the flapper teaching the explorer to dance, until she finally climbs into his sphere and flies back to civilized Africa (causing her pet ape to weep).

Though “Charleston Parade” is thoroughly wacky, the racial satire of the film gives it an added level of strangeness. The idea of a future where Africa is civilized and Europe is savage is at the same time progressive and condescending. A black actor in blackface was a first, for sure, although a more daring idea would have been to cast a black actress (e.g., Josephine Baker) in whiteface—but then Renoir couldn’t have used his wife as the star.

Despite being the work of a famous auteur, “Charleston Parade” is obscure and has rarely been anthologized. On DVD, it is only available on the eclectic 3-disc set “Jean Renoir Collector’s Edition,” where it is the shortest film alongside Whirlpool of Fate (1925), Nana (1926), The Little Match Girl (1933), La Marseillaise (1938), The Doctor’s Horrible Experiment (1959), and The Elusive Corporal (1962). There is no sound on the short embedded below (there isn’t on the DVD either; where’s the  when you need them?) I suggest playing something peppy in the background.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“These images reveal a spirit of play and weird humor in Renoir that would later manifest itself in his kindred spirit antiheroes like Boudu. Charleston Parade is an oddity from Renoir, but it’s a compelling and enjoyable oddity.”–Ed Howard, Only the Cinema (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by a reader whose suggestion was unfortunately lost. Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

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