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The story of the Champs-Elysées – from 1617 to 1938 – one of the greatest avenues of the world, as told by a schoolteacher to his pupils.
The irrepressible Sacha Guitry, not content with being a one-man show, now has chosen to pass in review as a one-man history of France from 1617 to the present. His history, he says in the foreword to "Champs-Elysées" at the Little Carnegie, is all authentic, or "here and there, perhaps, just probable. Surely, it's my right, when I can find no proof that certain events didn't happen, to use my imagination in describing them." Mr. Guitry is an ingratiating scamp with a pleasant humor and the dubious art, borrowed from the French chefs, of disguising bad meat with a piquant sauce. We feel positively churlish in setting only the estimate "fair" upon his latest enterprise.
"Champs-Elysées" blends the technique of his "Story of a Cheat" and "Pearls of the Crown," but it lacks much of the wit of the former and the narrative credence of the latter. As before, Guitry is writer, director, narrator and player of all the conspicuous roles—the feminine excepted; he hasn't yet tried female impersonation. In his current history of the famous Parisian boulevard, and therefore of France itself, he plays his great-grandfather, his grandfather, his father, himself and (in transit) Napoleon III. It is a family escutcheon crisscrossed with the bar sinister, a combination—as Guitry, the schoolmaster, tells his pupils—of kings, emperors and revolutionaries, and their mistresses.
Guitry begins his fable in a small schoolroom by reminding the present-day urchins that the Champs-Elysées was not always as it is. Once it was a wood where a King hunted the boar and toasted a rogue over a slow fire. Once Louis XV drove through on his way to Versailles and paused effectively at a maiden's cottage. Once Napoleon brooded beneath its trees and, dying on St. Helena, left a blonde daughter to console the grandson of the Capet's mistress. So the genealogy rambles, and it rambles too far and over too many years to constitute a well-knit story skein.
Some few of the sequences have been cleverly handled: the one about the King who pampered his chamberlain because it had been prophesied that the Minister's death presaged his own, or the sketch of Marat's daughter, who entered a convent and was expert at decapitating chickens. But these are gleams of wit, not enough to illumine the whole. Guitry has had better fortune. The film, by the way, is in French, but has been so happily translated by Forrest Izard that the language barrier isn't.
© Frank S. Nugent, "The New York Times" Feb 28, 1939
Source : nytimes.com