Scriptwriters: Oldrich Vlcek, Jirí Menzel
Director: Jirí Menzel
Cast: Rudolf Hrusínský, Vladimír Mensík, Jirí Menzel, Vlasta Fabiánová, Blazena Holisová, Hana Buresová
The film by Jirí Menzel, created for the 80th anniversary of the birth of national cinema and the 110th anniversary of the first Czech filmmaker Jan Kříženecký, freely interprets the lives of romantic pioneers who were fascinated by the magic of the Lumière brothers’ invention. The owner of the first permanent “cinematograph” in Prague in the house of “The Blue Pike” Viktor Ponrepo (being a circus magician himself, he instantly realized the illusionistic nature of new art) turned here into Vilém Pasparté; the star of cabaret and the hero of early farces Josef Šváb-Malostranský – into Jára Slapeta, and Kříženecký himself, an ardent photographer and pioneer of Czech cinema, became Jakub Kolenatý.
“Those Wonderful Movie Cranks” is a warm-hearted retro film in pastel colors, very characteristic of Czech cinema of the late 1970s - early 1980s, when directors were forced to move away from sensitive topics towards reflections on the past and artistic forays into the Austro-Hungarian era or the time of the First Czechoslovak Republic, which were considered ideologically safe. Menzel’s stylistic intonation alludes to French poetic realism and his beloved René Clair with his ironically layered and technically inventive comedies, in particular, to his famous “Man About Town”/“Silence is Golden” (1947), which tells about the early years of cinema.
The layers of meaning of Menzel’s film are to a large extent inscribed in its original title - “Báječní muži s klikou”. The word “klika” can be understood in two ways. First of all, it is the “camera handle”, one of the symbols of silent cinema, but in colloquial speech this word also means “good fortune, a stroke of luck”. Therefore, no less appropriate version of the translation would be, as the Soviet release title had it, “Fabulously Lucky Men”. The word “báječný” also has a double meaning here: it can also be translated as “mythical”, which not only emphasizes the status of the film’s characters who have become national legends, but also subtly hints at the special relationship between myth and reality in the space of this film.
The plot of Menzel’s lyrical comedy revolves around the formation of the new art on Czech soil, but at the same time, two love conflicts develop in the film – a grotesque farcical one (between the magician Vilém and the wealthy widow Evzenie) and a romantic one (between the photographer Jakub and the orphan Aloisie), reflecting the two main genre tendencies of silent cinema. Throwing a bridge from the early silent grotesques, recreated by Menzel so reliably that some critics have “recognized” them as little-known archival films, to a later, nostalgic image of them, in the very fabric of his film he captures the transition from the situational comedy to the comedy of characters, showing the transformation of pure slapstick into humor that is ambient and lyrical.
Some episodes here are witty paraphrases of early film farces. For example, when Pasparté walks along a long billboard with posters of foreign novelties, dreaming about the creation of a national film industry, a funny scene is played out in the background. It ironically reproduces one of Kříženecký’s first films – “The Bill Sticker and the Sausage Vendor” (1898) - the sausage seller pushes the billposter away from the can of pork sausages, because in the historical original he accidentally pours his paste there. The practice of doubling screen reality also extends to the main characters. The fight of American women in the ring, taken from cinema, is transformed into an everyday squabble between Evzenie and Aloisie, and a formidable family battle with a rolling pin and a drunken husband is replaced by a suspiciously benevolent reception that his potential spouse provides for the sodded Pasparté. At one fine moment, the characters finally destroy the “fourth wall” and address the viewer: a frequently used technique of meta-films, ironically commenting on the theme of the obligatory happy ending.
Throughout the film, Menzel generously sprinkles gags that go back to the silent era, demonstrating that even after 80 years they are no less effective, for they appeal to our unconscious. Eulogizing the birth of “the tenth muse”, he captures cinema’s unique ability to accept existence, with all its bitterness and bliss.