Henri Diamant-Berger was an important figure of the silent era. A pioneer of quality production in France and in the USA, he met with tremendous success, both artistic and public, with his 1922 adaptation of 'The Three Musketeers'. But with the advent of sound he gradually became a name among others, only occasionally rising (slightly) above a run-of-the-mill level ('La Maternelle', 'Monsieur Fabre'). He reached his nadir during the 1950s, when he appeared desperately out of sync with his times. Who on earth indeed remembers his outdated 'Mon Curé' comedies? Or even worse, his pathetic tribute to radio and TV bland presenter Jean Nohain titled 'C'est arrivé à 36 Chandelles'? So when the 63-year-old producer-director announced his intention to can a new version of Georges Courteline's hilarious novel 'Messieurs-les-Ronds-de-Cuir' (The Bureaucrats), one had a right to be skeptical. But what was to be Diamant-Berger's last directorial effort (he would go on producing until the late 1960s) finally came as a refreshing surprise. Seeing the finished film proved one thing, Courteline had not only inspired the veteran filmmaker but given him a new lease of life, artistically speaking at least.
There is no denying indeed that this 1958 version comes close to equaling Yves Mirande's 1936 hilarious one, not to say equals it. Do the test: see both and you will certainly conclude that each of the two adaptations works fine. What brings them together is certainly an equivalent mix of caustic wit, unbridled nonsensical humor and top rate comedy actors, three well-proportioned ingredients that make one and the other converge to the best.
Let's take these ingredients one by one. Satire, in the first place, bites home with the same sharpness in Diamant-Berger's version as in Mirande's, courtesy of Courteline who knew what perfectly well what he was talking about. Having indeed been a civil servant himself (as little hard-working as his hero Lahrier by his own admission!) - and for fourteen years -, the writer had had every opportunity to observe the closed world of French administration. Targeting its shortcomings and abuses was not only easy for him but also paved the way to success insofar as the general public enjoys seeing bashed those who all too often plague their lives when having to deal with them. What makes Diamant-Berger's adaptation all the more palatable (as was also the case with Mirande's) is that Courteline's text and characters are respected, which as well meets the expectations of those who know the text as delights those who discover it. Last but not least, the cast. If the 1936 picture could boast a gathering of giants of the thirties (Saturnin Fabre, Jean Tissier, Arletty, Pierre Larquey), the new one does not lag behind, bringing together talented comedians of the new generation (Jean Poiret, Michel Serrault, Jean Richard, Micheline Dax, Philippe Clay, Jeanne Sourza) and actors who were already stars in the 1930s (Noël-Noël, Pierre Brasseur) including one, Lucien Baroux, who appeared in the first version (Lucien Baroux, Lahrier in 1936 and Soupe - the former's pet aversion - 22 years later) . Who can beat that?
Among all those excellent actors, I would like to highlight the brilliant performance of singer Philippe Clay, also an excellent but very underrated actor (Casimir le Serpentin in Renoir's 'French Cancan', Clopin Trouillefou in Delannoy's 'Notre-Dame de Paris', and many other singular roles) Bony-faced, all skin and bones, with incredible goggling eyes, he was the ideal person to play Letondu, the demented public officer who jumps, shouts, laughs hysterically and plays the trumpet inconsiderately. Clay is both very funny and very scary: nobody else could have been a better Letondu!
One could argue that Diamant-Berger's direction is just serviceable, which is rather true but as he serves a great text after gathering a somewhat ideal cast what is there to complain about ? Moreover, if you look at the film without blinders, you will notice some (timid but real) camera or editing work off the beaten track.
All in all, the 1958 version of "Messieurs-les-Ronds-de-Cuir" may be less legendary than the 1936 one, it is however quite worth watching. Even the modern ending stands on its own merits. The introduction of computers in French administration was still science fiction in the 1950s. Diamant-Berger's film therefore has all the more merit for its right anticipation of two realities yet to come: on the one hand, computers would some day be used by civil servants and, on the other hand, that... would not change anything. And it is a fact that nowadays, and in spite of the serious work of a great part of public officers, the same sins still affect French administration : mismanagement, incompetence, disrespect of the public and other free rides. Had Courteline still been alive, he could very well have written the 1958 film's coda along similar lines.
Well, one thing is clear: if you do not know this adaptation of Courteline's masterful farce, do not hesitate to view it. René Chateau, who kindly thinks of you distributes it on DVD.