Before I begin reviewing Jacques Tati’s first feature, I feel it is important to start with the short films he made decades earlier. Like many filmmakers, he developed his skills cutting his teeth in short films. Of course, in this pre-television era, movies would always include a cartoon, a news reel and a short film so beginner filmmakers back then would have better luck. Fortunately, short films have a better chance to gain audience attention these days thanks to YouTube, Vimeo and Blip.
For those used to Tati’s style of comedy, it will feel weird for him taking such a conventional approach to comedy. Some may argue that his conventional shorts somehow feel weirder than his feature films. Sometimes to break the rules, you have to first know what those rules are. Even George Carlin and Richard Pryor started their comedy playing it safe before they did their groundbreaking work. It’s fascinating to see his early experiments with visual and sound gags. And we can see him develop his trademark style with each movie.
He made his first starring role in 1934 with On Demande Une Brute aka Brute Wanted. Tati plays Roustabat, a timid out-of-work actor who answers an ad asking for “a young man specializing in violent roles.” What he doesn’t realize is the ad is for a wrestling match for Krotov the Tartar, a wrestling champion everyone else is too terrified to go head to head against. Wresting is a classic breeding ground for visual gags and Krotov delivers a few humorous scenes especially confusing the announcer for Roustabat. The problem with this short film is that it feels like it’s trying to be like every comedies of that time. But the biggest problem is Mrs. Roustabat (Helene Pepee), who comes off as a stereotypical nag lording over her husband. It’s a trope that I think everyone is tired of because it makes both genders look bad.
In that film, Tati also got to costar with circus clown Enrico “Rhum” Sprocani. They decide to have a go at being a comic team and the result is 1935’s Gai Dimanche aka Fun Sunday! Tati and Rhum write the short and portray two fellow hobos who attempt to start a tour guide business with their new car. Watching the film, it was obvious they were trying to be the French Laurel and Hardy. In one scene, they trick a car dealer by paying him with his own money. Does that sound like a Jacque Tati joke or a Laurel and Hardy joke? That’s the biggest problem with this film; Most of the scenes feel like they belong in a Laurel and Hardy sketch.
Now that I’m done venting, let’s focus on the positive aspects of this short film. Rhum and Tati really run with their premise, using this as an opportunity to experiment with visual gags. You begin to see the start of Tati’s surrealistic touch to gags. In one scene, they try out a vehicle when it starts making strange sounds when they turn the ignition. They pop the hood only to find a kid going vroom. And then there are Tati’s subtle mild amusements, especially in the scenes where they keep trying to shut the doors, but one always keeps opening.
One year later, Tati teams up with filmmaker Rene Clement to go back into the ring for Soigne Ton Gauche aka Keep Your Left Up. This time Tati takes on boxing and working with director Rene Clement. Written by Tati and directed by Clement, Tati plays Roger, a farmer who dreams of being a boxer. He gets his chance when a boxing promoter is in need of a last minute replacement and is impressed by Roger’s shadow boxing. The result is pure delicious chaos. There is many great visual gags in this film especially when he reads a how to guide to boxing in the middle of the match, and then his book gets switched with a fencing how to book. It’s still not quite a Tati feel yet. Its still story oriented where Tati is observation oriented. But here is the first case where the visual gags feel like Jacques Tati jokes. They now have a surrealistic yet low key style to them. Plus you see Tati’s experimenting with the sound gags that would become an additional trademark. When Roger’s competitor flexes his muscles, his shirt unzips itself. When Roger flexes his muscles, his shirt buttons go POP! POP! POP!
A notable character in this film is a bumbling postman who gets the plot going and switches guidebooks. One decade later, Tati makes the postal service the main focus in his directorial debut L’Ecole des Facteurs aka School for Postmen. Here we are introduced to Francois, a postman in training. The film begins with him learning the proper speed to bike depending on whether it’s mail or a telegram. The rest of the film is the day of Francois at work.
Here is the first short film that truly feels like a Tati film. Tati does away with plot and story in favor of focusing on the daily routine of this bumbling postman. The closest he gets to a conflict is near the end when he tries to get to the mail plane on time. Francois is the first character Tati portrays with a unique body language, especially when he’s swinging around his bag. Some of the visual gags take on a bit of a cartoonish quality to it including a scene where his bicycle starts riding on its own, with one observer stating “It knows his routes by heart.” And then there are the jokes where the main character finds a new use for a familiar object and does so with a casual manner. That would be the scene where Francois rides his bike behind a truck and he starts using the back as a desk to get his supplies in order.
Tati would expand upon this premise for his first full length feature film Jour de Fete, which will be our next subject.
 A legendary director himself, Rene Clement is most well-known for his WW2 Forbidden Games. It’s honestly a little strange to see these two associated because Clement is not usually known for comedy.