La Classe américaine: a french classic

When Michel Hazanavicius triumphed in 2012 with The Artist, we all remembered, or not, that he was also the co-author of an hilarious mashup comedy in the early 90’s starring John Wayne, Orson Welles, Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, etc.

In 1993, the fourth french network Canal+ aired the show also called « Le Grand détournement » and it became instantly a hit. The two young creators, Hazanavicius and Dominique Mézerette were given the clearance to use any sequence from the thousands of Warner Bros movies shot between 1950 to 1980. To give structure and steadiness to their mashup, they dubbed the greatest actors of the era with their original french voices. Making so, already funny lines turned irresistible. Dialogs and plots tend to absurdity as we go through a uninterrupted stream of satiric and surreal humor filled up with a slang that was unheard on french TV at this time.

The fact is that La Classe américaine was no new stuff. It was just a stuff that we forgot or just never saw. In 1966, Woody Allen remixed a japanese action movie into a comedy by dubbing and re-editing it: What’s Up, Tiger Lily? or the quest for the best egg-salad in the world. In 1973 René Viénet, a sinologist and situationist, inflicts the same treatment to a chinese kung-fu flick: Can Dialectics Break Bricks? Twenty years later, The American classThe Great Detournement walks in the footsteps of writer and filmmaker Guy Debord who has conceptualized this culture jamming back in 1958. Hazanivicus and Mézerette remain faithful to the subversive essence of it.

Assuming to be a tribute to Citizen Kane, the story begins with the death of Georges Abitbol, « the classiest man in the world ». What did he mean when he agonized « shitty world » ? Starting from this rosebud point which could seem superficial and harmless, the comedy deals with themes that are nowadays extremely sensitive among the french population. The movie often confronts its characters to the questions of racism, identity, and citizenship.

For example, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin argue in a saloon:

« – By the way… where are you from?

– Me, I’m Jewish.

– Jewish, you?

– Oh, I’m Jewish and if you want to know, I’m even an Arab Jew.

– Arab Jew? I prefer the Sephardim. An Arab Jew, it’s a bit weird. I don’t like weirdoes.

– Oh shit. I can’t stand nazis, but let it be. »

Each line is thrown to make us laugh the same way and speed the Marx Brothers were running their gags, but with a touch of Monty Python. Then comes the non-sense:

« – There’s no point discussing it with you, as you’re always right.

– Let’s discuss it. It’s you that’s always right. »

Later in 2009 Hazanavicius will confirm this humour in a James Bond parody which was marked by this brilliant advocacy – for nazism – which quotes both Shakespeare‘s Merchant of Venice (circa 1597) and Lubitsch‘s To Be Or Not To Be (1942):

« Hath not a nazi eyes? hath not a nazi hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?!!! » (Von Zimmel, OSS 117: Lost in Rio)

Since then, La Classe américaine disappeared as the creators lost their rights to use the mashup material. Before it was uploaded to the internet, you could see it only on VHS recorded from the original TV broadcast, it has been ripped from various sources and even remastered by a fan. That’s also how it became cult, by beeing the funniest and the rarest comedy ever. And why does it last in time ? Because this mashup attacks frontally what Abitbol calls « fanascism » in the film, a concept of his own that melts fascism and fanatism. Twenty years later, fanascism, whatever form it takes, is the reason why the world smells sometimes so shitty.

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