Left: Sacha Guitry, The Story of a Cheat, 1936, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 81 minutes. Right: Sacha Guitry, Quadrille, 1938, black-and-white film in 35 mm, 95 minutes.

DUBBED A “MINIATURE MODERN MOLIÈRE” by contemporaries, and later “Lubitsch’s French brother” by François Truffaut, the Saint Petersburg–born Sacha Guitry (1885–1957) was a popular, prolific playwright/writer/actor and admired wit even before churning out forty-plus films. Criterion’s archive-diving Eclipse imprint makes available a quartet of playful 1930s works that sample an oeuvre marked by his one-man-showmanship. Though Guitry’s reputation has traveled little outside of France (where he was tarred for entertaining during the Occupation), his genial cynicism, candid and unpretentious sophistication, and Meliesian joy in storytelling have found admirers in filmmakers ranging from Truffaut-Godard-Resnais to Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

The Story of a Cheat (1936) features Guitry as a smooth player who owes his life to a petty theft in boyhood: Grounded, he misses a dinner of mushrooms that kills his family. What follows is the eminently Continental yarn of his continued survival by hook or by crook and of the lovers that give him a run for his money. Amazingly, the memories of servicing a guest as a hotel elevator boy and gambling in Monaco are told almost entirely through voice-over, a sustained feat buoyed by imaginative bridges and asides such as a magic trick demonstrated in a mirror. In a characteristic paradox, the cheat finds himself entrusting his fate to honesty. Representing another Guitry specialty, The Pearls of the Crown (1937) shares in this raconteur’s spirit with its costume-a-rama daisy-chaining mildly goofy histories of royals in France, England, and beyond.

The housebound intrigues of Désiré (1937) might have attracted accusations that Guitry’s work was “filmed theater,” but the filmmaker’s driven dialogue belies the imputation of stodgy-staginess. As a new valet with a checkered past, the husky Guitry elegantly serves his beguiling boss (Guitry’s frequent co-star and one-time wife Jacqueline Delubac, her fine beauty served well by Criterion’s high-quality image) and neurotically pours forth on-the-fly analyses of motivations and potential indiscretions. As with the love rectangle of Quadrille (1938)—a reporter, a movie star, an editor, and his actress wife—there’s a frankness about sexual desires, across any boundaries, and social fictions that surpasses mere glib urbanity. “Let’s make sure we have our stories straight,” the editor tells his wife. “It’s only polite.”

Nicolas Rapold

Eclipse Series 22: Presenting Sacha Guitry is now available from Criterion. For more details, click here.