The Paris Cinema Project

Olivia de Havilland died last month in Paris, where she had lived since the 1950s, and where she had been a star since at least the late-1930s. Her Warner Bros. films with Errol Flynn made her famous, although at first she was eclipsed by her co-star, who for a few years was as big an attraction in the city, and indeed the rest of the country, as even the greatest French performers. But by the time of her role as Maid Marian in Les Aventures de Robin des Bois (The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938]), de Havilland had become practically as well-known as Flynn, with the French film press detailing not just her movie performances, but reporting on her ambitions, her biography, and her private life as well.

There was a slow build to de Havilland’s Parisian celebrity. When her first significant film, Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream [1935]) opened in the city at the Marbeuf cinema in the eighth arrondissement, the press referred to it typically as a James Cagney film, even though, as Bottom, he probably had less screen time that Ian Hunter, who played Theseus, or Verree Teasdale, as Hippolyta. De Havilland, performing the role of Hermia, received far lesser billing in reports on the film, if she was mentioned at all.

Capitaine Blood (Captain Blood [1935]), released in Paris a few months later, in March 1936, started to change that. Opening at the Apollo cinema in the ninth arrondissement, Capitaine Blood introduced Paris to Errol Flynn, who received instant and massive attention in the film press, while de Havilland also drew notice. The film played for about a month en exclusivité at the Apollo and then left Parisian cinemas for several weeks, but would show in reprises throughout the 1930s.

L'Intransigeant 2-22-36

As this February 22, 1936 advertisement in the newspaper L’Intransigeant shows, most of the publicity for Capitaine Blood concentrated on Errol Flynn rather than Olivia de Havilland

De Havilland’s initial, significant breakthrough came with her next film with Flynn, La Charge de la brigade légère (The Charge of the Light Brigade [1936]), which also opened exclusively at the Apollo, Christmas week in 1936. La Charge played there for almost two months, a very healthy first-run for the period, and within two weeks of ending that engagement it opened again at two cinemas in the seventeenth and eighteenth arrondissements, and two weeks after that moved to an exclusive engagement at the Studio Universel on the rue de l’Opéra in the first. Moving slowly through the city, rather than opening in a number of cinemas, probably was a sign of the film’s popularity, and film journalism began paying more attention to the woman who played Flynn’s love interest.

After La Charge and another star turn in Anthony Adverse (1936, with Fredric March rather than Flynn), the press started covering de Havilland’s private life, a sure sign of stardom. In July 1937, for instance, the daily Le Courrier headlined on its movie page, “Olivia de Havilland Dreams of Abandoning the Screen,” and then detailed the struggle of the young actress to balance career and intimacy, and the melodrama of life as a star. “I love my work,” de Havilland allegedly said, “and I have completely sacrificed myself to it.” She went on that she would always be willing to do so, “unless I fall in love” with her “Prince Charming.”

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From Le Courrier, July 8, 1937, “Olivia de Havilland Dreams of Abandoning the Screen”

Things continued to change for de Havilland, and her ascension to the ranks of the greatest stars came a year later, with her next film with Flynn, the Technicolor Les Aventures de Robin des Bois. That movie, of course, is still well known, but we probably haven’t realized what a spectacular international hit it really was. Robin opened at the Rex in the second arrondissement, one of the largest and most opulent cinemas in the city. But unlike a lot of the cinémas d’exclusivité in Paris, the Rex often showed films for just one week. Robin des Bois began at the Rex the week of November 23, 1938, replacing a double bill of a reprise of Coqueluche de Paris (The Rage of Paris [1937]), with perhaps the greatest of all French stars, Danielle Darrieux, in her first American film, and Le Prince de mon coeur (1938). The week before that, La Maison du Maltais, with Louis Jouvet and Viviane Romance, had shown there.

Unlike those films, Robin des Bois stayed at the Rex week after week, for two months through December and January, 1939. As soon as it left the Rex, the film opened exclusively once again, at the Colisée cinema in the eighth arrondissement. Successive showings en exclusivité, with no time in between, was rare enough in Paris. But then, just a few weeks after it left the Colisée and disappeared from Parisian cinemas, Robin des Bois opened for yet another exclusive run, back in the second arrondissement at the Gaumont-Théâtre, where it played for more than two months until it was replaced by an even greater international hit, Walt Disney’s Blanche Neige et les sept nains (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [1937]). Only then did Robin des Bois begin to fan out to other Parisian cinemas, two or three at a time.

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Fans line up to see Les Aventures de Robin des Bois at the Rex, in 1938 or ‘39

During the 1930s, Parisian exhibition reserved this strategy of three consecutive exclusive runs for only the most important, most popular films. As a sign of the status of Robin des Bois, newspapers and film journals lavished attention on the two stars, and a quick look at one of those sources, Pour Vous, perhaps the most important film periodical of the era, shows that de Havilland had virtually reached the same level of fame as Flynn.

I’ve written about Pour Vous before (see my post from August 16, 2019, at https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/2381117842). Just to revisit that history quickly, this was a film weekly that began in 1928, and that covered an international film scene but always concentrated on the cinema culture of Paris, on the movies there and on the stars. In its Easter double issue from April 6, 1938, Pour Vous ran a full-page profile of de Havilland, with three glamor photos, two of them as Maid Marian from the upcoming Robin des Bois.  The article began, “She’s so pretty, don’t you think?” Then, asking readers to examine the three pictures, the article explained, “She’s pretty in three ways…like a child, like a young lady, like a mature woman.”

When Robin des Bois opened in Paris seven months later, Pour Vous ran a special short story version of the film, and then a few weeks later, in its 1938 Christmas issue, printed a back-cover photo of Flynn and de Havilland, giving them equal billing as “the heroes of Les Aventures de Robin des Bois, the great film now showing at the Rex.” Then, after the spectacular success of Robin des Bois, Pour Vous dedicated more and more energy to revealing de Havilland’s thoughts and experiences to French movie fans.

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“She’s so pretty, don’t you think?” Pour Vous, April 6, 1938

In May, 1940, as part of a page of articles from Hollywood, “the land of stars,” about the new and much anticipated American film Autant en emporte le vent (Gone With the Wind [1939]), an article speculated that de Havilland, Melanie in the film, would marry her new beau, Jimmy Stewart. A few weeks later, in coverage of “Small love problems” (Les petits problèmes de l’amour, Pour Vous featured de Havilland, along with Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, and Phyllis Brooks, and detailed the recent end of an affair that had left the actress heartbroken. Pour Vous wondered, does Olivia still “dream of James Stewart?”

That kind of coverage would soon end. Autant en emporte le vent, of course,          wouldn’t open in Paris until after World War Two, and Pour Vous ceased          publication with the  1940 Nazi occupation of Paris. The collaborationist journalism in Paris as well as the film magazines rarely mentioned American stars anymore, except perhaps when they  died, and the Germans banned all Hollywood films from Paris and the rest of the Occupied Zone (see my post from September 19, 2017, at https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/817). There would be nothing further about Olivia de Havilland, her films, or her love life, for almost five years. She was almost certainly, though, perhaps along with Deanna Durbin, the last American actress to achieve truly great stardom in France in the years just before the war. Of course, she was helped initially by her partnership with Errol Flynn, but she would become the equal of most of the era’s French movie divas–Odette Joyeux, Josette Day, Edwige Feuillère, perhaps even Michèle Morgan and Danielle Darrieux—in the hierarchy of Parisian celebrity.

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De Havilland and Flynn in Les Aventures de Robin des Bois, Pour Vous, December 7, 1938

 

The Paris Cinema Project

Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967), Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), Michalengelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), and Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967). Those were the first four films, listed alphabetically in the weekly Pariscope, of all the movies playing in their first run, en exclusivité, in Paris for the week of September 6, 1967.  Other films among the 27 on that list included Bergman’s Persona and Rivette’s La Religieuse. A grouping of new films like this is unthinkable today, and gives a good indication of the depth of the film culture in Paris at the time. That film culture was also incredibly wide; the film listed just after La Chinoise was Les Détraqués (The Happening [1967]), directed by Elliot Silverstein, hardly an auteur, then or now, and with a cast that hints at some of the confusion of films from the period, so dependent on traditional stars on the one hand, and younger performers to attract a more youthful audience on the other. The film featured old-timers Anthony Quinn and Martha Hyer, and also George Maharis, whose breakthrough had come in the early-sixties television series Route 66, and Michael Parks, who enjoyed a brief vogue as a sort of James Dean-style anti-hero.

French cinema from this period has always been of great interest to film scholars, in large part because of its connection to the uprisings in France in May 1968, with an epicenter in Paris. We know that French culture minister André Malraux’ attempts to fire Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque française, in the spring of 1968 mobilized the students and intellectuals who began the protests a few months later (for some notes on the Cinémathèque in the late-sixties, see my post from June 5, 2020, at https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/2742750875). The links between cinema and the uprisings have been chronicled, most fully, by Sylvia Harvey in her 1979 book, May ’68 and Film Culture. Harvey noted that Marxist and semiotic approaches to film theory in France during the period established practices that could be brought to analyses of power in general, and she also thoroughly examined the impact of the “Langlois Affair.” The book is extraordinarily important, but perhaps because of its emphasis on using theory for the production of historiographic approaches to cinema, it may have been seen as something of an outlier when it first appeared. Now we understand it as an early example of the move towards historiography in film studies.

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Pariscope, from September 6, 1967

What was it like, though, to go to the movies in Paris around the time of the May revolt, to be a filmgoer who may or may not have been more broadly involved in the political issues of the period?   Information can be hard to come by. In fact, it’s easier to do research on the films playing in Paris in the 1930’s than the 1960’s, and the closest I can come to May ’68 is that Pariscope from the late-summer of ’67.

At the time, there were 286 cinemas in the city, a number that had held fairly steady for many years. In 1955, there were 290 exhibition locations, and there were 277 in 1961. The geographic distribution of cinemas also remained relatively constant. In 1967, the first arrondissement, in the center of the city and spatially dominated by the Louvre, had three sites, for instance, while the eighteenth arrondissement, on the northern periphery, had eighteen, and those numbers would have made sense to Parisian filmgoers even forty years earlier. The prestigious cinemas were still primarily along the Champs-Élysées in the eighth arrondissement and the boulevard des Italiens, which borders the second and ninth. They tended to show the most important new films, with the Biarritz, as just one example among many, at 22 avenue des Champs-Élysées, screening Blow-up that week in September. But these cinemas would also feature reprises, and some old ones at that. The Cinéma des Champs-Élysées, just a few blocks away from the Biarritz, showed a film that always seemed to find an audience in Paris, Frank Capra’s Arsenic et vielles dentelles (Arsenic and Old Lace [1944]).

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The schedule for the John Ford festival at the Studio Action cinema in the ninth arrondissement, from Pariscope, September 6, 1967

In fact, there were reprises all over the city. As just a few, very notable, examples, in the seventeenth arrondissement, Eisenstein’s Alexandre Nevsky (1938) showed at the Studio de L’Étoile while Howard Hawks’ Le Grand sommeil (The Big Sleep [1946]) appeared at the MacMahon, on a rotating program with Budd Boetticher’s La Chute d’un caid (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond [1960]) and a few other films. Citizen Kane (1941) played at the Studio Logos in the fourth, and Boulevard de crepuscule (Sunset Boulevard [1950]) played at two cinemas, the Studio Git-le-Coeur in the sixth and the Jean Renoir in the ninth. The Studio-Action, also in the ninth, launched an hommage à John Ford for the entire week, with a new film each day, and all of them subtitled rather than dubbed: Les Raisins de la colère (The Grapes of Wrath [1940]), Mogambo (1953), La Taverne de l’Irlandais (Donovan’s Reef [1962]), La Prisonnière du désert (The Searchers [1956]), L’Homme qui tua Liberty Valance (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [1963]), Les Deux Cavaliers (Two Rode Together [1961]), and Le Convoi des braves (Wagonmaster [1950]). Perhaps because of the premiere of La Chinoise, or possibly because his films were always popular in the city, there were Godard movies throughout Paris: Alphaville (1965) at the Turin in the seventeenth arrondissement, Deux ou trois chose que je sais d’elle (1967) at the Casino St. Martin in the tenth, and Pierrot le fou (1965), À bout de souffle (1960), and Made in USA (1966) all at the Studio Saint-Germain in the fifth.

Pariscope devoted most of its attention, however, to new films. Of the more than two-dozen films en exclusivité, seven were opening that week, and these ranged from Otto Preminger’s Que vienne la nuit (Hurry Sundown [1967]) to Leslie Martinson’s Batman (1966). The cover featured a photo from “the scandalous film of the week” (le film scandale de la semaine), the British movie La Nuit des alligators (The Penthouse [1967]), about three young people who break into an apartment and terrorize the couple that lives there. Pariscope ran a long review of Les Detraqués, and also a list of new films with a dozen critics assigning them anything from a blank box (“the critic didn’t like it at all), to one star (“the critic liked it a little”) to three (“passionately”).  Included here were the critics from important newspapers like Le Monde and L’Express, and also those who were already established as significant film theorists and historians: Jean-Louis Comolli from Cahiers du Cinéma (he gave Accident only two stars, while Belle de jour and Blow-up got three) and Georges Sadoul from Les Lettres Françaises (three stars for Persona). In another section of Pariscope, five other critics weighed in on Le Forum en folie (A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum [1967]). Each of them provided a brief evaluation, and then assigned the film either a man’s smiling face or a frowning one (the film received three frowns and two smiles).

Forum en folie

The critics weigh in, “For and Against” Le Forum en folie, in Pariscope

Parisians didn’t have to leave their homes to see movies; they could, of course, watch them on television. There were only two channels in France at the time, both operated by the government, and one of them, really, was hardly ever on. Programming started at 12:30 in the afternoon on weekdays and Saturdays, but began on Sundays at 9:30 in the morning with religious programming, and there were a lot of movies. For that week in September, Pariscope highlighted Alfred Hitchock’s Soupçons (Suspicion [1941]), but others included Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) on Monday at 8:30, Kon Ichikawa’s Enjo (1958), showing Tuesday at 10:10 in the evening, and Henri Diamant-Berger’s Le Chasseur de chez Maxim’s (1953), on Wednesday at 2:30.

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Alfred Hitchcock’s Soupçons, the featured film of the week in Pariscope

Movies on TV marked the shift in French film culture from the period. The widespread diffusion of the medium came relatively late to France, with another weekly listing of events in Paris, Une semaine de Paris, this one from July, 1961, not even bothering to mention television. The most apparent sign of the differences between the city’s night life of the late-1960s and earlier in the decade, though, has nothing to do with cinema.

There were hundreds of theatres, music halls, and restaurants in Paris, and that had typically been the case. In 1967, however, Pariscope listed something relatively new: eighteen discotheques. Most of these were bars as well, and some were restaurants, and one of them, the Jardin de Montmartre in the eighteenth arrondissement, had its dance floor outdoors (une piste en plein air). That was also the only one that wasn’t in the center of the city, with most of the others concentrated in the fourth and sixth arrondissements. In fact, the discotheque scene remained constant in Paris for at least a decade. A Pariscope from 1977 lists sixteen in the city, some of them in the same places as those ten years before (Jacky’s Far West Saloon, at the site of the old Studio-Parnasse cinema in the sixth arrondissement, had apparently remained thematically consistent but had changed its name to the Barbary Coast Saloon). Most of them were also still in the same neighborhoods. By 1980, however, at least according to the Pariscope listings, all of the Parisian discotheques had closed.

This was the range of Parisian cultural life in the late-1960s, from Les Detraqués to La Chinoise, from Jacky’s Saloon to the uprisings of May ’68. Many of the young people in those protests may have gone to the discotheques, and they certainly went to the movies and followed the cinema closely. It is in no way a trivialization of their discontent to say that it was informed not just by the Marxist critique provided by the film theory of the period, but also by the three-star rating system of Comolli and Sadoul, and by the frowning or smiling man so carefully assigned by the Pariscope critics.

Discotheques

The Parisian discotheques listed in Pariscope for the week of September 6, 1967

The Paris Cinema Project

When French movie star Gaby Morlay sued a café in Montmartre in 1933, it was national, and even international, news. The café, on the rue Fontaine in the eighteenth arrondissement, recently had unveiled a new, comic fresco by poster artist Jean-Dominique Van Caulaert, called Chez les nudistes (Among the Nudists), an apt name for the caricatures of French celebrities posed au naturel. There was tennis champion Suzanne Lenglen, playwright and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, actress Maud Loti, and music hall performer Lucien Boyer. There was also playwright Henry Bernstein, and in his arms, unmistakably, Gaby Morlay. She hadn’t modeled for the fresco, and she was not amused. She filed a legal case against the café with Le Tribune civil de la Seine, one of the most powerful courts in France’s extraordinarily dense judicial system. In February, 1933, Le Tribune ruled in favor of Morlay, determining that the café owner must place a drape over that part of the fresco that depicted the movie star.

Hanging Drape

The café owner hangs a drape over the image of Morlay in Chez les nudistes

And, indeed, Morlay was a very big star. A twenty-year old Morlay made her film debut in 1913 in Les Vacances de Max, which starred Max Linder, one of the greatest international stars of that era. Fifteen years later, in November, 1928, she would be important enough to appear on the cover of the first issue of Pour Vous, which would become perhaps the most important French film periodical of the pre-World War Two period. She shared that cover with the great director Jacques Feyder, with whom she worked on Les nouveaux messieurs (1929). In the next few years leading up to Chez les nudistes, she also made movies with such distinguished filmmakers as Maurice Tourneur (Accusée…levez-vous! [1930] and Maison de danses [1931]) and Paul Czinner (Ariane, jeune fille russe [1932]).

At the time of the dustup over the fresco, Morlay’s last film had come out in the fall of 1932, and her next wouldn’t appear until about six months later. But her movies were always all over Paris, and probably the rest of France. In the last available Parisian film listings I’ve been able to find before the incident at the cafe, from the end of August, 1932, Morlay’s Après l’amour (1931) played at four cinemas scattered around the city.  Faubourg Montmartre (1931) showed at the St. Michel in the fifth arrondissement and the Kinérama in the third, while the Palais des Arts, also in the third arrondissement, screened Ariane, jeune fille russe.

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From November 22, 1928, the first issue of Pour Vous, with Gaby Morlay second from left and director Jacques Feyder next to her

 

Throughout this period, the French film press always gave Morlay the full star treatment, and presented her to the public in the great tradition of movie divas. The monthly film magazine Cinéa ran an interview with the star in March, 1932, highlighting her need for new adventures and her not always consistent artistic sensibilities. At first, when questioned about recorded sound coming to movies, Morlay pleaded with the interviewer: “Don’t talk about sound film! I don’t believe in it and I could never love it…I loved silent film so much.” Within a few paragraphs, her mood had changed: “Talking cinema is wonderful not only because it brings me closer to my theatrical art, but also because, to play well, I have to exteriorize, to live my role.” After that, she moved on in the interview to her latest enthusiasm, acquiring her “aeronaut’s license,” allowing her to pilot hot air balloons.

The press treated Chez les nudistes, and Morlay’s response to it, as something of a joke. Most newspapers picked up the story on the occasion of placing the drape over that section of the fresco depicting Morlay, an event no doubt advertised by the café owner. The typically sober and serious Le Matin, which covered the case for several days, said about the draping that it seemed like a “grand opening” in Paris, with so many people of importance there—the various lawyers and judges who handled the case or ruled on it, for instance—everyone, it seemed, except Morlay. The royalist newspaper La Liberté lamented Morlay’s absence, and emphasized the party atmosphere during the ceremony. Then, as did other sources, La Liberté let readers know that the café proprietor, along with hanging the drape, had also hung a tongue-in-cheek sign just next to it: “Here, by order of the courts, Gaby Morlay took the veil.”

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The article about covering the fresco in La Liberté, from February 14, 1933: “Here, by order of the court, Gaby Morlay took the veil”

A month later, in March 1933, the news had reached North Africa. A reporter for L’Africain, which was distributed throughout the French colonies, told readers that “everyone in Paris” (tout Paris) had seen the fresco and had followed the scandal, but that, finally, no law could compel Morlay to be depicted “dressed as Eve” if she didn’t want to be. He also mentioned how difficult it would be for any actress to be seen this way, especially if she had kids who might hear about it. He reminded readers, though, that “Gaby Morlay has no children,” and then added, cattily, “at least as far as I know.”

French legal sources took the case more seriously. Le Droit d’auteur, a monthly review devoted particularly to issues of artistic and literary copyright, wrote up the case quite drily in its issue of August 15, 1933, explaining that it was especially important regarding the rights of the painter and the corresponding rights of the person represented in the painting, and also in clarifying the status of “defamatory” pictures.

Despite the precise legal pronouncements, Le Droit d’auteur was not unaware of the niceties of French linguistic and cultural practice. The article raised the issue of Morlay’s personal rights, because she had been painted as if she “posed as a modèle de profession“ (“professional model”). The more modern, respectable category would have been modèle privilégié, understood to be an artist’s wife or mistress, and without any of the signifying baggage of prostitution that accompanied the other term.

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Le Matin puts the case of Chez les Nudistes on the front page, February 5, 1933

Morlay was involved in other compelling cases over the next fifteen years.  While the café fresco had her in the arms of Henry Bernstein, I have found no evidence that they were ever romantically involved. They did, however, have a working relationship. Morlay starred in the 1932 adaptation of Bernstein’s play, Melo, directed by Paul Czinner. Bernstein sued the production company, Matador Films, because it had made significant changes to the play. Bernstein’s original, for instance, has the heroine, played by Morlay in the movie, poison her husband; the film places the incident more safely within one of her dreams. But Bernstein had signed over the rights to his film to Matador, and the contract stipulated that the company could make all changes that seemed necessary. The playwright asserted his moral right to protecting his work, a claim not without significant power in the French legal system at the time, insisting that he maintained the authority to protect the integrity of his play and to shield it from any attempt to deform it. The court ruled against him, because he had clearly granted Matador the permission to implement changes, making this a fairly simple matter of contract law.

Later there was a much more serious charge, and this one was leveled directly against Morlay. During World War Two, she had a relationship with Max Bonnafous, a significant government bureaucrat in Occupied France (in fact, she would marry him). After the war, because of her involvement with Bonnafous, Morlay was investigated by a committee assessing the collaborationist activities of suspect French citizens, including a number of movie stars.

Morlay Sketch-Photo

A sketch of Morlay by Jean-Dominique Van Caulaert, who also painted the fresco at the Montmartre café

Morlay, eventually, was cleared. She had worked in the French film industry throughout the war, with such directors as Sacha Guitry (Mlle. Desirée [1942]) and Marc Allégret (L’Arlésienne [1942]). After the war, and despite the charge of collaboration, she continued to work steadily, starring as Tante Alicia, for instance, in the original film version of Gigi, from 1949, and making films until her death in 1964.

She was perhaps never so famous, though, as she was in the early-1930s, when she took offense at Chez les nudistes, and, as Le Droit d’auteur wrote in its discussion of the case, demanded that a covering immediately be placed over “the scabrous image.”

 

The Paris Cinema Project

I first went to the Cinémathèque française at the Palais de Chaillot to see the Frank Capra-Harry Langdon silent film, Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926). This was in September 1980, and this being Paris the film sold out before I was able to get a ticket. I tried again just a short time later, for another Capra film, Riding High (1951), which at the time was very hard to see. I was able to get in on this second try, but I was still new to the film culture of the city, and I hadn’t realized that the movie would be shown “VF,” that is, version française, dubbed in French. I still have these dates and details because I kept a diary of my year as a film studies graduate student in Paris, and going to the Cinémathèque was something I had anticipated for a long time even before I got there.

Chaillot

The Palais de Chaillot, the home of the Cinémathèque française from 1963 to 1994.

When I was in Paris there were two Cinémathèque exhibition sites in the city, one in Chaillot in the sixteenth arrondissement near the Eiffel Tower, and the other on the fifth floor of the Centre Georges Pompidou in the fourth arrondissement. I lived just a few blocks away from the Pompidou Center, and I preferred the newer, fresher comforts there, but Chaillot really was the mother ship, a much bigger space and one that had been home to the Cinémathèque since 1963 (the Pompidou Centre didn’t open until 1977, and the Cinémathèque only began screenings there in 1980, just before I got to Paris). I remember the Chaillot space as a large one, very much a conventional cinema, sort of rundown and with the oddity that, about a third of the way into the seating area, there was an extraordinarily large space between one row and the next.  That was where the regulars wanted to sit, because it meant they could stretch out. The screening site at the Pompidou Center was smaller, and it seems to me now that the seating area was mostly flat rather than raised, filled with perhaps 150 or so very comfortable leather directors chairs.

People stand in line in front of the Pom

When I was a graduate student in Paris, I would take the outside escalator at the Centre Georges Pompidou to the second screening room of the Cinémathèque Française, on the fifth floor

Each site was open six days a week, usually showing three films a day on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, and four on weekends, with the first screening always at three in the afternoon and the last at nine in the evening. I think it cost ten francs to see a movie, around $2.00 or $2.50. The screenings would be advertised in all of the usual places, of course—in weeklies like Pariscope and L’Officiel des spectacles, as well as in daily newspapers. But the Cinémathèque also ran off xeroxed schedules that you picked up when you went to the movies there, always on colored paper, with the Chaillot listing on one side and the Pompidou Center on the other.

I’ve saved a few of those xeroxes from my year in Paris. They now seem like artifacts from a Jurassic period of cinema, and they’ve gotten crumpled and torn over the last forty years, but they attest to an astonishing film culture in the city. From just one day, January 14, 1981, the Chaillot space began with Le Voleur de Bagdad (The Thief of Bagdad [1924]) as part of a Raoul Walsh retrospective, then, in an hommage à Oumaro Ganda, who had died just two weeks before, there was a double-bill of the Nigerian director’s Cabasca (1969) and Le Wazzou polygame (1970). The last film of the day was another tribute, to the great French star Fernand Gravey who had died in December, 1980, Le Capitaine Fracasse (from 1942, and directed by Abel Gance). That film would be presented with the actor’s partner from the last few years of his life in the audience, en présence de Madame Lucienne Legrand. At the Pompidou Center, screenings began with a dessin animé from 1976, Les Douze travaux d’Asterix, followed by Peter Sellers in Les Femmes du général (Waltz of the Toreadors [1962]), and then, in a reprise of the Retrospective du festival des 3 continents, which had been held in Nantes the year before, the Cinémathèque presented an Egyptian film from 1978, Hicham Aboulnasr’s Al Akmar.

Schedule Side2

The schedule for the Cinémathèque Française at the Palais de Chaillot, for the week of January 14, 1981

I only have one complete listing for the Cinémathèque from much before that, from Pariscope for the week of September 6th, 1967. But the schedule then seems consistent with the early ‘80s, with three or four screenings a day, at Chaillot and also at 29 rue d’Ulm in the fifth arrondissement, which served as the institution’s second space until the Pompidou Center opened (now an extension of the École normale supérieure is on that site on rue d’Ulm).

For all of its status as a venerable cultural institution practically since its founding in 1936, the Cinémathèque could be extraordinarily receptive to its public, and I’ve had the firsthand experience to prove it. When I was in Paris, I was beginning work on my dissertation, about voiceover narration (it was, after all, the early 1980s). I had gone to Chaillot in November 1980 to see Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949), and I was immediately struck by the incredibly complex voiceover in the film. But other than that chance screening, there was really no other opportunity to see the film and take careful notes. I mentioned this to the director of the Paris Program at the time, Rick Altman, and he suggested that I call the Cinémathèque to see about arranging a screening, in fact that I contact Mary Meerson, another venerable institution who, at the time, was in charge there. Meerson, of course, had been a dancer who became an extraordinarily important member of the Parisian art scene, the partner and wife of art director Lazare Meerson and then associated for decades with Henri Langlois, the co-founder of the Cinémathèque.

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The other side of the xeroxed schedule for January 14, 1981, this one for screenings at the Centre Georges Pompidou

I put it off for as long as I reasonably could, but then I made the call, assuming that I wouldn’t get anywhere, and so I was stunned when Meerson answered the phone. She was formal and abrupt, and had no patience for my French, requesting that we continue our conversation in English. I explained that I was a graduate student in film studies, and asked her if it might be possible to arrange a showing of Madame Bovary. Forty years later, I still remember her response: “Yes, we can do that.” A couple of weeks later, I arrived at Chaillot in the morning, a few hours before the first scheduled film. I was shown into the regular Cinémathèque screening room and the projectionist ran a 35mm print of Madame Bovary, just for me.

There is just a single Cinémathèque space now, on the rue de Bercy in the twelfth arrondissement, a Frank Gehry-designed building that opened in 1994. There are three screening rooms in the building, and so there are more films being shown than when I was a student in Paris. I haven’t been to a movie in any of them yet, but I have used the library, and it’s terrific, and the overall space, including a café and bookstore, is extraordinarily comfortable. It’s hard not to feel a little nostalgic, though, for the seedy opulence of Chaillot, or the closely-packed directors chairs in the Pompidou Center. The Cinémathèque now also streams films and other programs from its website (https://www.cinematheque.fr/), and in fact has been doing even more of this since the coronavirus forced the closure of all of the cinemas in France.  As a result, the Cinémathèque serves its public in more ways than it ever has. I’m not sure, though, that anything it can do now matches that private screening of Madame Bovary in 1980, or the feeling it gave me at the time, that the people in charge of the Cinémathèque thought it was absolutely necessary to provide all the help they could to an American graduate student, an audience of one, in his dissertation research.

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Gustave Flaubert (James Mason), on trial for obscenity after the publication of Madame Bovary, narrates the story of his novel to the court in Vincente Minnelli’s Madame Bovary (1949)

 

The Paris Cinema Project

We see images of a rundown Paris, mostly on the northern outskirts of the city, with the one identifiable street, the rue de Chartres, on the periphery of the eighteenth arrondissement. Men walk around, talking to each other and smoking, while a percussive, jazzy score plays in the background. An offscreen narrator says that, of more than half a million North African immigrants in France, some 250,000 live in these outer parts of Paris and in the bainlieu, or suburbs, close by.  They live mostly in shabby hotels or shacks, they work, and they go to the movies.

This is the beginning of Paris Arabe et ses cinémas, a film by Roger Boussinot and Jacques Nahum, and, apparently, an episode in the French television series Démons et Merveilles, which aired on France 2—one of the country’s two television networks at the time—in 1969. I’ve been able to track down only one other episode of the series, Portrait de Nicole Védrès, from 1964, about the director of the great documentary Paris 1900 (1947). Paris Arabe et ses cinémas is available online at https://vimeo.com/399498845, but I don’t think anything has been written about it, at least in American or French sources, in fifty years, since Le Monde published a short review when the program first ran in November 1969. I learned about the film from my colleague at the University of California, Davis, Anjali Nath.

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Paris Arabe et ses cinémas, from 1969, an episode in the series Démons et Merveilles

Both Nahum and Boussinot had long careers in France, mostly in television as producers, writers, and directors. Nothing in their filmographies seems to match Paris et ses cinémas, which was a kind of Jean Rouch-inspired anthropological investigation into the moviegoing habits of North Africans in France, and more precisely North African men.

The narrator tells us that there are about forty cinemas in France that specialize in Arab films, and that ten of them are in and around Paris. The scene shifts to men lining up to see a movie, and the narrator asks one of them, “It’s Sunday afternoon. Do you go to the cinema often?”  The man looks a little suspicious, and then says, “From time to time.” The narrator asks if he prefers American or Arab films, and the man quickly replies “Arab.” He has trouble understanding American films, and besides, there’s too much fighting in them. In Egyptian films, though, there are songs and dancing, and sometimes the girls take their clothes off.

This question about preference will be a constant of the interviews, and the men always choose Arab films. And Arab films will almost always mean Egyptian films (following the Algerian War that began in 1954, films no longer moved back and forth between France and Algeria). There are movies starring Mahmoud Abdel Aziz, Samia Gamal, and other Egyptian stars. The men in the audience are from Algeria or Morocco or Tunisia, and not all of them can understand the language in the movies. Many have to rely on the French subtitles, while others, who are unable to read French, have buddies who narrate.

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“In Egyptian films, there are women who dance nearly naked”

One man, who has been in France since 1959, says that, “In our films,” meaning Arab movies, “there’s dancing and singing. They remind me of home.” He sends most of his money back to his family in Algeria but keeps a little for himself. He lives alone, in a hotel nearby, and when the narrator asks him what he likes to do, he says “Cinema.”

The men go to see films from countries other than Egypt; Le Roi des rois (a reissue of King of Kings [1961]) figures prominently here, as does a film starring Ingrid Schoeller, who made a series of German spy movies during the 1960s. One man says he likes comedies mostly, “with the American Jerry Lewis, and also Fernandel.” But as much it details the movies they go to see, the film is also about the men’s lives outside the cinema, the entertainment industry that fills their leisure time, and the racism they face in France.

Almost all of the men are single or have wives who are still in North Africa. They send most of the money they earn back home, which gives them just enough for a movie now and again. One man, a hairdresser in the suburbs, says he used to go to the movies all the time, but not now. The narrator asks why, and he says, “I’m married.” In fact, the narrator says that, in Nanterre, the bainlieu where so many Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian immigrants live, the space is divided in half, one part for single men, the other for married men and their families. There is one young Algerian man, though, who frequently brings his French wife to the cinema. She stands by him, very quietly, as he explains that she likes Arab films. But he goes on to say that his family back home has refused to accept her, because she is French, and that the situation for North Africans has only gotten worse in Paris, and the rest of France, since Algerian independence.

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The Algerian man who brings his French wife to the movies

There are reasons besides marriage why some men don’t go to the movies. One claims that all of the films are old, and that he saw them when he lived in Morocco. He has a television that he uses for entertainment; he runs it off a battery, because in the bainlieu where he lives, he has no electricity.

The film concentrates on one cinema, Les Variétés in Argenteuil, a bainlieu just north of Paris, above the eighteenth arrondissement. The narrator asks the owner, a white Frenchmen, when he had the idea to make this a cinema specializing in Arab films. It was, for him, a matter of simple economics. He was facing closure, because there was no more audience for French films. Now, his audiences come from the nearby bainlieu where North African immigrants tend to live, and he can stay in business even though the French in his own neighborhood have no interest. He goes on to say that his clientele willingly does the work that the French won’t do. “These aren’t bad guys,” he says.

The narrator asks if the audience is all male, or if there are any women, and the exhibitor replies, “Very few.” When asked why, he doesn’t know, and suggests that, maybe, “it’s a question of custom, and how women are treated.” The employee in the ticket booth confirms that North African women just don’t come to see movies there.

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Some of the audience at Les Variétés cinema

Despite the narrator’s reasonable claim that there were other cinemas in Paris and around the city that primarily screened Arab films, I haven’t been able to find them. Listings from the period, however, can be extremely hard to track down. I have only one complete set, from the Pariscope for the week of September 12, 1967, when there were no Arab films showing in the city. In the eighteenth arrondissement, for example, where Paris Arabe et ses cinémas begins, there are only American films (El Dorado [1966], among many others), French films (including Les Demoiselles de Rochefort [1967]), and several Italian films (077 Espionnage à Tanger [1966], Un dollar entre les dents [1967], and Mission secrète pour Lemmy Logan [1966]). Pariscope typically provided only sketchy lists for a few bainlieu, and nothing for Nanterre or Argenteuil, which were probably the locations for most of the cinemas catering to North African men.

In the twenty-five years or so after World War Two, there were a few French efforts to assess the audience for movies, in both local and national terms. In 1947, for instance, the Gaumont company polled spectators at the flagship Gaumont Palace cinema in Paris, to determine their film preferences, what they were willing to pay for movies, how they got to the cinema, and where they lived. Then in 1954, the French government commissioned L’Étude de marché du cinéma français, a study using the period’s advances in demographic science to chart the dwindling French film audience. Both of these studies are marked by the absence of race as a factor in understanding film viewers. This makes Paris Arabe et ses cinémas all the more remarkable, even though there are certainly flaws in the film. It tends to collapse all North African culture into a unified whole, smoothing out the differences between Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, and elsewhere in the region, and also those differences—ethnic, religious, class—among the men from any of those countries. The attention, though, to issues of race and racism, and to the lasting effects of French colonialism, makes Paris Arabe et ses cinémas, virtually unknown and unseen today, a significant model for the examination of film culture and the broad implications of what it means to go to the movies.

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106 boulevard Jean Allemane in Argenteuil, the thrift store on the site of Les Variétés cinema

The Paris Cinema Project

Suzy Delair died last month, on March 15th. Not quite 103 years old, she was one of the last surviving French movie stars of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, not quite on a level with Michèle Morgan and Danielle Darrieux, but then, no one could be. Delair worked with some of the great filmmakers of the period: Marcel L’Herbier (La Vie de bohème [1945]), Jean Grémillon (Pattes Blanches [1949]), René Clément (Gervaise [1956]), and Luchino Visconti (Rocco and His Brothers [1960]), and most famously with her partner of many years, Henri-Georges Clouzot (Le dernier des six [1941], which Clouzot wrote, followed by L’Assassin habite…au 21 [1942] and Quai des Orfèvres [1947], which he directed). For decades, she worked with a who’s who of great French stars, including Fernandel, Louis Jouvet, and Pierre Fresnay, and while she may not always have been the lead actress in her films, she created two of the most memorable characters in French cinema from the period, Mila Malou in her first two films with Clouzot and Jenny Lamour, Madame Tra la la, in her third. As celebrated as she was for her movies, she was perhaps an even greater attraction as a singer, and she remained a constant presence in French music halls as well as on radio and television.

Delair began making movies in 1931, with a very small part in Un caprice de la Pompadour. The French press really didn’t notice her for ten years, but began paying careful attention in 1941 with the murder mystery Le dernier des six. As a sign of its significance, that film opened in Paris in September at the Normandie, an important, 2000-seat cinéma d’exclusivité on the avenue des Champs-Élysées. The reviewer in Le Matin gave the film a particularly positive review, and ended with, “I’d like to say a few words about…[the] ravishing Suzy Delair, a young, talented artist whom you’ll want to see often on French screens.” The top billing in that movie went to Pierre Fresnay and Michèle Alfa, another great star from the period. But the filmmakers seemed to have a sense of Delair’s impact, and so just a few days later ran an advertisement in Le Matin letting readers know that “In the film Le dernier des six…Mademoiselle Suzy Delair is dressed by Maggy-Rouff,” one of the more important coutourières in Paris, whose shop was just a few doors away from the Normandie.

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An ad for Defense d’aimer, featuring Delair, from La Vie Parisienne, November 11, 1942

Her next two films—L’Assassin habite…au 21 and Defense d’aimer­ (1942)—were similarly successful with critics. At around the same time, and at least in part because of her new celebrity as a movie star, Delair was able to begin her career as a singer. She made her Paris debut in September 1943, at the Folies-Belleville, one of the oldest music halls in the city, in the twentieth arrondissement, and for the next few years she was a frequent performer in the city, at the Casino Montparnasse, the ABC music hall, and elsewhere. When they couldn’t see her in person, her fans were able to listen to her on the radio. During the late-1940s and early-50s, the newspaper L’Aurore regularly ran its Ecoutez…vos vedettes préférés column (“Listen…to your favorite stars”), to let people know when they might hear a range of performers (on radio stations apparently linked to the newspaper). The edition from September 3, 1950, for instance, lists programs with Maurice Chevalier, Edith Piaf, and Tino Rossi (as well as singers unknown to us today, like Zappy-Max). Along with them was Delair, who would appear twice that week, on Friday and Saturday, with this kind of radio schedule typical for her for a number of years.

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Announcing that Delair had been dressed by Maggy-Rouff, Le Matin, September 23, 1941

In October 1948, she became one of the first French stars to appear on television. On the occasion of the meeting of the Congrès de la Télévision, as the newspaper Combat reported, Radiodiffusion française would televise a gala radiophonique. The gala included just about everybody who was anybody in French entertainment, including Josephine Baker, Georges Guétary, Yves Montand, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and Maria Montez, and the list included Delair.

The beginning of Delair’s great celebrity coincided with the Nazi occupation of Paris and much of the rest of France, and the installation of the collaborationist regime in Vichy. In fact, Delair made her breakthrough movies, Le dernier des six and L’Assassin habite…au 21 for Continental Films, the studio created by the Nazis to make films in France. I’ve posted before about German control of French film culture during this period, and this would include French stars, who were enlisted to demonstrate the positive effects of Nazi authority (see posts from March 22, 2016, April 22, 2016, and September 19, 2017). In 1942, Nazi officials sent Delair along with Junie Astor, Albert Préjean, Danielle Darrieux, and others, on an extended goodwill tour of German film studios, and the French weekly movie magazine published by the Germans, Ciné-Mondial, covered the tour over several issues.

Delair figured prominently, mostly as the cheerful, upbeat opposite of Darrieux, who was typically more sensitive and brooding about the possibilities of cinema to unite all of Europe under benevolent German control. During a stop on the tour, Delair allegedly exclaimed to one of the accompanying German leaders—Fritz Dietrich, the chief of the SS—“But you are so elegant!” It’s impossible, of course, to assess the truth of this, and while some French celebrities collaborated without much coaxing, others had to be coerced. We know, for example, that Darrieux complied only when the Germans agreed to call off their pursuit of her partner at the time, Dominican playboy—and diplomat—Porfirio Rubirosa. We can’t know anything about Delair’s motives or the pressures placed on her. Delair’s obituaries reported that, because of the tour, she was “suspended from work for three months after the end of World War II,” but I have been unable to determine exactly what this means (see, for example, https://www.france24.com/en/20200316-french-actress-suzy-delair-who-won-fame-in-the-1940s-dies-aged-102). Her partner, Clouzot, faced a trial before the Comité de liberation du cinéma français for having made films for Continental, and was forbidden to have anything to do with filmmaking for the rest of his life, a ban that was lifted after two years.

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From the left, Delair, Danielle Darrieux, Junie Astor, and Albert Préjean, leaving Paris at the start of their tour of German film studios, April 1942

Whatever her offenses, Delair seemed fairly quickly redeemed in post-Liberation Paris, with Combat, the newspaper of the French Resistance, writing about her—and praising her—often. In February, 1945, Combat reported that Delair would play a significant role in a gala to benefit the French army, and she would be joined by such luminaries as Edith Piaf and Raimu. Just a little more than two years later, in September 1947, Combat ran a laudatory review of Quai des Orfèvres, Clouzot’s first film since his ban had been lifted, from the Venice Film Festival. The film critic for Combat, Jean Desternes, praised the film’s “psychological counterpoint,” and particularly applauded an extraordinary rhythm of the images, one that hardly required any dialogue and that recalled the silent cinema of Charlie Chaplin—perhaps the highest compliment any French reviewer could give a film at the time. Then Desternes wrote of his “admiration for the technique” of the two stars, Delair and Louis Jouvet.

This would be Delair’s great star turn, the film where she introduced Tra la la, performing the song in an extended scene covering different locations, while she wore, first, a simple dress, then a spectacular full-length fur coat, and finally a tight-fitting fin de siècle gown (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTEymrXG-f4). The number became her trademark, and she sang it again and again over the years.

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Singing Madame Tra la la, from Quai des Orfèvres

The film and the song also marked her ascension to the status of diva, at least as she was understood in the French press. In June 1948, Combat ran an interview with the star, just as she was beginning work on Pattes Blanches. She arrived late, of course, and then apologized, or, actually, didn’t: “Don’t blame me…I don’t have a moment to myself…If you only knew! No time to sleep, no time to comb my hair…just galas and films and fittings…” She went on like this, complaining about having to sing outdoors at some concerts and, in general, having too much to do (J’ai tellement de choses à faire). When Delair was finished and then rushed out, the interviewer, after having recovered from the flurry, realized his “one regret,” that the actress had given him no time to speak, and so no opportunity to ask about her “legendary tra la la.” At around the same time, Combat ran the headline, “Suzy Delair Made a Big Tra la la in Brussels” (Suzy Delair a fait un grand Tra la la à Bruxelles), and here, her star behavior seems to have been predictable but not admirable. Because of a dispute with a producer, Delair refused to go on stage. Belgian police ordered the audience to evacuate, Delair’s friends started a fight, and as a result the theatre concierge was wounded.

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The caricature of Delair that Combat ran alongside its interview with the star, June 26, 1948

Quai des Orfèvres marked the high point of Delair’s career. She appeared, improbably enough, with Laurel and Hardy in their last film, Atoll K (Utopia [1950]). She continued performing in movies and television shows until 1987, and remained a celebrity in France until her death. Michèle Morgan died in 2016 and Danielle Darrieux a year later. With Delair’s passing, there is perhaps now only Micheline Presle left, the last of the great stars to have made films in France during the 1930s and ‘40s. In an obituary for Delair, the website francemusique summed up that entire generation of great performers: Appartenant à cette catégorie de comédiennes qui savaient tout faire. She belonged to that category of actresses who knew how to do everything.

 

The Paris Cinema Project

On March 14th, 2020, the French government announced the closing of all restaurants, museums, theatres, and cinemas, a response to the novel coronavirus, possibly the worst global public health crisis since the flu epidemic of 1918-19. But as a comparison, what exactly was the government’s response just over 100 years ago to la grippe espagnole, which killed as many as a quarter of a million people in France? More to the point of my interests here, how did the flu affect the cinema in France, and especially in Paris?

Information can be difficult to come by, largely because the press in France covered the disease only very slowly, perhaps because the government insisted so as not to cause any alarm, or perhaps because journalists simply didn’t understand the severity of the outbreak. Françoise Bouron has provided the most exhaustive analysis of the general attitudes of the press at the time. While the flu seems to have come to France in April, 1918, most newspapers and journals at first avoided it altogether, then reported that France, unlike other European countries, seemed to have been spared, and then only began to cover the national outbreak in the late-summer and early-fall.

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Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announcing the closure of all non-essential public places in France, including cinemas, on March 14th, 2020

In any case, and far different from the response of 2020, the governmental actions in 1918-19 seem to have been regional rather than national, and might vary significantly from place to place, with Paris, apparently, always doing less rather than more. In mid-October, 1918, Le Figaro reported that 700 Parisians had died from the flu during the past week, an increase of 300 from the week before. The newspaper indicated that more hospital beds were coming to the city and that schools would be disinfected but would not close. Hinting at the dense Parisian bureaucracy that may have made any decisive action difficult, Le Figaro continued that, anyway, schools could only be closed in Paris by the local government, at the suggestion of the Seine Prefect and in consultation with the Hygiene Council.

That same report in Figaro, however, let readers know that Édouard Herriot, the mayor of Lyon, had acted more decisively. Herriot, of course, was the radical socialist who would later be in and out of office as Prime Minister during multiple revolving-door governments in France during the 1920’s and ‘30’s. In Lyon, Herriot insisted that all corpses be buried immediately, demanded the daily disinfection of post offices, banks, cafés, restaurants, and train stations, and completely closed all theatres and cinemas.

Other locations did the same thing. In Périgueux, in southwestern France, schools were closed and so too were all theatres and cinemas. The Communist newspaper L’Humanité reported on those closings, and added that the ongoing Parisian response involved, yet again, more hospital beds and, in addition, thirteen thousand gallons of rum to be distributed to the city’s pharmacies and sold as a partial cure for flu.

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Édouard Herriot, who as the mayor of Lyon closed all the cinemas there during the epidemic

Assertions of official Parisian inactivity went across ideological lines. In late-October 1918, the far-rightwing newspaper L’Intransigeant wrote, “One thinks…of closing the cinemas, the theatres and even churches, as has been done in Switzerland and some French cities.” Then L’Intransigeant added that, “rather than facing anything that extreme, Parisians have been told to refrain from going anywhere they might be exposed to influenza.”

At least according to the press, aggressive actions by Herriot and others worked. In early-November, Le Journal reported that closing theatres—and it’s unclear whether this included cinemas—in Limoges, Dijon, Cherbourg, Orléans, and elsewhere had stopped the spread of flu. Le Temps wrote that “the efforts in Lyon had had their effect,” and theatres and cinemas would now reopen.

But Paris still did nothing comparable, and there was even some debate in the city about the usefulness of closures and the severity of the epidemic. On November 11th, 1918, the day that World War One ended, La Presse, a Parisian daily, devoted its front page to the Armistice. On page two, however, La Presse ran two stories about the flu. One of them insisted that the illness had declined considerably in the Parisian population (La Grippe décroit). In the other, a reporter for the paper, Lucile Laurence, wrote that city officials had given some thought to closing all cinemas and other public places, including schools. She went on, though, that even if they did, “public health would still be menaced” because of all the men who spit on streets, their germs then going into the air and onto the food that Parisians ate. On the same page, La Presse announced the opening of one of the most anticipated films of the season, Bouclette, at the very fashionable Palace-Aubert cinema in the ninth arrondissement. Bouclette featured one of the great French stars of the era, Gaby Deslys, who would die of influenza in February, 1920.

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An undated publicity photograph of the great French star Gaby Deslys, the star of Bouclette and a victim of the flu epidemic

Deslys’ film, which had a scenario by Marcel L’Herbier, was one of the great cultural events in the city just after the war. But there were also many, many others, in cinemas and in the city’s theatres. Reporting on the flu on February 23rd, 1919, Le Matin put the grim numbers next to the masthead at the top of the front page. La grippe à Paris had claimed 900 lives in the last week, an increase of 350 from the week before. Le Matin never listed the movies in Paris, but it did offer information for plays, music halls, and café-concerts, and the list is astonishing, both in terms of how much was going on and how little the city’s entertainment industry seemed to have been touched by the epidemic. Had they wanted to, Parisians could have seen Les Noces de Figaro at the Opéra-Comique, where it alternated with Carmen, or Cyrano de Begerac at the Porte-St. Martin, or Sacha Guitry’s Pasteur at the Vaudeville. The Folies-Bergère featured a lion tamer for its family matinee and then more adult entertainment in the evening. The great music hall stars Mistinguett and Max Dearly appeared at the Casino de Paris, along with 200 Jolies Femmes, and Raimu, the stage actor soon to become a great movie star, performed in Le Cochon qui sommeille at the Théâtre Michel. There was also much, much more.

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On the upper right, on the masthead from February 23rd, 1919, Le Matin announces that week’s death toll of La Grippe à Paris

Parisian entertainment continued as usual for the duration of the epidemic, as the death toll mounted and city leaders kept all venues open while supplying pharmacies with more and more rum for the afflicted. A century later, French officials were slow to react to the coronavirus, as were governments in Italy, Spain, the United States, and elsewhere. They had, however, apparently learned something from the earlier public health crisis. Spitting on streets may still be a difficult problem and still a means of spreading disease. But Mayor Herriot’s example in Lyon, closing theatres, restaurants, and other public spaces, including cinemas, has now become the French model for containing the epidemic, even in Paris.

The Paris Cinema Project

The Pathé studio still stands in Paris, at 6 rue Francoeur in the eighteenth arrondissement, although now it’s the home of La Fémis, one of the great film schools in Europe. The Pathé film company began practically with the cinema itself, in 1896, when four brothers–Émile, Théophile, Jacques, and particularly Charles–decided to move from making phonographs to producing films. For a while, it would be among the largest such firm in the world, a global, vertically integrated company that made films, distributed them, and owned some of the most important cinemas on the continent, with about three-dozen exhibition sites in Paris by the early 1930s.

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The Pathé gate, at 6 rue Francoeur in Paris

Of course, urban centers like Paris were the most important locations in the Pathé empire. But the film company looked to expand everywhere, to places where cinema hadn’t been before, at least in France and in French colonial locations. In the mid-1920s, Pathé developed a small-gauge system for making movies and then projecting them. The 17.5mm Pathé-Baby (half the size of standard, 35mm movie film), similar to the 16mm film being developed in the United States and other parts of Europe, made cinema more compact and more mobile, and meant that Pathé could show movies anywhere there was an available electrical current. The world—or, at least, Europe, North Africa, and Indochina—became Pathé’s exhibition site.

The French press took notice, and not just the film press. In 1928, the Catholic journal Bulletin du Diocèse de Reims extolled the value of what became known as Pathé-Rural, as a means of using “the cinema in teaching and social education,” and Charles Pathé himself told the Bulletin that soon, “this rural format would prevail in all poor countries.” Moreover, Pathé would supply those remote, rural locations with entire films programs for only 100 francs. A few years later, in 1931, Pathé told the film tabloid Ciné pour tous that “the cinematic spectacle should not remain limited to cities…but must penetrate everywhere, like the newspaper,” and the smaller, simpler, cheaper system his company had developed was perfect for that. Pathé then explained all of the technical details—fewer images per meter and less strain on the film as it moved through the projector—and then claimed that, as a result, a single film might be shown as many as a thousand times before it showed any signs of wear and tear.

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In its issue of April 15, 1926, Ciné pour tous examined the arrival of Pathé-Baby and Pathé-Rural

Within a few years, the films that Pathé-Rural took out to the hinterlands were not just those useful in “teaching and social education.” In 1937, La Revue de l’Écran ran regular lists of films offered by Pathé-Rural, and they were mostly feature-length commercial movies, already a few years old, from France, Hollywood, and elsewhere, films like Gregory La Cava’s Mon Mari le Patron (She Married Her Boss [1935]), Aimez-Moi toujours (Love Me Forever, from 1935, with Grace Moore), John Ford’s Toute la ville en parle (The Whole Town’s Talking [1935), Julien Duvivier’s Golgotha (1935), and the 1936 Napoleon biopic from Italy, Les Cent jours.

 

Whatever the film, the aim of Pathé-Rural was always bringing cinema to those places that, even in the late-1930s, might not have been fully exposed to it. In fact, the Ministry of Agriculture emphasized the usefulness of Pathé-Rural, and highlighted it in their display space at the 1937 world’s fair, the Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne in Paris. The exposition was nothing short of gigantic, taking up about 250 acres around the Champ de Mars near the Palais de Chaillot in the elegant sixteenth arrondissement. There were pavilions from the Soviet Union, Italy, Germany, and elsewhere. The list included Spain, and that country featured the first display of Picasso’s Guernica, which had been commissioned specifically for the exposition. Anything else might seem modest in comparison, but still, the Ministry of Agriculture built a three-room pavilion and devoted one of the rooms to a screening space for Pathé-Rural, with the film company providing movies from its “rural cinémathèque” for screenings throughout the exposition.

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Le Centre Rural, from 1937, announces the presence of Pathé-Rural at the Paris Exposition, in the Ministry of Agriculture’s pavilion

The Ministry was concerned with bringing Pathé-Rural and other benefits of French technological modernity to those parts of France far away from urban centers. Pathé-Rural functioned not just in national projects, however, but also in extending France’s colonial reach. In 1932, just a few years after the introduction of Pathé-Baby small gauge film and the Pathé-Rural system, the French film journal Hebdo covered the International Congress of Educational Cinema in Berlin. There was a demonstration of Pathé-Rural there, and Hebdo extolled this “admirable invention,” and especially its effectiveness in North Africa, where it could bring motion pictures to “the remotest villages in the desert,” where people there would now “be able to enjoy all the instructive and spectacular benefits that the cinema brings with it.” Pathé-Rural had already achieved “considerable success” in Algeria, and soon, according to Hebdo, would move into Morocco and Tunisia.

A week later, Comoedia, a daily Parisian review of cultural events, ran the same report as did Hebdo. Appropriately enough, Comoedia headlined the story on the conference, “Pathé-Rural Conquers Algeria.” North African sources also applauded the promise of   Pathé-Rural. In April, 1933, L’Afrique du Nord Illustrée, a journal devoted to the region’s culture and politics, wrote that, thanks to this “small, marvelous instrument,” the northernmost sections of Algeria would become one with those of the interior. Pathé-Rural would bring all of Algeria together and use the French cinema to do it, with Pathé’s empire assisting in the consolidation of France’s colonial power.

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On November 4, 1932, Comoedia informed Parisian readers that Pathé-Rural had “conquered Algeria”

This celebration of Pathé’s importance coinciding with France’s hid some significant problems. Pathé would go bankrupt in 1935 (Charles had had the good sense to sell his shares a few years earlier), and there were long struggles over the control and dissolution of the company, including one of the owners, Jewish impresario Bernard Natan, being convicted of fraud and then sent to Auschwitz. After the splashy display at the Ministry of Agriculture’s pavilion at the Paris Exposition in 1937, Pathé-Rural falls out of the available historical record. I have found only one other reference to Pathé-Rural, in 1970 in Media, a French journal of “techniques and methods of education” that ran for a decade in the late-1960s through the ‘70s. In an article on “the cinema and education in France,” in a section labelled “small formats” (petits formats), Media mentioned the 22mm film developed by the Société Gallus, and lamented that, if it didn’t enjoy the success it certainly merited, that was probably because of Pathé’s invention of 17.5mm film stock and accompanying projection system, conceived in 1924 and launched in 1927 under the name Pathé-Rural and designed “to bring film education to the countryside.” As happened with so much else in Paris and the rest of France, that experiment ended when the Germans invaded the country and occupied the capital. Media reports rather clinically that Pathé-Rural lasted until 1940, when “German occupation authorities decided to suppress 17.5mm film and transform all remaining projectors to 16mm.” This technological shift was, perhaps, one of the least of the effects of the German takeover of French cinema, but it certainly served to indicate the end of one media empire, however weakened it already may have been, and the beginning of another that would last until 1944, when the Allies joined with French resistance forces to liberate Paris and the rest of France. By that time, of course, 16mm film had become the global standard, with Pathé-Baby, Pathé-Rural, and Pathé itself very much the signs of an earlier, outdated film history.

The Paris Cinema Project

When I arrived in Paris for the first time in September 1980, I was stunned by all of the cinemas there. I had grown up in Los Angeles, so I was used to living where there were hundreds of movie theatres. But I wasn’t accustomed to the concentration of cinemas that I found in Paris, or to cinemas in the midst of residential neighborhoods. I could walk a couple of blocks from my apartment on the rue Ste. Croix de la Bretonnerie in the fourth arrondissement, and have a bunch of options for seeing movies.

I lived in Paris until the summer of 1981, and I kept a record of the movies that I saw, and I have vivid memories of the cinemas I typically went to; Action Christine in the sixth arrondissement, Action Écoles in the fifth, République in the ninth, the Marais in my own neighborhood, and the Cinémathèque française screening room nearby in the Centre Georges Pompidou (I’ll write a post soon about the cinémathèque at the time) . These were mostly cinemas that showed older films, reprises of movies from Hollywood, France, and elsewhere rather than the cinémas d’exclusivité that showed the newest films. But I didn’t save any film listings from my year there that would show the cinemas and their addresses, so I hadn’t been able to chart the cinematic geography of Paris from the period.

In fact, at least for the film historian working in the United States, it’s easier to map Parisian cinemas from the 1920s and ‘30s than it is from the 1980s and after, because of the materials that are available and those that aren’t. A few months ago, though, I found some issues of Pariscope on an extremely valuable online source for this kind of thing, Ebay.

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Pariscope from December 31st, 1980

Pariscope is still being published, and it remains a terrific listing of all of the cultural events in Paris each week. When I was a student forty years ago, I’d buy a new issue each Wednesday. There was another weekly much like it at the time, L’Officiel, and my sense then was that the choice you made, between one or the other, was practically as charged as the choice between Positif and Cahiers du Cinéma in the early 1960s. I’m not sure exactly how I fell into the Pariscope camp, but I do remember that the listings seemed much more legible and sensibly organized than the ones in L’Officiel.

Each week, Pariscope ran Le Hit Parade des Critiques, a listing of the major film critics in Paris and how they rated new films (from one star to three). Then there would be lists of new films that had been playing in Paris for a few weeks, films that were just opening in the city, film festivals, and pages and pages of reprises. Pariscope also ran separate listings of films by genre, and indicated those movies forbidden to viewers under eighteen, including not only conventional “adult films” that the magazine treated with the same respect as American classics, but also films like Oshima’s L’Empire des sens (1976), which played at the St. André des Arts cinema in the sixth arrondissement the first week of 1981, according to my Ebay Pariscope (for a little more on the St. André des Arts, see my post from January 28th, 2019).

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“Le Hit Parade des Critiques,” from Pariscope, December 31st, 1980

Pariscope numbered all of the cinemas in the city, and listed them by arrondissement. In the issue covering that first week in ’81, cinema number one was the Chatelet-Victoria in the first arrondissement, and the last cinema, number 256, was the Tourelles in the twentieth. There were, then, that many cinemas in the city, and many of those had more than one screen. The St. André des Arts, which showed Oshima’s film and which was very much a neighborhood cinema, had two rooms, and even some of the most important exhibition sites housed multiple cinemas. The Marignan, for instance, on the Champs-Élysees, which had been one of the largest in Paris for decades, now had seven different rooms, and that week in January showed, among other films, Superman II (1980), Fame (1980), and Truffaut’s Le Dernier Metro (1980).  

For at least a few years, the number of cinemas in Paris had remained fairly stable. A Pariscope from the end of July 1977 lists 257 sites for seeing movies. The last complete listing I have before that is from thirty years earlier, January 1947, from the film magazine L’Écran français. About a year-and-a-half after the end of World War Two, there were 307 cinemas in Paris. So for at least that three-decade period, the exhibition map of the city stayed fairly stable, especially considering the significant downturn the French film industry experienced during the 1950s and ‘60s. Nevertheless, the concentration of cinemas had changed, at least in some areas. In 1947, for instance, there were only nine cinemas in the fifth arrondissement. By 1981 there were twenty-seven. While there had been twenty-two cinemas in the twentieth arrondissement, thirty years later there were just three (the Tourelles, the Bellevue, and the Gambetta were the only sites to last the whole time). Other areas in Paris had hardly changed at all. There were twenty-three cinemas in the eighth arrondissement in 1947 and twenty-five in 1981. In my old neighborhood, the fourth, there had been six, and when I moved in there were four.

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The Gambetta cinema is still at 6 rue Belgrand in the twentieth arrondissement

The great shift in Parisian film geography took place over the next ten years. I went to Paris again in 1989, and this time I saved some issues of Pariscope. By then the number of cinemas had gone down by half, with only 129 exhibition sites in the city. In the twentieth arrondissement there was just one, the last cinema listed in Pariscope, the Gambetta. I haven’t looked exhaustively, but I don’t doubt that far more cinemas had sub-divided by then, so there were certainly many more screens than that, but the movie map of the city had changed considerably. In the fourth arrondissement there were only two cinemas left. The Marais cinema, where I had gone so often, had become Le Latina (now it’s called the Luminor).  The other, the Salle Garance, named for the character Arletty played in Les Enfants du paradis (1945), was in the Centre Pompidou, probably the same screening space where the Cinémathèque had been for a few years, and where I had spent so much time.

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The Luminor cinema on the rue du Temple in the fourth arrondissement, which had been the Marais cinema when I lived nearby

I can chart the cinematic geography of Paris from my subsequent visits. There were 110 cinemas in 1994, and that number held firm through 2002, when the Gambetta, still the only cinema in the twentieth, showed movies in one large space and six smaller ones. By 2015, a very slimmed-down Pariscope showed only 83 cinemas, although now the Gambetta had been joined in the twentieth by the Étoile Lilas. Of course, there is still an extraordinary film culture in the city, but the overwhelming presence of the cinemas themselves that so struck me in 1980 is gone now. And while trying not to be too nostalgic, I also miss the sheer volume of the old Pariscope, which, in my memory at least, used to take hours to get through, to underline, and to take in the possibilities until the following Wednesday.

The Paris Cinema Project

One of the assumptions of Hollywood film history has it that Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) had a very slow success, only becoming a hit when it moved from downtown, opening run sites in big cities to the neighborhoods and then to small towns. Capra himself would talk about this (and probably started the story), and it has become standard in much of the scholarship about the film, that it was the everyday folk in the country who “discovered” it, and made the more snobbish filmgoers in big cities think again and take notice. But actually, when the film opened at the end of February and the beginning of March 1934 in Los Angeles and New York it did exceptionally well in both places, and also did great business in cities that were almost as important in Hollywood film exhibition at the time: Buffalo, Detroit, Indianapolis, and Kansas City for instance. We can chart the movies’ box office via the receipts published each week in the Motion Picture Herald. In Seattle, for example, the film was one of the highest money-earners in the city for the spring of 1934 , bringing in $7,000 worth of business in its first week after it opened an exclusive run at the Liberty theatre, and then, remarkably, being held over for at least two more weeks and hardly losing any of its audience at all.

So before It Happened One Night made it out to urban neighborhoods or to small towns, it was a hit. It’s worth pointing out, though, that even while it still showed at first-run, downtown cinemas, It Happened One Night played in more obscure places. In early-March, 1934, for instance, in Princeton, Minnesota, and at the same time in Iowa Falls, Iowa, and also in Erie, Kansas, with the film drawing huge crowds wherever it showed. This was an extraordinary distribution plan for a major American film, with many Hollywood movies taking anywhere from three to six months to make their way from cities out to the sticks. If anything, then, It Happened One Night was something of a simultaneous sensation in urban areas and small towns, a rarity at the time.

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La Semaine à Paris advertises New York-Miami as a chef-d’oeuvre, a masterpiece in its edition from April 20th, 1934

This is all a roundabout way of arriving in Paris. We should keep in mind, though, that like most American films at the time, Capra designed his for an international market, and there were other cities, particularly in Europe and especially Paris, that mattered a great deal to a movie’s bottom line.  Just as Capra’s studio, Columbia, wasted no time in getting the film to Griswold, Iowa or Dante, Virginia, so too did it hurry to get the film to France. At a time when Hollywood movies might take six months or a year to arrive overseas, It Happened One Night, as New York-Miami (indicating the points of the bus ride in the film) opened in Paris towards the end of April, 1934, less than two months after its American premiere.

New York-Miami did not catch Paris by surprise. At least since 1931 and Dirigible, any new Capra film was highly anticipated by critics and regular viewers. In October, 1931, Dirigible had opened in the eighth arrondissement at the Marigny cinema, one of the most upscale exhibition sites in Paris; the movie Dirigible replaced there had been the great event on the Parisian film scene for all of 1931, Chaplin’s Les Lumières de la ville (City Lights [1931], which premiered there in April).  Just a few months after Dirigible left the Marigny, Leontine Sagan’s Jeunes filles en uniforme (Mädchen in Uniform [1931]) would have a sensational run there.

Like Dirigible, New York-Miami, in English with French subtitles, opened at a major cinema in the eighth arrondissement, this time the Ermitage on the Champs-Élysées, an exhibition site that specialized in the most important American films.  La Semaine à Paris, a weekly listing of cultural events in the city, advertised the movie as a “masterpiece of high spirits and gaiety.” Week after week, New York-Miami stayed at the Ermitage, until the end of August, a four-month run that, while not unprecedented in Paris, certainly indicated the popularity of the film. Almost immediately the film moved to two other cinemas, and still with subtitles rather than in a dubbed version, the Gaité-Rochechouart in the ninth arrondissement and the Clichy-Palace in the seventeenth. For the next few weeks, the film moved to other cinemas; rather than blanketing the city, however, in the manner of most movies at the time, it would still only play in one or two sites, a sign of the exclusive status of the film as well as its popularity. In October, for instance, New York-Miami showed just at the Victor Hugo cinema in the sixteenth arrondissement, and still in the original, subtitled version. Indicating the staying power of the film, as late as May, 1935, Film Complet, a magazine that published a ciné-roman version of a major film in each issue, featured New York-Miami on its cover, along with Paul Nolleau’s retelling (“Money doesn’t bring happiness,” Nolleau began his story: L’Argent ne fait pas le bonheur).

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The ciné-roman version of New York-Miami featured in Film Complet, May 1935

There’s no question, then, that New York-Miami was one of the bigger hits in Paris in 1934. We know, though, that Hollywood studios arranged production and distribution in terms of seasons rather than years. Columbia was one of the “Little Three” studios, along with Universal and United Artists, and couldn’t compare to the “Big Five” of MGM, Paramount, Fox, Warner Bros., and RKO. As a result, they made only one or two major films a season, films that would be used as the attraction for cinemas to rent an entire “block” of the studio’s films (from which the term “block booking” derived). It Happened One Night served just that function, and was Columbia’s most significant film from 1933-34, the movie the studio depended on as a means of getting exhibition deals for the rest of its product. It stands to reason that the studio would use the same distribution strategy for one of its very few big budget, important films of the 1934-35 season, One Night of Love (1934), which featured the great opera performer Grace Moore, who enjoyed a few years of significant film stardom.

That film opened in the United States in September, 1934. But it didn’t come to Paris for five months, when it first showed at the elegant Édouard VII cinema in the ninth arrondissement in February, 1935. I haven’t been able to track down the release pattern for One Night of Love in the United States, to see if it went to small towns even as it played in big cities, in the manner of It Happened One Night. Clearly, however, the international distribution systems for the films were absolutely different.

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The Édouard VII theatre, on the site of the Édouard cinema where One Night of Love opened in 1935

After New York-Miami finished its run in Paris, the film seemed to follow more established distribution patterns. Capra’s movie didn’t appear in Algiers, for instance, typically one of the first North African stops for an American film, until May, 1935, slightly more than a year following its premiere in Paris, in keeping with a typical time frame. Nevertheless, in the US and France, this is the movie that stands out for its unusual exhibition trajectory. There may well have been others, but I have yet to find an American film besides this one that played simultaneously for an extended period in major American cities, American small towns, and Paris. One of the major hits of 1934, then, was also a unique one.  There was no slow, regional buildup to the success of Capra’s film. Rather, the popular acclaim was instantaneous and global.

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In Les Spectacles d’Alger, a review of New York-Miami when it opened at the Majestic cinema in Algiers, May 22nd, 1935