The Paris Cinema Project

On Tuesday, October 19, 1936, the socialist Club du Faubourg met at the chic Salle Wagram in Paris’ seventeenth arrondissement for a debate about “The Struggle Against Communism,” after four months of the leftist Popular Front control of the French government. Just over a week later, the club met again, this time to hear the famous chanteuse Lys Gauty, the playwright Pierre Wolff, the actress Lina Tyber, and others discuss the practice of vivisection, and how it might be outlawed. These would be typical meetings of the Club du Faubourg, one of the more important of the many cultural and political organizations in Paris at the time, and that might meet two or three times a week to hear celebrities, politicians, and artists argue important issues. But the session of the Club du Faubourg that interests me in particular came between these two, on October 23. That’s when the members gathered to talk about Fritz Lang’s first American film, Furie (Fury [1936]), and to debate one of the central issues raised by the movie, the relationship between justice and public opinion, and whether the latter might influence a jury’s decision. As L’Information Financière, Économique et Politique put it, this was an “enthralling” subject, while Lang’s film itself had “aroused” a new interest “in the preponderant role played by the cinema in public life.”

L’Information Financière, Économique et Politique from October 22, 1936, announces the debate on Furie at the Club du Faubourg

Furie had just begun showing at the Olympia cinema in the ninth arrondissement. The Olympia had opened as a music hall in 1893 and would be converted to a cinema in 1930 by the great film entrepreneur Jacques Haïk. It would become a music hall once again in 1954, and while the Olympia is still perhaps most famous as the site of several legendary performances by Edith Piaf during this period, it remains a significant Parisian concert venue (the Beatles also played there, in 1964). In 1936, though, when Furie premiered, the Olympia was one of the more important cinémas d’exclusivité in the city, with Lang’s film replacing the MGM extravaganza La Grand Ziegfeld (The Great Ziegfeld [1936]), which had played for a month.

Like many other meetings of the Club du Faubourg, the one devoted to Furie would be advertised in most of the Parisian newspapers. Club members met at the Olympia for a private screening of the film, which tells the story of a man arrested for a crime he didn’t commit, the lynch mob that tries to kill him, and the revenge he seeks on them. After the movie, club members would stay for the debate, which included writers, lawyers, and law students, all led by club chairman Léo Poldes. This wouldn’t be the first time the club paid attention to the cinema. In 1930, for instance, members engaged in a débat cinématographique taking sides “for and against” the two antiwar films about to open in Paris, one from Hollywood and the other from Germany, Lewis Milestone’s À l’Ouest rien de nouveau (All Quiet on the Western Front [1930]) and G.W, Pabst’s Quatre de l’infanterie (Westfront 1918 [1930]).

An advertisement for Furie in Le Matin, October 25, 1936, as well as one for Claudette Colbert and Ronald Colman in Sous deux drapeaux (Under Two Flags)

The club’s attention to Furie was just one sign of the importance of the film. The French film press acknowledged Lang as one of the world’s great directors and understood that Furie was a significant cultural event. In reviewing the film, La Liberté called Lang, who had made Metropolis (1927), M (1931), and several other films already ranked as classics, “one of the European directors whose works have left the greatest and most lasting impression on the public,” and extolled his “magnificent qualities.”  The review concluded, “Furie is a film of shattering greatness” (grandeur bouleversante). Le Jour praised the “mastery of the director,” and, as did so many other reviews, celebrated the natural acting of the two stars, Spencer Tracy and Sylvia Sidney.

Nevertheless, Furie was a notable bust at the Olympia. The film played there for only a week, replaced by another Hollywood film, Une femme qui tombe du ciel (1936)—George Fitzmaurice’s innocuous Petticoat Fever—which managed to play twice as long, for two weeks. For at least some Parisians, this marked the decline of the city’s film culture. One disappointed viewer wrote a letter to the film tabloid Pour Vous in February 1937, lamenting that “the same public that displayed such indifference to Furie will now probably make Winterset”—the strained, self-important 1936 adaptation of Maxwell Anderson’s play—“a resounding success.” He went on that, “as a filmed play, you can’t do better in France” than present something as wooden as Winterset, and that, unlike the modernist Furie, this new film adhered “to the most ancient stage traditions.”

Perhaps because of its flop at the Olympia, Furie would not return to any cinema in Paris for months, apparently not until early-March 1937, when it reopened at eight neighborhood cinemas, including the Temple-Selections in the tenth arrondissement, the Imperator in the eleventh, the Vanves in the fourteenth, and the Phoenix in the twentieth. After that, through the end of the 1930s, Furie came back again and again to the neighborhoods, possibly indicating that interest in the film had picked up. As just a few examples, it played at the Artistic cinema in the eleventh arrondissement in September 1937, at three cinemas in the fourteenth in April 1939, and at the Nouvelle Comédie in the eighteenth in August of that year, just a few weeks before the beginning of the war. More significantly, though, in terms of what it tells us about French film culture from the period, Furie became a touchstone, a sort of marker for what the cinema could be, for the kinds of stories it might tell and the acting methods it might develop, and for its connections to broader social concerns.

Pour Vous features Furie on its cover, October 29, 1936, even though the film already had ended its run at the Olympia

It was the tabloid Pour Vous, probably the most important film publication in France, that especially kept making the case for Furie. In April 1937, for instance, Pour Vous published a critique of French film censorship. The author acknowledged the typical understanding that the United States was far more “puritan” than France, but nevertheless a Hollywood studio had been allowed to produce Furie, a film that no French studio would have been able to make. In July 1937, the film historian Lucien Wahl, a resident critic for Pour Vous, reviewed Feu Jim Blake (The President’s Mystery [1937]) and claimed that while the film had some of the “power” of Furie, it lacked all of that film’s “honesty.” Later that year, in December, Wahl reviewed Mervyn Leroy’s La Ville gronde (They Won’t Forget [1937]), a loose telling of the 1912 lynching of Leo Frank, the Jewish southerner who had been falsely accused of murdering a thirteen- year-old girl, and whose own death at the hands of a mob fully exposed the region’s virulent anti-Semitism. Wahl praised the politics of the film, and it’s “vigor,” but lamented that it “lacked the power that infused Furie.” Then in May 1939, prolific film journalist Margeurite Bussot covered “48 Hours with Spencer Tracy in Paris” for Pour Vous, about his trip to the French capital. For Bussot, Tracy had established a new naturalism for film acting, and she asked her readers, “who can forget his magnificent creations,” and listed his performance in Furie as one of the greatest among many. 

There are, apparently, no newspaper stories following up on the meeting of the Club du Faubourg, reporting on the Furie debate This would be typical, with brief news stories about each of the club’s planned meetings, but then nothing else, about the debate over vivisection or communism or Lang’s film or any other topic. While Furie may have flopped in its initial run in Paris, the Club du Faubourg certainly wasn’t wrong in seeing something important about the movie, and something timely.  In fact, the club may have been prescient, as were so many film journalists writing about Furie when it came out, concerning its depiction of mob violence. For a country watching the rise of fascism so close by, in Italy and Germany, and just a few years away from its own surrender to the Nazis, Furie may well have seemed terrifyingly real. As J.G. Auriol wrote in his review of the film in Pour Vous, in October 1936, “Lang has captured the frightening hysteria of the crowd as never before seen onscreen…illuminating aspects of this mass suddenly deprived of a soul.”

The Olympia, where Furie opened, is now a concert hall

The Paris Cinema Project

“Stavisky, that versatile crook, naturally was interested in the cinema.” That’s how French journalist and novelist Clément Vautel began his gossipy Ici Paris column in the weekly literary and political newspaper Gringoire, on May 11, 1934. Vautel went on to claim, without offering any evidence, that Stavisky had produced pornographic films, just one more aspect of a life full “of episodes, each one more astonishing than the last.” Clearly, for Vautel, nothing was beyond Alexandre Stavisky, the man who single-handedly almost destroyed the French government and economy, who had died under extremely suspicious circumstances five months earlier, and who remained an object of fascination for so many in France. That included the French film press, which invoked Stavisky steadily for a number of years, and extended to the always-cautious officials who enforced French film censorship.

Even by the standards of French scandals, the Stavisky Affair is marked by its extraordinary complexity. The best I can do is to provide a highly condensed version that hardly does justice to Stavisky’s efforts. Russian-born and Jewish, Stavisky had managed to rise in French banking and financial circles, selling worthless bonds while depending on his connections with some of France’s highest-ranking officials and most popular celebrities. Even an arrest on fraud charges in 1927 didn’t stop him; his trial would be postponed again and again while Stavisky continued with his various financial crimes. Finally, at the end of 1933, under increased suspicion, Stavisky fled Paris and was found dead a few weeks later in Chamonix, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound but perhaps murdered by the police who had pursued him.

Alexandre Stavisky, in a photograph from 1926

A month after that, in February 1934, the always-anti-Semitic French far right mobilized in Paris. They had determined that Stavisky’s relationships with so many government officials indicated both the corruption of the state and the control that Jews had taken of the national economy, and they were further angered by the recent dismissal of Parisian Prefect of Police and fascist sympathizer Jean Chiappe. As a result, a collection of fascist and proto-fascist groups stormed the Ministry of the Interior and rioted at the Place de la Concorde and the Élysée Palace, the presidential residence, in what may have been an attempted coup. Police managed to stop them, but the damage had been done and the French government resigned.

In the months following Stavisky’s death, the film press reported on his alleged movie activities, and while none of the journalists mentioned pornography, as Vautel had, they all alluded to shady dealings. Just a few days after his body had been found, in January 1934, Le Petit Provençal reported that, in a criminal career so wide-ranging, from “the jewelry trade and construction companies to international banking, war reparations, and pawnbroking,” it was perfectly self-evident that you would find him “in the field of cinema.” In April, Excelsior told readers that Stavisky had hoped to set up a film company with a few colleagues, and in June, Le Petit Courrier wrote about the continuing investigation into Stavisky’s affairs, and about a “filmmaker,” Henri Migeon, who was found carrying bad checks somehow traceable to Stavisky.

“Stavisky,” of course, also became a synonym for any financial crime. In August 1934, Pour Vous hinted at “a movie scandal worse than the Stavisky Affair, a French producer who has swindled more than 100 million francs.” The report then added, ominously, “this is just about to hit France,” although it’s not at all clear that any scandal like this one took place over the rest of the decade.

The far-right riot at the Place de la Concorde, February 6, 1934

Mostly, though, the press anticipated a film about the affair. In May 1934, La Critique cinématographique excitedly wrote, “A film about Stavisky!” The report added that this would be an American movie, from 20th Century-Fox, with George Arliss, famous for playing great historical figures (Disraeli, Hamilton), scheduled to star. The film seems never to have been made, although in 1937 Warner Bros. released Stolen Holiday, starring Kay Francis with Claude Rains playing a character modeled after Stavisky. In July, Pour Vous interviewed the actor Charles Vanel, who had an extraordinarily long career in French films (he would co-star in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la peur in 1953, for example, and appeared in movies until 1988). When asked by an interviewer, “What film would you like to make?” the reporter answered his own question and said, “I already know…you would like to play Stavisky!” There would also be commentary on the various newsreels that covered the affair and its aftermath, with La Critique cinématographique alerting readers in March 1934 to a Paramount newsreel that “presents an exclusive report on the Stavisky Affair” and that also included footage of the far-right riot.

All of these reporters, as well as other film fans, would be kept waiting, mostly because Stavisky’s crimes, at least to important French officials, still seemed too raw, too recent, and too dangerous. In the spring of 1934, the French studio As-Film, in cooperation with the German company Tobis, prepared La Banque Nemo for release throughout France. Directed by Marguerite Viel, who had already made a few films and who began her career working with Jean Epstein, La Banque Nemo was based on a 1931 play by one of the era’s more popular playwright’s, Louis Verneuil. A seemingly uncontroversial comedy, La Banque Nemo concerns the improbable rise of a penniless vendor to the leadership of one of the country’s great banks, cheating anyone he could along the way. Nevertheless, just before the film’s scheduled April release, the censorship commission refused to grant it an exhibition visa unless the producers agreed to significant cuts amounting to about one-fifth of the movie’s running time.

The press followed the case closely, with open letters, in the daily newspaper L’Oeuvre, between the film critic Lucien Wahl, decrying the decision that the film needed to be cut, and Edmond Sée, the head of the censorship commission, who suggested that the cuts were not as significant as reported, and that the filmmakers had agreed to them almost immediately. Then the producers of La Banque Nemo got involved, in their own letter in La Critique cinématographique. They, too, insisted on the severity of the cuts, and claimed that the problematic scenes were those “on which the entire architecture of the film rests.” But then they acknowledged the actual source of the commission’s discomfort, that a movie about a dishonest banking official seemed just a little too close to the recent Stavisky affair, that the banker in the film might make viewers think of Stavisky himself.

One of the posters for La Banque Nemo, from 1934

In their defense, the producers quite reasonably claimed that they simply adapted a play that had never caused any problems into a movie that, just a few months earlier, would have had no difficulty acquiring an exhibition visa. But now the commission, wary of any film about embezzling funds and pyramid schemes, cited regulations that had never before existed, and tried to suppress a film that appeared, to them, dangerous only because it seemed to parallel recent French history.

The producers of La Banque Nemo and the commission seem to have come to an agreement, because the film did play in Paris and presumably throughout France, although it is unclear how much had to be eliminated. As I’ve written before, French film censorship at the time was extremely complex (see, for example, While it’s hard to determine how many regulations had been written down, there were some things—mocking the military, or the government, or the Catholic church—that filmmakers knew to avoid. But that same commission might also have instant responses to film content, responses without precedent, that made it practically impossible for filmmakers to produce movies with any certainty that, from one day to the next, they would not violate newly discovered and implemented regulations, in this case regarding a banking scandal and the rioting that followed.

Once invoked, however, rules tended to stay in place, and this was certainly true of movie references to Stavisky.  In November 1939, Pour Vous reported on eighteen movies in production in France that had been interrupted by the beginning of World War Two a little more than two months earlier. These included Jean Grémillon’s Remorques, starring Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan, as well as Max Ophüls De Mayerling à Sarajevo, with Edwige Feuillère. Of those films, all but one had been cleared by the French censorship commission. The only movie not yet approved; Tempête sur Paris, starring Arletty and also Erich von Stroheim as a crooked businessman, because of the way it “implied a sort of sordid Stavisky affair.”  The commission finally gave Tempête an exhibition visa, although it is unclear if the filmmakers had to cut any scenes, and it premiered in Paris in April 1940, just two months before the Germans took over the city.

Jean-Paul Belmondo as the
title character in Alain Resnais’ 1974 film, Stavisky

After the war, even though French films were still subject to rigid censorship, the Stavisky restrictions seemed to ease. André Cayatte directed Le Dessous des cartes (1948), for instance, about a corrupt banker, and Pour Vous announced before the film was released, and in case anyone might have any doubts, that it was “based on the life of Stavisky.” And in 1974 there was the Alain Resnais film, Stavisky, with Jean-Paul Belmondo as the title character and Charles Boyer in one of his final roles (and also a score by Stephen Sondheim).  French censorship’s sensitivity to Stavisky may have been gone, but the banker himself still seemed to maintain his celebrity status in France. Clément Vautel, writing in Gringoire in the article that began this post, appeared prescient in 1934. Just after telling his readers of the interest Stavisky had in pornographic films, the journalist nevertheless spoke at least somewhat approvingly of the scale of the banker’s criminal accomplishments, and called him, justifiably, “the unforgettable Alexandre.”  

The Paris Cinema Project

The story of Jean Vigo’s third film, Zéro de conduite (1933), and its premiere in Paris is well-known. Just after it opened, the French government—or, more properly, the conseil supérieuir de cinéma—banned the short feature, but not because of any salacious or violent content. Rather, French censorship at the time tended to concern itself with the representation of the country’s important institutions, the government, for instance, or the church, or, as with Vigo’s film, the educational system. This comic film about a revolt at a boys’ school struck the conseil, never known for its sense of humor, as just too much. But what about Vigo’s next film, the last one he made before his death? What was the reception of L’Atalante (1934), his film that takes place mostly on a barge, about a romance between a barge captain and the woman he meets in Paris, and often considered, now, the director’s greatest movie?  

By the time that film opened, Vigo had achieved a certain celebrity, at least in cinema circles. His first film, À propos de Nice (1930), a twenty-minute avant-garde “documentary,” had made artists and intellectuals take notice, with this film about the city in the South of France very much in the mold of other films about significant urban spaces from the period, for instance Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927). Vigo followed that in 1931 with another short documentary, Taris et la natation, about the great French swimmer Jean Taris (who, at the Olympics the following year, would finish second, by one-tenth of a second, to future film star Buster Crabbe in the men’s 400- meter freestyle final). Then, of course, came Zéro de conduit and the resultant controversy, which probably helped build the anticipation for L’Atalante.

In the May 16, 1934 issue, the literary Magazine Marianne celebrated the “youthfulness” of L’Atalante, and inlcuded a photo of the director with one of the film’s stars, Dita Parlo

Most of the critical discussion of L’Atalante emphasizes that critics disparaged the film when it opened for a run of just a few days, at the end of April 1934 at the Palais-Rochechouart cinema in Paris’ eighteenth arrondissement. Vigo’s biographer, P.E. Salles-Gomes, transcribed some of the reviews, and many of those are indeed critical.  But there was also a significant portion of the press that was generally supportive during this “unofficial” opening. Excelsior, for instance, claimed that L’Atalante was “an original film, with beautiful images.” The review went on that not since Jean Grémillon’s 1928 film, Maldone, had audiences been treated to such wonderful scenes of the canals of France, and that the great comic actor Michel Simon finally had abandoned his all-too familiar habit of making funny faces and instead, in his role as the old sailor, achieved something of “human truth.” Comoedia wrote, simply, that the film provided “the poetry of the barge, the poetry of the river.”

We know that, after the first playdates, the company distributing the film, Gaumont, became concerned about the commercial prospects of L’Atalante. Gaumont insisted that Vigo re-edit the film, and also inserted the hit song Le Chaland qui passe—“The Passing Barge”—which had been recorded by the great chanteuse Lys Gauty. Gaumont even renamed the film Le Chaland qui passe when it had its official release in Paris and throughout France, hoping that the link to the popular song might bring in audiences that would otherwise stay away from a film that seemed just a little too obscure (listen to Gauty sing Le Chaland qui passe here,

Despite Gaumont’s fears about the film’s accessibility, in the weeks after L’Atalante left the Palais-Rochechouart but months before the actual release, the French press remained enthusiastic. The weekly literary newspaper, Marianne, ran a story about the film in mid-May 1934, with the writer calling L’Atalante “an intense, personal work,” and praising the “youthfulness” of the film, with Vigo himself still in his twenties. Two weeks later, at the end of May, Pour Vous, probably the most important film tabloid in France, ran an extended appreciation of the film by one of France’s most prominent art historians, Elie Faure, who pointed out that “true French cineastes are rare.” Then he added, about Vigo, “But here is one.”

The cover of Regards featured two of the stars of L’Atalante, Dita Parlo and Michel Simon, May 25, 1934

In July 1934, L’Atalante was announced as one of the French entries in the upcoming Venice film festival. Then, As Le Chaland qui passe, Vigo’s film started its actual run in Paris towards the middle of September 1934, at the very fashionable Colisée, a 620-seat cinema in the eighth arrondissement on the Champs-Elysées. Le Chaland played there for about three weeks, and the standard L’Atalante narrative has it that Gaumont withdrew the film from circulation completely after that unsuccessful run. In fact, three weeks was a fairly standard appearance at the Colisée during the period. When it left, for instance, Vigo’s film was replaced by the 1934 Jean Bernard-Derosne melodrama, Dernière heure, which stayed for only two weeks, probably in a reprise after an initial run in Paris some months before. There wouldn’t be much written about Le Chaland qui passe while it ran at the Colisée, but this seems to have been at least a moderately popular showing.

Just a month later, in fact, in the manner of most French movies at the time but also perhaps a sign of continuing curiosity about the film, Le Chaland qui passe opened throughout Paris. In early November, it played in cinemas in the seventh, tenth, fifteenth, and nineteenth arrondissements, and then continued to move throughout the city. But between that opening at the Colisée and these more diverse playdates, something else happened that might have had an impact on interest in the movie, and, of course, on the history of French cinema. On October 5, 1934, Jean Vigo died at 29, from the tuberculosis that afflicted him most of his life.

Pour Vous memorialized the director, and here we do get a sense of a harsher response to the film than we can find in the available materials. “Jean Vigo is dead,” and then the author continued, “And I reproach myself for speaking a little too harshly of his L’Atalante, as well as Zéro de conduite.” The obituary continued, calling Vigo a “pure artist,” who died “before having given us the full measure of his talent, which doubtless would have been great.” The following week, Pour Vous ran another appreciation of Vigo, calling him “one of our most personal and gifted young directors.” La Dépêche, covering the area around Toulouse, also reported on Vigo’s death, and called L’Atalante “a mixture of comedy and…brutal realism but then suddenly interspersed with glimpses of dreams.” L’Echo de Paris explained, simply, that “at the moment his last film, L’Atalante, completed its successful career at one of the great cinemas on the Champs-Elysées, we must announce the terrible death of Jean Vigo.”

Art historian Elie Faure’s review of L’Atalante, from Pour Vous, May 31, 1934

Following the Parisian release, Le Chaland qui passe made its way through the rest of France, at the Carillon cinema in Toulouse, for instance, in December 1935, and at the Royal in Rennes in July 1936. As far as I can tell, however, from the available materials, the film did not return to any commercial cinema in Paris for the rest of the decade. It might turn up now and then in the press, in Pour Vous, for instance, in a May 1939 appreciation of Michel Simon, who had been featured in the movie, or in a piece the same film tabloid ran the following month about Dita Parlo, who also had been one of the stars. I don’t doubt, however, that the film played in the city’s ciné-clubs during the period, given its increasing reputation and also Vigo’s own earlier dedication to the development of the clubs.

Michael Temple, for his 2005 monograph Jean Vigo, discovered that, in October 1940, just a few months after the Germans took control of France, there was a successful three-week run of L’Atalante at the Ursulines cinema in Paris’ fifth arrondissement. The Ursulines specialized in experimental or difficult films, and presented a restored version of Vigo’s film, one that looked more like the L’Atalante that premiered in 1934 at the Palais-Rochechouart. This screening probably began the rehabilitation of L’Atalante among a broad range of critics and cineastes, although the movie seems not to have shown again in France until the end of the war. Then, in July 1949, the film journal Objectif 49 organized a film festival of “cursed,” or “misunderstood” movies (le festival du film maudit), which included, among others, Grèmillon’s Lumiére d’été (1943), Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’or (1930), Robert Bresson’s Les Dames du Bois de Boulogne (1945), and Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Gesture (1941). Also on the roster, L’Atalante. A year later, in June 1950, L’Atalante played at the Cinémathèque française, perhaps for the first time, yet another sign of the film’s increased prestige.

Jean Cocteau’s article about the festival of
“Cursed Films,” including L’Atalante, in Combat, July 2, 1949

There were any number of French films from the period that had careers similar to that of L’Atalante, at least in its initial release, and many that were far more successful and returned to Parisian cinemas again and again, although few of them have had anything like the historical impact of that movie. I’ve chosen to write about it here in part because of having had the chance to see an astonishing 35mm print when I was a graduate student at UCLA in the late-1970s, and getting the opportunity to examine the same print, frame by frame and scene by scene, on a Steenbeck editing table. Since then, the film has been further restored to how it must have looked and sounded to those audiences at the Palais-Rochechouart in the spring of 1934. Just a few years ago, in 2016, the Gaumont company, the original distributor of Vigo’s movie, opened the Fauvettes cinema in the thirteenth arrondissement of Paris, as a place to see contemporary favorites and also new prints of classics. By the end of the cinema’s first year of operation, those films ranged from Harry Potter et la chambre des secrets (Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [2002]) to Max Ophül’s Madame de (1953) to Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016). But there was another film that played early in the history of the Fauvettes, a film now firmly established in the canon and one that has influenced generations of filmmakers; Vigo’s L’Atalante

The Paris Cinema Project

On Saturday night, September 23, 1933, Parisian theatrical impresario Oscar Dufrenne finished dinner in his apartment and returned to his office at the Palace cinema on the rue Faubourg-Montmartre in the ninth arrondissement. Dufrenne owned the Palace, as well as some other entertainment venues in the city. He may have been working late that night because he was in the final stages of closing the Palace as a cinema and reopening it as a legitimate theatre, and he was also working on a new show for his Casino de Paris. He dismissed the staff that was still at the cinema, but a few of them remained, and later, several of them described Dufrenne welcoming a young man—“about 25 years old, tall, thin, with a pale complexion, a strong hooked nose, and dressed in a fancy sailor’s costume,” as L’Action Française reported it. Just after midnight, Dufrenne’s secretary came to the office and found his boss’ body. Dufrenne had been murdered.

The front-page story in Le Quotidien, September 26, 1933, with a photo of Dufrenne, in the circle

Police determined that he had been struck multiple times on the head with a blunt object, but this only served to knock him out. The assailant then placed a mattress over his head and kept it there until Dufrenne had suffocated. Dufrenne’s wallet was missing and so was his wristwatch, but there were no signs of a struggle, and so he had clearly known the man who killed him. This began the “Drame Parisien,” as the newspaper L’Ouest Éclair referred to it, the hunt for the young man in the sailor suit. 

The French newspapers at the time were full of stories about grisly murders. When Le Quotidien ran the story, Dufrenne’s death shared space on the front page with the trial of Violette Nozière, the young woman who had murdered her father, who had been sexually assaulting her since she was a girl. When Le Journal published a story on September 29 about Dufrenne’s secretary, it shared space with yet another trial, this one of the Papin sisters, Christine and Léa, the maids who killed the woman they worked for and also her daughter. But the murder of the man who owned the Palace seemed to equal these other cases in terms of popular interest, in large part because Dufrenne was such a significant part of the Parisian cultural scene, and also because his homosexuality was well known, and his murder could be assumed to be an assignation that had gone terribly wrong.

Oscar Dufrenne, who was 58 when he was murdered, had been born in Lille, and as a young man worked in the rug industry. He came to Paris for a job at a café-concert, and from there worked his way up the entertainment industry until he owned several prominent theatres—including the Mayol and the Empire in addition to the Casino de Paris—along with one cinema, the Palace. He became such a prominent and influential local personality, that at the time of his death he also served as an elected official on the Paris city council, representing the Porte Saint-Denis district in the tenth arrondissement.

The Palace was still fairly new, having opened as a cinema in December, 1931, although it may have been a legitimate theatre before that, with this kind of back and forth not uncommon in Paris at the time. The first film to show there was Walter Ruttman’s documentary about sexually transmitted diseases, L’ennemi dans le sang (Feind im Blut [1931]), which played for more than a month, and for the next few years the Palace showed some new French films (Le Beguin de la garnison [1933] in April 1933, for instance), as well as some films that had opened in Paris a few months before and were starting to fan out to other cinemas (the Franco-Polish L’Ange du mal [1933] in June 1933), and reprises of French films or foreign movies. The last two films to play there, in the weeks before Dufrenne’s death and the Palace’s transition to a theatrical space, were Danish director Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s oblique horror film, Vampyr (1932), followed by a German comedy featuring Lil Dagover, who had a large following in France at the time, Théa, femme moderne (Das Abenteuer der Thea Roland [1932]). The Palace, then, was a significant cinema, but not on the scale of many others, including those nearby in the ninth arrondissement like the Paramount, the Max Linder, and the Olympia. 

A diagram of the murder scene, Le Journal, September 26, 1933

Dufrenne’s suspected assailant seemed hurried and careless, and so he left a roomful of evidence, in particular fingerprints, although it’s not at all clear that the police handled any of this very thoughtfully. The press covered the case closely, and typically expressed the authorities’ belief that the murderer might not have been a sailor at all, but instead wore a costume de fantaisie, as Le Matin put it on September 26, “as we see with some of the young men at certain establishments of pleasure.” Or as Le Journal explained that same day, “common among habitués of Montmartre,” an artistic and avant-garde center of Paris, and, by implication, a sexually promiscuous section of the city. In fact, La Volonté confirmed the suspicion, informing readers that, at the time of the murder, “there were only 85 or 90 sailors on leave in Paris, and there is no reason to suspect any of them.”

Just after the murder, during the manhunt, and throughout the subsequent trial, the press emphasized Dufrenne’s homosexuality as one of the causes of the crime as well as the sign of the decline of French culture. The story made its way throughout France and even to French North Africa, with L’Echo d’Alger weighing in, in December 1933, that “there is a long way from Oscar Wilde to Oscar Dufrenne,” with the former’s “vice” having become “truly vulgar” in the lifestyle—and demise—of the latter. La Gazette de Biarritz, pandering to the far-right, suggested that “Mussolini has purified Rome” and “Chancellor Hitler has purified Berlin,” and that the Dufrenne case was the surest indication that Paris, “thanks to its weakness,” needed the same treatment. In 1935, L’Humanité referred to Dufrenne’s “monstrous disease,” while in the same year, in L’Oeuvre, a navy veteran writing about the case, and assuming that the murderer indeed had also been in the navy, asked “Is it true that most sailors are inverted?” He claimed that he himself was “tortured” by the question.

There were plenty of apparent witnesses providing tips; one insisted that he had seen the murderer run from the scene dressed as a woman. Police forces throughout Europe cooperated on the case, and in late-October, Spanish authorities apprehended a suspect in Barcelona. Paul Laborie was charged with the crime; Le Figaro labelled his past “detestable,” and said that he made his living through “prostitution and narcotics.” Newspapers determined that Laborie must be guilty, but every time he appeared in court he denied that he had anything to do with the murder. “I have never seen Monsieur Dufrenne,” he said at his inquest. “And I’ve never dressed as a sailor.”

Some witnesses had been far more certain early on, but then had some doubts at the trial. A Russian hairdresser claimed to have seen quite clearly Dufrenne picking up the sailor the night of the murder and had identified Laborie early on. Under oath, however, all he could say was that “Laborie looks strangely like him…But I don’t swear it’s him.” There was, as well, some contradictory testimony. Laborie’s brother, Mikael, insisted that both he and Paul had been at their father’s apartment the evening of the murder, but the father himself said that, really, it had been the next night, just before Paul left for Bordeaux and then Spain. Then the elder Laborie told the court what Mikael had confided to him during that visit: “Paul is capable of anything.”

Mistinguett, on the right, attends the inquest, L’Intransigeant, March 7, 1934

All of this made for sensational news, and with the various inquests and trial stretching out for over two years, the courtroom itself became a place to see and be seen. That most famous of all Parisians, the chanteuse Mistinguett, almost certainly an acquaintance of Dufrenne’s, made an appearance at one of the hearings—and in all of the French newspapers—in March 1934.

The actual trial lasted only a few days at the end of October 1935. Besides witnesses changing their stories, the case had plenty of problems for the prosecution, some of them their own doing. During their investigation, Parisian authorities had discovered the sailor suit, that costume de fantaisie, that they were certain Laborie had worn on the night of the murder. In court, in a scene that anticipates by sixty years O.J. Simpson struggling to put on the glove during his murder trial, prosecutors confidently asked Laborie to put on the sailor suit. The outfit was ridiculously small, the pants barely covering his knees, and as Le Journal reported, the jurors “could not help smiling except by biting their lips,” and had to “suppress” their laughter. After all of that, they deliberated for only twenty minutes and came back with their decision. Laborie had been acquitted.

L’Oeuvre announces the verdict, October 24, 1935

On front pages across the country, newspapers told readers the news: Paul Laborie est acquitté. No other suspect was ever arrested, and the case was never solved. Newspapers weren’t so sure, though. Most of them felt certain that Laborie was the murderer and kept saying so. At the end of the case, a reporter in Le Journal lamented that “this sad and repugnant character” had been found innocent, and then asked a question to which the answer, to him at least, seemed obvious. “Has this one escaped punishment?”

The Paris Cinema Project

“Pola Negri is gravely ill!” (Pola Negri est gravement malade!”). That was the headline on June 10, 1937, in the Paris newspaper Le Journal. And also in Le Jour, and L’Oeuvre, and Ce Soir, and Paris-soir, and the next day in La Dépeche and L’Echo de Paris. Several of the articles ran alongside the same photo of Negri in one of her recent films, Mazurka (1935), that was being reissued throughout France. Other newspapers ran the story as well, detailing how the star had to be rushed from Bayreuth, where she had gone for the Wagner festival, to Berlin. As a sign of the relative importance of the story, many dailies ran it on the front page. Ce Soir placed it at the top of the page, where a reader would be sure to see it, and then would have to scan to the bottom to read about Jean Renoir’s newest film, La Grande illusion (1937), having its premiere at the very fashionable Marivaux cinema in Paris’ second arrondissement.  Negri’s sudden health crisis made for major news in France. But what was the nature her illness? And what might this tell us about movie stardom just before World War Two?

On June 10,1937, Le Journal, along with many other French newspapers, announced that Pola Negri was “gravely ill”

By the time of her stay in the Berlin clinic, Negri had been an international star for two decades. She had been born in Poland and worked on the stage there, then moved to Berlin to make movies, and was “discovered” by Ernst Lubitsch. They made several films together that were hits in Europe as well as the United States, after which both the director and the star went to Hollywood. In the US, Negri made headlines for her romances with Charlie Chaplin and Rudolph Valentino, but the American phase of her career ended with the development of recorded sound and her difficulty overcoming her thick Polish accent (and, of course, as with many stars from the period, there may well have been other reasons for the decline of her Hollywood career). She returned to Germany and continued to appear in films there and remained a major star throughout Europe at least until the end of the 1930s, although her final film would be an American one, Walt Disney’s The Moon-Spinners (1964).

In the months leading up to the incident in Bayreuth, Negri had been in the French news fairly frequently. There was Mazurka, of course, her 1935 film playing once again throughout France and North Africa. She was also filming Madame Bovary in Germany (probably at the time of her illness), and the press followed the progress of the movie closely, often expressing the perfection of the casting, the temperamental diva Negri bringing just the right amount of her own bovarisme to Flaubert’s heroine. As Je Suis Partout put it in May 1937, “Mme. Pola Negri…has her own energetic, explosive nature,” making her, in fact, ideal for the part.

But there were other stories, more troubling ones. On April 3, 1937, the leftist newspaper L’ère nouvelle asked in a headline, “Does Hitler Love Pola Negri?” The article explained that Hitler had “succumbed to the exotic charms” of Negri, who had herself been seen many times in the company of the Führer. The next day, Le Matin more or less repeated the story, writing that “Adolf Hitler has succumbed to the charms of the actress Pola Negri.” Then, in early June, just days before Negri became ill, the film tabloid Pour Vous—perhaps the most important movie publication in the country, and one that just a few weeks earlier had applauded Negri’s casting in Madame Bovary—ran a story on “The Three Stars of the Third Reich,” all of them women. The first was Emmy Sonnemann, the wife of the commander of Germany’s Luftwaffe, Hermann Göring. Sonnemann had made a few movies, but her celebrity came mostly through her marriage. Next, there was Leni Riefensthal, whom the article referred to as “the disgraced muse” because she had, apparently, fallen out of favor with Hitler, perhaps because of “disagreements of a personal nature,” or because the Führer had discovered that she “really did not have enough Aryan ancestors to be able to play a Valkyrie in the fiercely anti-Semitic regime.”  Whatever the reason, this left room for the third star, the “new favorite,” Pola Negri, whom Hitler considered an “authentic Aryan,” and who had replaced Riefensthal in “the Führer’s heart.”

Le Matin headlines that the Nazi leader “had succumbed” to Negri’s charms, from April 4, 1937

In her very gossipy autobiography, the aptly titled Memoirs of a Star (spoiler alert: Chaplin does not come off well), Negri expresses her outrage at stories like these. She says, in fact, that she had stopped in Paris “for some shopping” when the Pour Vous story came out, and that the whole thing “was a tissue of lies from beginning to end.” She claims that she “had never even met Hitler,” and “immediately instructed my French attorney to institute libel action against the publication.” Negri ends the story triumphantly: “Needless to say, I won the suit.”

I’ve found no evidence in Pour Vous or any other newspaper that such a suit was ever filed, but it certainly may have been. There were, however, any number of stories linking Negri to Hitler, several of which referenced the actress having replaced Riefensthal as the object of the Führer’s affection (in fact, Riefensthal’s “disgrace” became a news story itself in France, covered by several newspapers).

Pour Vous, in the June 1, 1937 issue, lists “The Three Stars of the Third Reich,” Leni Riefenstahl (right), Emmy Sonnemann (left), and Pola Negri (center)

None of the initial articles about Negri’s illness could quite identify the condition that required the actress to be rushed to the clinic in Berlin. After a few days, though, the crisis seemed to pass. On June 13, Ce Soir reported that it had been nothing more than severe food poisoning that struck Negri, and that she was recovering quickly. A day later, L’Echo de Paris informed readers that “Pola Negri is better.” I have found only one reference at all to the illness in American newspapers, a two-dozen word piece in the Los Angeles Times from June 11, “Pola Negri Makes Recovery in Illness.” A little more than a week later, the Times ran another, much longer piece, this one letting readers know that Hitler would not be marrying Riefensthal because Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels had discovered that she was a “Jewess,” and that Negri had been rumored to have attracted Hitler’s attention since then.

It’s possible that the story of Negri’s poor health had been made up by Negri herself, or perhaps a publicist, trying to generate sympathy for an actress whose rumored personal life was becoming more and more complex, and more and more politicized. In her memoir, Negri does discuss an illness and being rushed to Berlin. She writes that she “was stricken with violent pains,” but that the diagnosis was just “a touch of typhus,” and she was quickly better. But she places this incident in 1938, about a year after all of the articles in the newspapers.

At the very least, true or not, food poisoning or typhus, the story tells us something about her celebrity at the time. Negri had been one of the great stars in the world in 1925. A dozen or so years later, American newspapers barely noticed when she seemed so “gravely ill,” but nevertheless, this story of a German actress’ health was a major news item in France, and probably the rest of Europe. Her illness coincided with the death of the American star Jean Harlow, and some newspapers ran the stories next to each other, as if Negri might be the next to die.

After Madame Bovary, Negri made only five more films, her career showing us the vagaries of stardom generally, perhaps. Or, as Negri indicates in her autobiography, her career may have been another casualty of World War Two, and by the end of the conflict both she and her movies had been more or less forgotten. In 1937, however, this Polish actress making films in Germany was one of the biggest stars in France, and both her private affairs and her health occupied the country’s film journals and everyday press, and no doubt millions of readers and fans.  

L’Echo de Paris, from June 14, 1937, assures readers that “Pola Negri is better”

The Paris Cinema Project

“Then they even managed to censor Topaze!” That was the complaint of French director Louis Daquin in the January 5, 1951 issue of La Nouvelle Critique, a Marxist journal of arts and politics. The title of Daquin’s article invoked Lenin’s famous assertion, “Le Cinéma: ‘Pour nous, de tous les arts, le plus important’” (“The cinema: ‘For us, the most important of all the arts’”), with the filmmaker lamenting the ongoing sad state of the French film industry. There was the disaster of the Blum-Byrnes agreements, the French-American trade contracts that so disadvantaged French cinema against the movies from Hollywood that dominated France’s exhibition sites. There was, as well, the sheer difficulty of getting films made, so that the country’s most important directors—and the same problem comes up again and again in the writing about cinema during this period—hardly worked at all: René Clair had made one film in four years, Marcel Carné two in five years, Claude Autant-Lara one film in three years. Then, on top of all that, when the people in charge of the movie business had so many more important things to worry about, the French film censorship commission had seen fit to insist that one of the country’s greatest directors, Marcel Pagnol, eliminate dialogue from his latest film, taken from his own celebrated play, Topaze (1951).

An advertisement for Topaze, in L’Intransigeant, February 3, 1951

My post last month looked at calls from the French left in 1950 for the commission de censure to rescind the exhibition visa for William Wellman’s virulently anti-Soviet postwar melodrama, Le Rideau de fer (Iron Curtain [1949]) [See Most prominently, Georges Sadoul demanded that the film be pulled from French screens. Typically, however, the commission ignored such complaints, and frequently angered French intellectuals, artists, and critics, who usually rejected film censorship, or, at least, the opacity of so many censorship decisions.

The French censorship bureaucracy was nothing if not dense. The commission de censure operated out of the Department of the Interior and ruled not only on film but on radio broadcasts as well. French film censorship resembled the American model in a few central ways, but also differed significantly from it. As with the Production Code Administration (PCA), which controlled Hollywood films starting in 1930, the commission de censure examined scripts from French film companies before production began, to make suggestions about scenes or eliminate them altogether. Just like the PCA, the commission then reviewed films after they were finished, and cleared them for exhibition, although perhaps much more than the PCA, the commission seemed willing to insist on significant post-production changes. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there was no written production code, as there was in Hollywood, that the members of the commission followed, but they tended to concentrate on depictions of the French government, the military, and the Catholic church. Finally, while Hollywood films certainly dealt with government edicts about film content, these were mostly local, from cities or states, or from foreign countries. The federal government itself did not usually get involved in matters of film content. Instead, the PCA came under the purview of the film industry, as opposed to the French system, which the national government administered.  

Topaze seems to have been cleared by the commission when Pagnol submitted the script. The problems began later, after the film had been finished and was ready for its premiere. The newspaper L’Intransigeant reported on the case at the end of January 1951, headlining “Censorship Declares War on Laughter” in the actions taken against Pagnol’s comedy, and several news sources included the dialogue that the commission found objectionable.  In one such instance, the great star Fernandel, as Topaze, tells his costar, Hélène Perdrière, that “Lying is the basis of any political regime,” and then he adds, about a sensitive situation in Morocco, “It’s not dishonest…but like all colonial affairs, it involves bribes.” For the commission, this apparent equation of Fourth Republic France with fascist or communist governments, and this critique of French colonial authority, was simply too much.

“Censorship Declares War on Laughter!” L’Intransigeant, January 20, 1951

More than anything else, it was the dialogue about France’s colonies that caused the greatest alarm to the commission, as members also objected to Fernandel-as-Topaze discussing, in another scene, corrupt land deals in Madagascar. In fact, just to be safe, the commission demanded that all of the film’s several references to Madagascar be removed. Officials on the commission apparently missed these perceived affronts to French imperial authorities when they first read Pagnol’s script, but the insults seemed excessive to them when they saw the finished film.

These sudden demands for cuts made for some difficult early screenings of Topaze. The film kept its scheduled premiere in Monte Carlo, at a benefit for the Red Cross, which left Pagnol no time to attend to the changes with any care. As a result, the audience at the benefit watched the scenes that had so concerned the commission, but with the sound removed, so that no one might hear the criticisms of French colonial policy. As L’Aurore reported it at the end of January 1951, “the image remains, the lips move, but nothing is heard.” After the premiere, Pagnol had the time to remove all references to Madagascar. He replaced them, instead, with the actors dubbing in “Tananarive.” The change satisfied the censors, who, according to reports in Ce Soir, apparently didn’t realize that this was, simply, the capital of Madagascar.

Ce Soir mocks the censorship of Pagno’s film, letting readeres know that “The censor prohibits Topaze from going to Madagascar but allows it to stay in Tananarive,” January 31, 1951

The press continued to report on this and other stupidities related to the case. In early-February, L’Intransigeant noted that this version of Topaze would be the third made in France, and even before that, Pagnol’s play had been a huge hit in Paris and elsewhere, including in the United States, where Frank Morgan and Myrna Loy had starred on Broadway in an English translation. In 1930, Russia declared Topaze “a useful play for the people,” and it had also been performed in such places as Japan and Egypt. Hollywood had even made a film version, with John Barrymore in the title role and Myrna Loy, once again, co-starring. Never, in France, Russia, Egypt, Japan, the United States, or anywhere else, had Topaze ever caused any concern before these current problems with the commission.

Le Carrefour found some humor in all of this and acknowledged that “the case could even have been much funnier.” The 1933 French film version of Topaze, directed by Louis Gasnier, had still been in circulation until its exhibition visa expired in September 1950. Such visas had to be renewed periodically by the commission for all films, but Pagnol, who had produced this earlier movie, decided not to try, probably not wanting the direct competition for his new Topaze. But had he done so, the commission would necessarily have had to approve the film, because it had done so several times without hesitation over the years. If the two films played in France at the same time, Le Carrefour pointed out that there would have been both an authorized version of Topaze and a censored one, both of them based on the same play and both overseen by Pagnol. The newspaper lamented that this was not the case, and that the commission would not be forced to explain its simultaneous approval and disapproval of virtually the same work.  

An apparently acceptable print of Topaze opened in Paris at the beginning of February 1951 at three of the more important cinemas in the city—the Biarritz and Colisée in the eighth arrondissement and the Gaumont-Palace in the eighteenth. The film made its way through the city over the next few months and scenes would also show up now and again on the radio. More than most other films, a new one by Pagnol was a very big deal and a significant cultural event.

“Under the Direction of Marcel Pagnol, Topaze Appears on the Screen for the Third Time,” L’Intransigeant, February 3, 1951

Once the film began its general run throughout France, however, the press seemed to lose interest in Topaze, at least in terms of the controversy over its censorship. They nevertheless maintained their contempt for the commission, writing about a new case in spring, 1951, and one that seemed even more egregious. That was when the commission announced that they would forbid director André Cayatte from even beginning production on his film about the Seznec Affair, a notorious French murder case from the 1920s. While Topaze didn’t come up in discussions of this film, Cayatte’s movie and Pagnol’s seemed to mark the broad reach of the commission, halting films before they even began on the one hand because the subject matter itself seemed too dangerous, and on the other micromanaging inconsequential lines of dialogue that poked even modest fun at French governmental authority. At least in the early-1950s, the control of the commission ranged all the way from murder to Madagascar.

The Paris Cinema Project

On July 15, 1949, the Parisian newspaper L’Aurore announced the news quietly enough, with a small advertisement, that William Wellman’s anti-Russian Cold War melodrama, Le Rideau de fer (Iron Curtain [1948]), would be opening at the chic Avenue cinema on the rue du Colisée in the fashionable eighth arrondissement. The far more significant premiere, or at least it seemed at the time, was the new documentary Leclerc, about the Free French general Philippe Leclerc who had died just eighteen months before. Newspapers that day ran stories about the crowd at the 2500-seat Rex cinema in the second arrondissement lining up to see the film, among them Charles DeGaulle. They also covered the ceremony inaugurating the newly-named avenue Leclerc in the fourteenth arrondissement, the old avenue d’Orléans, a street honoring the Bourbon monarchy now doing the same for a hero of the Liberation.

The advertisement for Le Rideau de fer in L’Aurore, June 15, 1949

By the next day, things had changed. The communist newspaper L’Humanité called Le Rideau de fer an “anti-Soviet provocation,” and alerted readers that this “despicable film was released yesterday” by 20th Century Fox, with the full approval of the former American Secretary of War James Forrestal. L’Humanité added that Forrestal had recently committed suicide after having been placed in a psychiatric hospital, his apparent madness one of the reasons for his enthusiastic support of Wellman’s film.  The newspaper said that Rideau de fer had already caused protests in Canada, Belgium, and Italy, and then L’Humanité assumed that Parisians, as well, would refuse to tolerate this “outrage to the heroes of Stalingrad.”

The audience that first night interrupted the screening twice, and one man was arrested. L’Humanité celebrated these brave spectators, while L’Aurore and other, more conservative papers, assumed that the demonstrators were working on orders of the French Communist Party, and assured readers that many in the audience had applauded the film.

L’Humanité, from June 16, 1949, calls the film “an anti-soviet provocation,” and reports on the spectators who protested the screening

L’Humanité pressed the issue for the next few weeks, reporting on new demonstrations at the Avenue cinema, “despite the presence of a large police force…equipped with helmets and gas masks.” But other newspapers also kept the story going. There was L’Aurore, of course, and also Ce Soir, which headlined on June 26th that “Police Brutalize Spectators Who Protest Against Le Rideau de fer,” and detailed the anti-communist agents who rushed into the crowd, “truncheons raised, especially attacking women.” In the name of public safety, Ce Soir concluded, “Isn’t it time, instead of bludgeoning the population, to stop showing this infamous film?”

Most of the writers, critics, and intellectuals weighing in on the topic felt the same way. In fact, this put all of them in the unusual position of supporting film censorship rather than arguing against it, which was more typically their approach. During the late-1940s and early-1950s, the bureaucracy of French film censorship was extraordinarily complex, but for most of that period a commission de contrôle worked within the Ministry of the Interior, passing judgments on movies as well as radio programming, and in the case of foreign films like Le Rideau de fer, issuing visas allowing for exhibition or withholding them, and thereby preventing them from entering the country.

Perhaps more than anyone else, the great French film critic and historian Georges Sadoul wrote about the case of Le Rideau de fer, in Les Lettres Françaises, a daily newspaper of arts, culture, and politics. He called the film a “provocation to war,” and claimed that the commission de contrôle had, in fact, initially refused to grant a visa precisely because of that. But then, after pressure from the United States, the commission changed its mind, because American politicians believed that anti-Soviet, pro-war propaganda constituted “the first duty of Marshallized countries,” that is, those countries, like France, benefitting from President Truman’s Marshall plan and thus subject to strongarm tactics from Washington, DC.

When Sadoul saw the movie, the “well-to-do audience there applauded,” and he wrote that he recognized in that crowd the same people who applauded Hitler on his “triumphant entry into Vienna.” Perhaps somewhat humorlessly, Sadoul compared Le Rideau de fer to a recent reissue of Ernst Lubitsch’s great comedy Ninotchka (1939), both of them “elements of a systematic war campaign, which a vigorous struggle must destroy.”

The practices of French film censorship continued to create controversy. On June 30th, two weeks into the showing of Le Rideau de fer at the Avenue, L’Humanité alleged that the commission de contrôle, once it had cleared the film under “exceptional authorization,” had originally only allowed thirty screenings. The newspaper continued that the showings had well exceeded that number, and would soon approach one hundred, as the Avenue played the film five times a day. I have found no similar instance in Paris of screenings being so highly regulated; it’s possible the commission did so with certain controversial films, or as part of the arrangement made with the State Department in the US, which would have brokered the Rideau de fer deal that Sadoul mentioned. Nevertheless, it would not be extraordinary during this period for the commission to make rulings about films that it would then not enforce, or, at least, for the press to assail the commission for these apparent inconsistencies.

Le Rideau de fer kept showing, and critics kept complaining about it. L’Humanité brought up the thirty-screening limit once again on July 6th and referred to the film as particularly insulting because France was, at the time, engaged in trade talks with the Soviet Union. In fact, L’Humanité asserted that the spectators who continued to protest against the film “showed more concern for the national interest than our current leaders,” who allowed the screenings to continue despite the film’s “gross insults against an ally of France.”

The poster for William Wellman’s Le Rideau de fer

Then, suddenly, just a few days later, the film’s run at the Avenue ended, and while the decision to withdraw the film was based on a legal technicality, exceeding the thirty-screening limit had nothing to do with it. Instead, as Ce Soir reported, Wellman and the others responsible for the music used in Le Rideau de fer “had plundered the works of various Soviet composers, without asking their permission.” As a result, the company Le Chant du Monde, “the exclusive publisher in France for the works of [the Russian composer] Sergei Prokofiev, had lodged a complaint” and obtained a favorable court decision based on a law on the books since 1793, “authorizing the seizure of works published without the agreement of their authors.”

Of course, when we think of Prokofiev and film music now, we remember the composer’s score for Eisentein’s 1938 historical epic Alexander Nevsky. In the case of Le Rideau de fer, though, his music accompanied a crude, anti-Soviet propaganda piece. Rather than helping to celebrate Russian history, as was the case with Nevsky, in this instance Prokofiev’s music accomplished what Sadoul and other critics and protesters could not; it made French officials take this depiction of contemporary Russia completely off the screen.   

Yet another William Wellman film, this one a western starring Gregory Peck and Anne Baxter, La Ville Abandonnée (Yellow Sky [1948]) replaced Le Rideau de fer at the Avenue cinema. As far as I can tell, at least from the available materials, Le Rideau de fer never returned to Paris, or anywhere else in France, throughout the 1950s, at a time when Hollywood films would typically come and go every few years. This may have been because of a decision by the commission de contrôle, or because the Prokofiev dispute had never been resolved, or for some other reason entirely. The issues raised by Le Rideau de fer, however, remained a significant aspect of French film culture.

Georges Sadoul’s report on this “provocation to war,” in Les Lettres françaises, June 23, 1949

Just a few months later, in fact, in February 1950, Sadoul wrote about censorship and the Soviet Union once again in Les Lettres Françaises, this time because the commission de contrôle had seen fit to ban Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s latest film, Mitchourine (1949). This biopic about a Ukrainian agronomist seemed innocuous enough in terms of its subject matter; the commission apparently refused to grant it an exhibition visa simply because it was a Russian film. Sadoul reproduced a letter from some of the leading filmmakers and film critics in France—including himself, Jean Dellanoy, Jean Cocteau, and many others—assailing this assault on “the liberty of expression” and “the liberty of the spectator,” to say nothing of the insult to Dovzhenko, a great filmmaker.

In May, Yves Hugonnet in Combat reported that the commission had seen fit to ban another film from the USSR, not just Mitchourine but also the war drama Rencontre sur l’Elbe (1949), about Soviet espionage. Hugonnet added that he knew of no similar American film that had been denied an exhibition visa, a clear reference to Le Rideau de fer. Thus Wellman’s film remained a sort of reference point in arguments for and against censorship during the period, provoking the French left in particular in debates about the motives of the commission de contrôle, the relationships between popular culture and geopolitics, and the rights and responsibilities of viewers and exhibitors.

The Paris Cinema Project

“Sessue Hayakawa is one of the greatest film artists of our time.” That’s how L’Ouest-Éclair, a newspaper that covered Rennes and the surrounding area in Northwestern France, described the Japanese movie star in March 1927. By that time, Hayakawa had been a major celebrity in France for at least a decade, since the sensation of his starring role in Cecil B. DeMille’s Forfaiture (The Cheat [1915]). When that film opened in Paris at the Omnia-Pathé cinema in the second arrondissement in July 1916, Le Figaro claimed, “It’s better than theatre!” and then called the movie “a pure marvel,” and made perhaps the first claim for Hayakawa’s genius. In this film, Figaro insisted, Hayakawa attained “the highest summit of art.” In fact, for the rest of the teens, 1920s, and 1930s, Hayakawa remained one of the greatest stars in the country, and probably ranked second only to Josephine Baker as the leading “exotic” in French culture.

By the end of the 1920s, Hayakawa had come to stand for the end of a cinema that, for some, could never be surpassed. In April 1930, the film journal Cinéa published an issue on sound cinema, with film entrepreneur Jean Tedesco lamenting in an opening editorial that “silent cinema is in its death throes.”  In another article, Henri Baranger wrote that, regardless of how performers might now speak, he himself still thought of the great faces of silent cinema, and the two he mentioned as the most memorable, the ones that best signified the value of a now-lost art form, were those of William S. Hart and Sessue Hayakawa.

During the transition to sound, Hayakawa remained a major star in France.  Throughout the early-1930s, newspapers and magazines often sold publicity photos of stars like Suzy Vernon, Nazimova, Mae Murray, and Huguette Duflos, and Hayakawa was always among them. Indeed, he seems to have enjoyed a more sustained popularity than many other French film stars, certainly greater than another Asian actor who spent most of his movie career in France, Valeriy Inkijinoff, who was himself both celebrated and objectified throughout the period.

Cinéma, from June 15, 1927, lets fans know that they could buy photos of their favorite movie stars, including Sessue Hayakawa, at the lower left

Hayakawa made three films during the 1930s that generated intense excitement in France. In 1931, he went to Hollywood to make La Fille du dragon (The Daughter of the Dragon [1931]), and the French press gushed again and again over this film, in which the great actor’s co-star would be another of the country’s exotic favorites, Anna May Wong. As a sign, perhaps, of Hayakawa’s sex appeal at the time, the woman’s magazine Femina told readers in October 1931 that “we wait with great anticipation for Sessue Hayakawa in La Fille du Dragon.” But his popularity was nothing if not broad, and in March 1938 the leading Jewish periodical in France, La Tribune Juive, ran an oversized advertisement when another of his great films from the decade, Forfaiture (1937), appeared in Mulhouse, in Eastern France. Hayakawa played the same part in this remake, directed by Marcel L’Herbier, that he did in DeMille’s original from 1915, and the ad showcased his name in much larger font than that of either of his costars, Victor Francen and Louis Jouvet, as if Hayakawa was the central reason to see the movie.

It was Yoshiwara, however, Max Ophüls’ film from 1937, that especially excited French film journalism. Newspapers began talking about the movie well before it started filming, with the very highbrow Journal des débats politiques et litteraires telling readers, in January 1937, that Ophüls would direct from a screenplay by Maurice Dekobra, and that the film was of special interest because it would “mark the return to the screen of Sessue Hayakawa” (even though the actor had been active throughout the decade).   A year later, when the film finally had appeared, L’Ouest Éclair emphasized Hayakawa’s role, and noted the performance of this “universally regarded Japanese artist.”

A poster for Max Ophüls’ 1937 film, Yoshiwara, with an image of Hayakawa peering through a window

When they weren’t praising his artistry, French newspapers emphasized Hayakawa’s mastery of the Oriental arts.In May 1939, for example, Figaro ran an article ostensibly written by Hayakawa, Danse Japonaise, et esprit samouraï, in which the actor informed readers that he would be performing a demonstration of kendo “on the occasion of the Japanese gala at the dance archives” in Paris. Asserting his own expertise on the subject, Hayakawa wrote that, “if the samurai chose the épee as an emblem, that’s because, for them, it symbolized purity, loyalty, and courage.”

Mostly, though, French newspapers stressed Hayakawa’s intense mystery, in fact quite literally, as that of a man who seemed, occasionally, to just disappear. In May 1931, L’Ouest Éclair ran a photo of the actor on the front page, and breathlessly let readers know that “the famous Japanese cinema artist, presumed dead or missing,” had been seen in a stage production in Tokyo. Six years later, in 1937, numerous sources announced that Hayakawa was indeed still alive after having been a presumed suicide, committing “hari-kiri,” as La Gazette de Bayonne put it, when he lost two million francs at a casino in Monte Carlo. I have yet to find any original article announcing Hayakawa’s death, but there were many pieces retracting the story, assuring readers of Hayakawa’s health and well-being, and attributing the original news to the actor’s inscrutability, to the difficulty of knowing anything about him. 

L’Ouest Éclair reports that Hayakawa, rumored to have died or disappeared, has been seen–and photographed–in Tokyo

Hayakawa claimed to have joined the French resistance during World War Two, but it’s difficult to ascertain the truth of this. We do know, though, that he remained in France, unable to leave because of the German occupation. He made a few films there and maintained enough of his celebrity status to turn up in Nazi movie publicity. The Germans hoped to use the cinema as a sign that everything remained normal in France, and particularly in Paris, and published a gossipy movie magazine, Ciné-Mondial, mostly about films and stars and the benevolence of the Germans now in charge of the film industry (see my post from March 22, 2016, at Through the magazine, they began a ciné-club in Paris, less to show movies than to have gatherings of fans and their favorite performers. In July 1944, Ciné-Mondial alerted readers that Notre Club would be hosting a gathering of stars telling stories about their careers, including Louis Jourdan, Bernard Blier, and Sessue Hayakawa.

La Gazette de Bayonne, from January 26, 1937, reports that Hayakawa is indeed still alive

The actor may well have been a member of the resistance, or, at the very least, his work with the Germans during the war didn’t seem to have counted, in postwar France, as active collaboration. French newspapers, however, reported far less frequently about Hayakawa after the liberation, probably a sign of the vagaries of stardom and a general diminishment of Hayakawa’s fame rather than anything else. When they did take notice, it still tended to be to praise Hayakawa. Combat, for instance, which had been founded during the occupation and called itself the newspaper of “the resistance and the revolution,” and which could hardly be accused of celebrating collaborators, ran a piece in July, 1950, congratulating Hayakawa on his award as best actor, for Captives à Bornéo (Three Came Home [1950]), in the first Vichy film festival (the best actress that year would be Anna Magnani, for her role in William Dieterle’s Vulcano [1950]). That Hayakawa remained such a great star in France for almost thirty years starting around 1915, and then subsequently still enjoyed a lesser form of celebrity, is remarkable enough.

Between the wars, the period of Hayakawa’s greatest fame in France, the French cinema produced a broad range of leading men who defined various forms of masculinity; from the brooding Jean Gabin, the middle-aged Michel Simon, the heavy, tragic Harry Baur, the everyman Fernandel, and many more. Hayakawa, however, seemed to represent something different from any of them, and to generate a particular fascination in his audiences. In a combination of his extraordinary skill as well as France’s racism and determined exoticization of Japan and the rest of Asia, only Hayakawa, among the actors who achieved such a great celebrity in France, could be described as he was in that article in L’Ouest-Éclair, the one at the opening of this post that referred to him as among the “greatest film artists.” Hayakawa alone, the article insisted, embodied “all that the human soul can know of the sublime.”

The Paris Cinema Project

“Two stars will be born!” That was how the movie tabloid Pour Vous announced its new contest in December, 1932, inviting readers to vote for an absolutely unknown young man and woman to become the next great movie stars. Pour Vous had gathered photographs not only from France, but also “Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Italy,” and ran 15 in each issue for the rest of the year and the beginning of 1933. As a sign of the seriousness of the contest, Pour Vous solicited the help of some major celebrities, including Suzy Vernon, Albert Préjean, and Jean Gabin. These experts would choose the new stars, who were guaranteed an appearance in an upcoming Pathé film, and the fans who voted for the same newcomers were in line for some significant prizes: a camera, a purse, a record player, an elegant cigarette holder. In December 1933, Pour Vous announced the young woman who had won, Adrienne Trinckquel, who was introduced at an evening gala sponsored by the tabloid, but who seems to have had no subsequent movie career. I have yet to identify the man who won. Despite the uncertainty of the results, this yearlong contest was hardly extraordinary for the period. In fact, the film culture of France, from the 1920s at least through World War Two, seems marked by the constancy of contests like the one in Pour Vous, which involved movie fans throughout country.

Newspapers had solicited similar votes from readers well before this competition in Pour Vous, although not always specifically about film. In 1921, for instance, the playwright and novelist Clément Vautel wrote disapprovingly in Le Journal about a contest in which one of those “feminine reviews,” with the gender itself casting, perhaps, some doubt on the results, posed a question to its readers. “Which woman in history would you like to be,” the review asked, “in the past or currently?” To Vautel’s dismay, only one respondent chose Joan of Arc. Sarah Bernhardt fared slightly better, with 78 votes. Moving down the cultural ladder, from theatre to music hall, the great chanteuse Mistinguett was the choice of 364 voters. But then there was the winner, the American movie actress Pearl White, star of the sensational serial, Les Mystères de New York (The Exploits of Elaine [1914]), with almost 5,000 votes. For the dependably snobbish Vautel, this as much as anything marked the full decline of postwar French culture.

“Two stars will be born,” with photos of some of the contestants, Pour Vous, January 12, 1933

In the same year, the Parisian newspaper La Liberté ran a “Star Contest”—concours des vedettes, which became the standard term for such things—asking readers to vote on the greatest of all French theatrical stars, the most likely to follow in the tradition of Bernhardt and Gabrielle Réjane. The first such concours that I’ve found about movie stars in particular, although I don’t doubt there were earlier ones, dates from 1923, when the newspaper Le Petit Provençal, which covered southeastern France, announced a competition in partnership with the Grand Casino cinema in Marseille, which seems to have been owned by the American film company Paramount. Fans who bought tickets there were eligible to vote on a list of favorite male and female Paramount stars, American and French, some of whom are still well known today—John Barrymore, Fatty Arbuckle, William S. Hart, Dorothy Gish, and Gloria Swanson, for instance—and some who are more obscure, like James Kirkwood and Alma Rubens. A few months later, the results were announced; fans chose Agnes Ayres as the most popular actress and Wallace Reid as favorite actor.

Pour Vous ran contests like this one, at least occasionally, throughout the 1930s. In February, 1931, for instance, the tabloid asked readers, “Whom do you prefer? Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich?” This was about a month after the sensational opening of Dietrich’s L’Ange bleu (1930) in Paris, and Pour Vous gathered votes from average fans as well as celebrities. The writer Pierre Mac Orlan tended to prefer Garbo, while the great French tennis player Jean Borotra, ever the gentleman, refused to choose. Other fans gave fuller opinions than just their votes, with one perhaps getting to the fundamental difference between the two actresses, writing that, with Dietrich, it is “her sex appeal that speaks,” while with Garbo, it is “the look” (although celebrities and typical moviegoers agreed that the overall advantage went to Garbo).

Of course, both Dietrich and Garbo remained two of the biggest stars in France throughout the 1930s. Other contests, however, seemed to indicate some of the significant shifts in French film history. In July, 1930, the film tabloid Mon Film announced that fans had elected Maurice Chevalier the new “King of French Cinema” (Le roi du cinéma français), with almost 14,000 votes. The runner-up, Jean Dehelly, had been the previous year’s winner, but this time convinced only around 2,000 voters to select him. Dehelly had begun his career as a leading man in silent films, but with the coming of sound he would be out of movies altogether by 1932. Chevalier, the great music hall star, was only beginning to appear in films, and so his victory here, as inexact and unscientific as it might be, nevertheless marked the transition not just between kings of cinema, but between kinds of cinema, from silent to sound.

“Maurice Chevalier, who has just been elected King of French Cinema,” Mon Film, July 11, 1930

Most contests more or less followed this form, not so much to choose a king or queen of cinema (in the Mon Film competition, Marie Bell had been elected la reine du cinéma français), but rather just to determine fan favorites. In 1932, Le Radical de Vauclause, a general interest newspaper that covered the area around Avignon, held a several-weeks concours des vedettes du cinéma, with readers voting for favorite actors and actresses. Henri Garat won among the men, with Charlie Chaplin in fourth place and Chevalier in fifth, and with Marie Chantal just edging out Lillian Harvey among women.

Perhaps the most ambitious of all the concours des vedettes appeared in Le Petit Journal starting in November 1930. Every week for two months, the newspaper ran a full-page photo of a movie actress on the back page, and at the end of that period asked voters to rank the eight performers who had appeared there. But Le Petit Journal also published a photo of one of those stars as an infant, and challenged fans to determine which one she was. Along with all of those photos, Le Petit Journal also ran signatures of the stars, and asked readers, “which did you find the most original?”

Le Petit Journal announces the results of its grand concours des vedettes, February 15, 1931

This was a lot to sort through, and the newspaper didn’t announce results until February, 1931. The fans’ favorite actress turned out to be Huguette Duflos, who had appeared on both stage and in movies and had had a particularly impressive last year or two, starring in two Marcel L’Herbier films–La Mystère de la chambre jaune (1930) and Le Parfum de la dame en noir (1931)–as well as Le Procès de Mary Dugan (1931) with Charles Boyer as her co-star. Le Petit Journal revealed that the baby photo showed Suzanne Bianchetti as an infant, and fans agreed that the most “original” signature belonged to Emmy Lynn. Fans voted not just to register their opinions, however, but to win prizes that totaled 100,000 francs, with Le Petit Journal coming up with complicated formulas to determine winners in all of the categories.

Contests like these continued for the rest of the decade, and then, significantly, even into the World War Two German occupation of France. I’ve written before about German control of the French film industry during this period, and of course that extended to French film culture generally, with Nazi authorities determined to make it seem as if little had changed from the years just before the war (see, for example, The Germans established the film magazine Ciné-Mondial, which looked innocuously enough like those journals—Pour Vous, Hebdo, Cinéa—that had ceased publication after the occupation began.  Maintaining the continuity between a pre-and-postwar community of movie fans, Ciné-Mondial ran its own contests, at least one just like the concours in Pour Vous to find the next great movie stars.

The contest in Ciné-Mondial to discover “seven young unknown women,” September 5, 1941

In the summer of 1941, Ciné-Mondial decided to “offer an opportunity to seven young unknowns,” French women vying to become a new star, with a guarantee of appearing in an important new movie, un très grand film français. The magazine announced the winners over a period of months, and some of them had minor careers, for instance Simone Arys, who appeared in two films during the war. That earlier contest in Pour Vous seems to have been benign enough, building reader interest week to week in a tabloid that covered a wide range of issues relating to cinema, from lowbrow to very high. With Ciné-Mondial, however, this concours took on a specifically ideological function, as one more sign of German benevolence, of the occupying authority actively trying to enhance the lives of seven lucky French women.

For film scholars, this serves to underscore the importance of studying even the seemingly most banal aspects of film culture, like these contests that certainly weren’t unique to France. They indicate the range of ways that people interacted with movies during the period. As filmgoers, certainly, but also as active participants, making their opinions known in various concours des vedettes. Fans might also use movie contests to do what they could to break into the film business, when these competitions might be purely personal, as was the case with the new star search in Pour Vous, or when, as during the occupation, they served larger geopolitical ends.

The Paris Cinema Project

On Saturday night, August 30, 1947, a full crowd and then some gathered at the Select cinema in Rueil, a Parisian suburb about five miles west of the French capital, with a population at the time of around 28,000. They were there to see Étoile sans lumière (1946), starring Edith Piaf. This was just Piaf’s third film (she made only eight), and her first since 1941; but the singer was already a legend of Paris music halls and concert venues. To accommodate the crowd, the man who had owned the Select for almost a decade, Antoine Mouillade, pulled down all of the strapontins, those small, extra chairs attached to each aisle seat, and even added some folding chairs, so that 800 fans filled a cinema that had a capacity of just less than 600. About five minutes into the film, some electrical wires short-circuited in the projection booth, starting a fire that spread almost instantaneously throughout the cinema. Patrons from the balcony had to jump to the orchestra section of the cinema, and everyone rushed for exits. After the fire, finally, had been put out, the initial numbers were staggering: 87 in the audience had died (and that number would mount slightly over the next few days) and 27 had been injured.

The headline in Ce Soir on September 2, 1947: “87 Dead, 27 Seriously Wounded in Rueil Catastrophe.”

The French press covered the disaster for weeks, and returned to it over a period of years as various cases connected to the fire at the Select made their way through the court system. The headlines were, frequently, sensational: “Mama, I want to live!” appeared on September 2 in France-Soir, which then added, by means of explanation, “Cried the Children in the Middle of the Flames, as People Fell from the Balcony with Howls of Fear and Pain.” The reporting, however, covered the events with investigative precision, and revealed a record of warnings that were dismissed, regulations ignored, and general neglect that led, finally, to the tragedy of August 30.

The Select had a long history in Rueil, first as a theatre and then, after some reconstruction, as a cinema beginning in 1932. There were a number of Select cinemas throughout France, so they were all almost certainly part of an exhibition chain, with Mouillade having purchased the one in Rueil in 1938. The film on the night of the fire, Étoile sans lumière, was a big deal because it featured Piaf. Étoile had opened in Paris in April, 1946, at the elegant Marbeuf cinema in the very chic eighth arrondissement, and for critics at the time this was the film that fully announced Piaf’s arrival as a movie star, and as the great icon of French popular music. As Jacqueline Lenoir wrote in Le Petit Gavroche when the film began its run in Paris, “the ‘Little Sparrow,’’—Piaf’s nickname, La môme—“the street singer, the performer in small cabarets and nightclubs, and then in music halls, has now become the great singing star, Edith Piaf.” If it took almost a year-and-a-half for Étoile sans lumière to move from Paris to nearby Rueil, that would have been a long time in the immediate postwar period, so it’s possible that the screening at the end of August, 1947, was a reprise of the Piaf vehicle.  In any case, there was no shortage of fans who wanted to see the film, which was playing either for the first time or in a return engagement.

“Mama, I Want to Live!” with a list of the dead and wounded on the left, from France-Soir, September 2, 1947

Newspapers understood the historical significance of the fire immediately. France-Soir ran a list of similar tragedies in its coverage of the Select, referring to the evening of August 30 as the worst cinema disaster since the famous fire at the Bazar de la Charité in 1897, which killed 126 when a reel of highly flammable movie film exploded.   Right after the fire in Rueil, the press catalogued the reasons it happened, and why it now perhaps seemed inevitable. That same issue of France-Soir ran a list of “causes of the catastrophe” on its front page, including old, dusty draperies, insufficient fire-proofing, inoperable fire extinguishers, exposed electrical wires, and no fire escapes in the balcony of the Select. Ce Soir included similar infrastructural issues—there was just one unlocked emergency exit at the Select that night, and that one opened out to a dead end–and also blamed Mouillade, for stuffing too many people into the cinema and for refusing to have a firefighter on site, a savings of a mere 70 francs per evening (about $20.00 a night at the time).

The projectionist at the screening had been an 18-year-old novice, a replacement for the regular man. He told a reporter for France-Soir that, when the fire started, he turned off the projector immediately, but when he ran out of the booth he failed to close the door behind him, letting the flames expand to the seating area. Mouillade, the owner, also spoke with the newspaper, and he seemed stunned, muttering over and over, “It’s horrible…It’s horrible…I never imagined such a catastrophe could happen.” The reporter felt that Mouillade “did not yet seem to understand the full extent of his own responsibility” for the fire, and instead thought only of the impact that he alone felt; “It’s terrible what has happened to me…I will never be able to recover from such a shock.”

According to the caption in Combat, from September 2, 1947, in the aftermath of the fire at the Select, “This young woman, who just learned of the death of a loved one, has fainted from grief.”

Mouillade may have been stunned not just by the event itself, but by his own negligence. In addition to installing the extra seating, he had also failed to act on any of the safety warnings that had been made about the cinema over the previous year by a Rueil “supervisory commission,” and hadn’t implemented any security measures against fire. There were also structural and legal issues that spoke to the differences between Paris and even the nearby suburbs. Combat claimed that “no similar catastrophe is imaginable in Parisian cinemas,” because, since the passage of a 1941 city ordinance (almost certainly put into place by the occupying Nazi authority) no performance hall of any kind could be built in the capital without the security authorization of the prefect of police. Those theatres, cinemas, and concert halls built before 1941 were required by the law to adhere to all of the safety measures as well, and to bring their establishments up to date.   

The papers announced that Mouillade had been arrested, and kept the story going for the next couple of weeks. On September 12, for instance, Les Dernières Dépêches ran the story of a “savior,” a man who had managed to get out of the cinema but rushed back in to carry out the wounded, and then died as a result of his heroism. France acknowledged his bravery, awarding him the Order of the Nation. In April, 1948, newspapers returned to the story, alerting readers that Le tribunal correctionnel de Versailles had fined Mouillade 6000 francs and sentenced him to a year in prison (although he seems to have been released after a few months). Various other cases related to the fire, from victims and their survivors seeking damages, were heard in French courts until the late-1950s.

After the tragedy, some firemen stand outside the Select cinema.

I’ve written two previous posts about fires in cinemas, one in Algiers and the other in Paris, both in the 1930s (see and Arson caused the first fire, planned by a rival of the city’s most successful exhibitor, and the other was the result of faulty electricity, as was the case at the Select. Those fires resulted primarily in property loss, and in the latter instance, a few minor injuries. The Select, on the other hand, stands out as one of the great tragedies of the immediate postwar period in France, the result of an exhibition site in decay, an inexperienced projectionist, and a cinema owner who cut corners wherever he could. For many of the moviegoers who made it out of the Select, the trauma remained. A reporter for France-Soir tracked down one of them at her house a few days after the incident. He wrote that, “the woman who opened the door burst into tears, her face still bruised by stitches, and she fled moaning, ‘Leave me…Leave me.’”  She made sure that the reporter couldn’t see into the house, and made it clear that she didn’t want any visitors. “The door closes,” the journalist wrote. “The shutters are drawn.”