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 ), 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.”
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 ), 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 ) and G.W, Pabst’s Quatre de l’infanterie (Westfront 1918 ).
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.
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 ) 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 ), 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.”