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.”

The Paris Cinema Project

The French press was incredulous. How could apparently responsible government officials in the United States imagine that Charlie Chaplin might be a communist? On December 14, 1946, L’Aurore ran the headline, “Charlie Chaplin Accused of Un-American Activities,” and in the article itself referred to the great star, endearingly, with the name French viewers had given him years before, Charlot. A few months later, in May 1947, the leftwing newspaper Ce Soir ran a story about the anti-communist hysteria in the United States and accompanied it with a picture of an aged, smiling Chaplin, and the ironic caption, “Do you know this formidable ‘anti-American’?” Even the rightwing L’Intransigeant questioned the accusations against the actor, letting him speak for himself in an article from June, 1947: “Chaplin told Hollywood, ‘This kind of procedure is the usual technique employed by fascists to suppress freedom of speech and freedom of expression in cinema.’” Thus began the coverage of the Hollywood blacklist in French newspapers. For the next five years or so, and across the ideological spectrum, those sources, or at least those readily available to the contemporary researcher, forcefully criticized efforts to rid Hollywood of leftists, not just Chaplin but many others. They also endlessly ridiculed those “friendly” witnesses—Adolphe Menjou and Robert Taylor, for instance—who had sounded the alarm over the radicalization of the American film industry.

On May 10, 1947, Ce Soir ran a photo of Charlie Chaplin and jokingly asked, “Do You Know this Formidable ‘Anti-American’?”

For the first few years, Chaplin remained the touchstone for critics. In October, 1947, for example, in the journal of cultural affairs Les Lettres Françaises, Soviet historian Ilya Ehrenbourg linked American anti-communism with American racism, claiming that it was House Un-American Activities Committee [HUAC] member John Rankin, from Mississippi, a state “full of slaves and slave owners,” who demanded Chaplin’s expulsion from the United States as well as the investigation of others, like Dorothy Parker. To Eherenburg, these investigations were prompted simply because these suspected communists “value culture, they love art, and…they hate the dollar and the whip, both of which Rankin represents.” But the press also took note of the specious accusations against other performers besides Chaplin, major stars and celebrities who were known for leftwing politics, for instance Frank Sinatra and Orson Welles.  Sometimes, though, French journalists couldn’t help but point out the strangeness of the Red Scare, and also its silliness.

In “Civil War Among Movie Stars,” Bernard Valéry, reporting from Hollywood in August, 1947 for France-Soir and with his tongue very much in his cheek, wrote that the debate about communists was the only thing he heard about as he lounged by his hotel pool, or took in the scene at the nightclub Mocambo. He complained about Menjou and Taylor, as well as all the others—Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Spencer Tracy—willing to turn against their colleagues. Underscoring what he found to be the humor in all of this, he claimed that he still could not confirm whether former child star Shirley Temple would testify before HUAC.

In 1947, Valéry may have seen the comedy in the Red Scare. But most of the French press took it quite seriously. We might think of the Hollywood blacklist primarily as a domestic issue, perhaps without much of an impact outside of the United States. But interest in, and concern about, la liste noire, as it was called in the French press, seems to have been as global as most Hollywood movies, or any other gossip about Hollywood stars that would turn up in fan magazines around the world.  

 The communist newspaper L’Humanité made its position clear when it condemned “the fascist Gary Cooper and the snitch Adolphe Menjou,” but even the less ideologically charged newspapers understood the stakes of the American inquest, and knew which side to take. La Gazette, for instance, in November 1947, alerted readers that there was a resistance, made up of Eddie Cantor, Ava Gardner, John Garfield, and still more stars, while Humphrey Bogart, Rita Hayworth, Katharine Hepburn, Myrna Loy, and others had formed a committee to counteract HUAC. The reporter then condemned not only Cooper, Menjou, and Taylor, but also Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, and Walt Disney for their “friendly” testimony. 

Always, however, special scorn was reserved for the two men the press considered the real villains: Rankin and J. Parnell Thomas, the chair of HUAC. L’Humanité was delighted to report in October 1948 that the latter “was a con artist” who had just been charged with fraud and would be appearing before a grand jury. Two years later, Ce Soir noted that Thomas now served time in jail, but also let readers know that he would be released before any of the Hollywood Ten whom he had sent to prison.

“The Chairman of HUAC Was a Con Artist,” from L’Humanité, October 25, 1948, detailing the fraud charge against J. Parnell Thomas

Chaplin’s extraordinary popularity in France is well-known to us today, and so it makes sense that the press there singled out his case to highlight the idiocy of the blacklist. But there was also another filmmaker, and in particular one of his films, that galvanized much of French journalism against American rightwing extremism. Edward Dmytryk’s 1947 critique of anti-semitism, Crossfire, had been a very big hit in Paris as well as the rest of France (a country with its own extended history of anti-semitism).  Film scholars now think of Dmytryk as one of the villains of the blacklist, one of the men who named names in order to have his own prison sentence reduced, probably second only to Elia Kazan in terms of the scorn history has heaped upon him. But in the late-1940s, before he turned into a “friendly” witness and at least in Parisian newspapers, Dmytryk was a hero of free speech and progressive politics.

In October 1947, Combat headlined, “Crossfire Filmmakers Sued for Contempt of Congress,” and then explained how Dmytryk as well as Adrian Scott, the producer of the film, had been charged by HUAC. A month later, the Jewish newspaper Droite et Liberté, writing about the director’s blacklisting, explained that “there was a director in Hollywood, Edward Dmytryk, who made a film against anti-semitism.” Directly linking Dmytryk’s prison sentence to the HUAC members’ general attitude towards Jews, the newspaper continued that, as a result of that film, “HUAC took him to court and expelled him from Hollywood.” To emphasize the point, Droite et Liberté concluded, “So much for democracy.”

A list of the Hollywood Ten, from Ce Soir, June 2, 1950

Over the course of covering the Red Scare in Hollywood, the press would return to Chaplin. In April, 1949, Ce Soir celebrated the actor’s sixtieth birthday, and in assessing his life up to then wrote that Chaplin had five children “and millions of friends around the world.” And yet, Ce Soir lamented, after thirty years of “good and loyal service,” Hollywood wanted to throw him out. Instead, the newspaper suggested that he receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Along with remembering Chaplin, many French journalists refused to forget those who had named names and accused their friends and colleagues of being traitors. In October, 1950, Ce Soir ran the story, “Robert Taylor Films Conspirator.” This sounds like so many other articles in French newspapers, publicity pieces about actors and the films they were making. But this one reads differently from the beginning. “In Washington, I saw Robert Taylor play his natural role as snitch and informer,” the reporter, Francis Crémieux, wrote, and then added, “That was in 1947, in front of HUAC,” with the detail that Taylor had been “accompanied by his little parrot, Adolphe Menjou.”  Crémieux related his experience of those events, telling readers, “I’ll never forget Taylor’s face, the well-combed seducer, a face like Don Juan…That was one of the most repulsive spectacles that I’ve ever seen…Taylor, an auxiliary of the FBI, with his bosses’ blessing.”

According to Crémieux, Taylor’s reward from those “bosses,” the studio heads, was his casting in Conspirator, director Victor Saville’s 1949 anti-communist propaganda film that co-starred Elizabeth Taylor. By this time, the press no longer joked about child star Shirley Temple as a possible anti-American. Instead, they ran headlines like another one from Ce Soir, from June, 1950: “Banished From the Studios Because of a Blacklist: The 10 Best Screenwriters in Hollywood Will Each Spend a Year in Prison.” The article expressed no hope, because “the Supreme Court had confirmed” the sentences of the ten, “whose films are among the greatest successes in American cinema.” The problem extended beyond those few screenwriters, however, with the article including the “hundreds of other artists and technicians” who had been named before HUAC. In France, which had its own history of irrational anti-communism, particularly in the postwar period, the press broadly understood la liste noire as a catastrophe, for the great Chaplin as well as for the anonymous artisans who might never have been credited in the movies they helped make, and who might never have the chance to work again.

“In Washington, I saw Robert Taylor play his natural role as snitch and informer,” from Ce Soir, October 3, 1950

The Paris Cinema Project

“Jean-Paul Belmondo…it appears, is the revelation of the new French cinema.” That was how Claude Elsen described the young actor in 1960, in a not very favorable review in the newspaper Rivarol of Jean-Luc Godard’s À bout de soufle (1960), one of the early films that helped make Belmondo an international superstar. Even this praise of the actor, however, seems more Elsen’s commentary on the state of French cinema at the time rather than any acknowledgement of Belmondo’s dynamic talent. Twice in the review, he likened the actor’s appearance to that of a spider monkey, and he claimed that the “physical contact” between his costar, the “ravishing” Jean Seberg, and the “ugly” Belmondo, was “extremely unappealing.” The decidedly anti-New Wave Elsen reported that a jury of critics had named Godard’s film the most overrated of the year. Elsen himself had been holding out for Alain Renais’ Hiroshima mon amour (1959), or Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), or perhaps Jean Cocteau’s Le Testament d’Orphée (1960). Now that he had seen À bout de soufle, though, he admitted, “I’m beginning to wonder.” 

Elsen’s assessment of the young actor would place him decidedly in the minority, at the time and over the next sixty years.  Indeed, when Belmondo died last month, he had been one of the iconic stars of French cinema for at least that long, one of the great personalities whose career had begun in the 1950s, along with Brigitte Bardot, Alain Delon, and very, very few others. Tracing Belmondo’s initial impact can be difficult, because the materials are mostly unavailable, at least for the film historian working in the United States. But there are enough of them to begin to get a sense of the actor’s development, from a practically unknown stage performer with a much more famous father to a global symbol of French masculinity in just a few years.

Claude Elsen’s negative review of À bout de souffle…and Belmondo…in Rivarol, April 7, 1960

French newspapers first took notice of Belmondo in the summer of 1955, when he was awarded an acting prize at the National Conservatory, where he was a student. Within a year or two, he would receive occasional notices for his performances at the Athenée theatre in Paris. He appeared there in a 1957 staging of Shakespeare’s La Mégère approvoisée (The Taming of the Shrew), which featured two major stars as Petruchio and Catherine, Pierre Brasseur and Susanne Flon. Nevertheless, the reviewer took the time to praise “the leaping fun of Belmondo” in a supporting role. He also played a minor role at the Athenée in 1958, in a new play, Oscar, by actor-writer-director Claude Magnier, and the critic in L’Information mentioned him briefly, but approvingly, as “amusant.”

Belmondo’s father, the sculptor Paul Belmondo, would be mentioned far more often in the press at the time, in February, 1955, for instance, when his work appeared in an exhibition at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Paris, or a year later, when he won a 400,000-franc Grand Prix des Beaux-Arts from the city of Paris. After that, the relative fame of father and son shifted pretty quickly.

We tend to think of À bout de soufle as one of the great star turns in film history, making Belmondo an instant sensation. But in fact it was the film he made just before his work with Godard that forced the public—and critics—to take serious notice. That movie was À double tour, from 1959, directed by Claude Chabrol, the eighth feature film in which Belmondo had appeared in the last two years. Writing in Les Dépêches, a newspaper for the Burgundy region of France, René Quinson called this murder mystery, just Chabrol’s third film, “a festival of colors” (the director had only worked in black-and-white before), “and a subtle play on the detective genre.” Despite casting important stars in the lead roles—Jacques Dacqmine and Madeleine Robinson, who would win a Best Actress award at the Venice film festival for her performance in À double tour—“Chabrol remained faithful to the young actors whose talent he can sense with the same insight  as a veteran impresario.” As a result, he cast Belmondo, “a remarkably gifted young actor, for both drama and comedy, who has been waiting for a long time to find a director capable of exploiting his gifts.” Quinson concluded that, “He seems to have found him here.”  In this telling, it is Chabrol and not Godard who discovered Belmondo, and the director of À double tour and the young supporting actor who formed the duo that promised to give new life to French cinema.

Of course, À bout de soufle brought Belmondo to a new level of stardom, and the responses to the kind of Frenchness the actor embodied ranged from the fully popular to the philosophical. In 1962, the French writer Richard Caron published the very hard-boiled murder mystery, La fille de l’ombre. He described two toughs in the novel, the older one with “the build of a slightly thinner Jean Gabin,” and who could have been the father of his partner, a young man with “the relaxed look of a slightly taller and wider Jean-Paul Belmondo.” Caron’s book made literal what so many critics implied after À bout de soufle, that the great-but-aging star Gabin might now yield to Belmondo, as a father to a son, knowing that the younger man could better represent French masculinity to new generations of film audiences.

The cover of Richard Caron’s 1962 novel, La Fille de l’ombre, in which two gangsteres resemble Jean Gabin and Jean-Paul Belmondo

At the other end of the cultural spectrum from detective fiction, in late-1960, French playwright Gabriel Arout wrote an article for Air France Revue, the magazine of the airline Air France, about Dostoyevsky “and the sources of good and evil.” This sort of philosophical undertaking wasn’t at all unusual for the Revue, perhaps telling us something about French air travelers at the time, but in any event, Arout used Belmondo as a kind of touchstone for the modern reader of serious literature. He wrote that “the central character of À bout de souffle,” and here he meant Belmondo, “seems…part of the lineage of the characters in [Dostoyevsky’s] The Possessed,” but then went on to clarify the point. Actually, “it was easier to imagine that the character embodied by Belmondo…is more in line with the hero of [Camus’] The Stranger, than he is with Stavrogin” the main character in The Possessed.  

A little more than a year later, in January, 1962, French philosopher (and film theorist) Henri Agel weighed in about Belmondo in Étude, a monthly journal of literature, aesthetics, and culture. In “Three Faces of the Sacred,” Agel considered Bresson’s Journal d’un curé de campagne (1954), Luis Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959), and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Léon Morin, prêtre (1961). Agel marvelled at the psychological depth of Belmondo’s performance in the title role of Melville’s film, which underscored the religious dilemma in this drama of occupied France. “Jean-Paul Belmondo, the protagonist of À bout de soufle and ten other films of the New Wave, all of them centered on the contemporary adventurer, here is the very image of a character stripped down, virtually erased,” which, for Agel, produced “a rich and frank human quality, an indisputable interiority.” There is nothing here of Elsen’s “spider-monkey” in that review of À bout de souffle. Instead, Belmondo became the ideal actor of “the sacred,” the representative not so much of French masculinity as French spirituality.

Belmondo’s 1973 autobiography, which includes the dix commandements du belmondisme

Belmondo himself, or perhaps his ghostwriter, would make a joke about this kind of praise for his philosophical and religious significance just a few years later. In 1973, coinciding with his thirtieth birthday, he published his autobiography, Thirty Years and Twenty-Five Films (Trente ans et vingt-cinq films). As the cover indicated, the volume included the “ten commandments of Belmondoism” (dix commandements du belmondisme). Sadly for the contemporary reader, at least in terms of online archives, the cover is all that exists, and so we can’t know what any of these commandments may have been.

When Belmondo died, French president Emmanuel Macron eulogized the actor, saying that “we loved Belmondo because he was like us.” Perhaps. Sixty years before, just after the release of À bout de souffle, Madeleine Chapsal, writing an appreciation of the film in L’Express, said something similar, but saw in Belmondo not so much a French everyman, but rather a perfect embodiment of the new generation of postwar France. “It happens from time to time,” she wrote, “that an actor is born, destined by his temperament, by his looks, to embody an ideal image that the young people of his time have of themselves.” She ended by identifying in him the beginning of a new period in French culture. “Here is the dawn,” she wrote, “of the era of Belmondo.”

In Air France Revue, winter 1960-61, a young Moscow couple on the left, which the caption compares to Belmondo and Jean Seberg in À bout de soufle, and on the right, the two actors in a scene from the film

The Paris Cinema Project

French journalism sounded the alarm as early as April, 1951. The very staid, conservative financial daily, L’Information, claimed that month that “The crisis in French cinema…advances rapidly,” and added that “six important production companies have just announced their decision to suspend all new production.” By the end of the year, things continued to unravel. Rivarol reported that, just twelve months earlier, 23 French films had been in production. Now, there were only thirteen, and of those, one was hardly proceeding at all and two had just stopped. All three of those films are now acclaimed as masterpieces: Max Ophüls’ Le Plasir (1952) was the film barely limping along, and the two that had stopped altogether, at least for the time being, were Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de M.  Hulot (1953) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Salaire de la peur (1953). But what, exactly, was this crise du cinéma that threatened the entire industry, including its most acclaimed directors working on some of their most important films?

L’Information announces the crisis, April 12, 1951

It’s worth noting that a film industry marked by almost constant chaos—ranging from financial scandal and bankruptcy on the one hand to the German control of French filmmaking during most of World War Two on the other—might be able to identify a singular “crisis” at all. At least according to the press, this one had multiple causes. L’Intransigeant complained that out of a 100-franc ticket (about 25 cents at the time), close to 90% went back to the state and various agencies in taxes. The newspaper complained, as well, that box-office fraud didn’t help matters any, and that film costs were too high. The artisanal nature of so much French production was no way to economize, unions demanded too much, and stars made far too much money; in fact, another source informed readers that the greatest French performers made twenty million francs per film.

Most of the reports on the crise du cinéma suggested that the state needed to support the cinema much more actively.  France already had a system of fonds d’aide, state funds that went towards financing film production, but it didn’t do enough, at least given ever-increasing costs. François Brigneau, in the piece in Rivarol, estimated that Clouzot had already spent 100-million francs on La Salaire de la peur, but that was only good for one hour of a planned three-hour film. He compared that to Luis Bünuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), which cost only the equivalent of 18-million francs to make, was subject to practically no taxation in Mexico, where it was filmed, and played for twelve weeks in Paris.  In fact, Los Olvidados turns up in several of the reports on la crise as the kind of film France should make, rather than the bloated, overly-expensive film that it seems always to be compared to, Jean Aurenche’s L’Auberge Rouge (1951), a 100-million franc “turnip” in the opinion of the reporter for Force Ouvrière.

Martine Monod, writing in Ce Soir, posed the issue much more bluntly than did the reporter in Force Ouvrière who invoked the vegetable metaphor. “French cinema is in danger of dying,” she wrote, in an issue from December 11, 1951, using as proof that not a single new French film had been released in Paris that week. Monod went on that 95 films had been made that year, as opposed to 106 the year before. Four huge studios had closed, putting thousands of technicians out of work. Just in the last week, six more studios responsible for 60% of French movies had shut down, at least temporarily. Then she amended her first claim. There was no further danger of dying; French cinema was “already dead.”

Martine Monod proclaims the bad news in Ce Soir, December 11, 1951: “The French cinema is in danger of dying”

That death hardly was a “natural” one. Instead, an invasion of American films brought it on, as well as an American refusal to import many French films. Monod insisted that the American “interdiction” against dubbing and an insistence on subtitles meant that even those few French films would never find a wide audience in the US.

The most important French filmmakers seemed hardly to work at all, at least according to Monod. Since 1945, she wrote, Marcel Carné had made only three films, and Claude Autant-Lara and René Clair had directed only two apiece. Even when they could make films, there was always the danger of the work coming to a halt. At around the same time, L’Intransigeant reported that productions of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, with Maurice Chevalier, as well as Carné’s La Reine Margot and Anatole Litvak’s Via Termina had all shut down (in fact, none of these films would ever be completed). Those films that continued in production were themselves part of the problem. In L’Intransigeant in December, 1951, Jean-François Devay and Robert Chazal complained that “the two films begun this month are called Wedding Night Surprise (Les Surprises d’une nuit de noces [1952]) and Three Crazy Old Ladies (Trois vielles filles en folie [1952]). Sounding despondent, Devay and Chazal concluded that, “These two titles perhaps sum up the future of French film.”

There were all sorts of suggestions for digging out of the crisis, some far more rational than others. In his article in Rivarol, Brigneau fell back on an old French standard in identifying one of the central problems facing the cinema: too many Jews. Brigneau seemed level-headed at first, arguing that French productions were too expensive, markets for the films too limited, and taxes too high. But he also alerted readers that for one of the director’s films, Ophüls, an “Austrian Jew,” had built an entire fort that cost far too much to make any sense, and then he broadened his critique to stress the necessity to “rid the cinema of its schemers and its biggest scoundrels…Jews,” as well as “stateless emigrés.” Monod in Ce Soir had ideas that were much more reasonable. She asked for augmented funds—an increased aide au cinéma—from the state, a lower tax rate, suppression of the censorship that “sterilizes the content of films,” and also that the French film industry forget its obsession with trying to get films into the American market and concentrate instead on Eastern Europe.  Finally, she emphasized outreach to the French audience, to let them know what was going on and to gain their active support.

A graph showing the decline in Parisian movie attendance since 1947, in L’Information, November 3, 1951

The press consulted some filmmakers, to get their opinions. In October, 1951, L’Intransigeant ran an extended interview with Henri Jeanson, who had already written a number of films, including Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord (1938). Like Monod, Jeanson complained about censorship, insisting that French film regulation was far more onerous than American, which runs counter to the typical arguments about such things. Jeanson said that French filmmakers were completely hamstrung when it came to representing the government, the educational system, national elections, religion, the police, and the army. But then, switching to more practical concerns, he also claimed that movie tickets were just too expensive, and so people had stopped going to the cinema. His interviewer seemed surprised, and reminded him that it still cost less to go to the moves than to the theatre. Jeanson agreed, but said that “the theatre is a ceremony…going to the theatre is an event,” something the cinema could never aspire to.

The discourse of crisis eased around 1952, at least for a few years. It’s possible that the government actually took some action.  By 1959, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, had established the avance sur recettes system of government assistance, with the state providing filmmakers just going into production with an advance on the expected boxoffice returns of a movie. Certainly, throughout the decade, production companies went in and out of business, and directors, producers, and just about everyone else in the industry complained about excessive taxation, something of a proud tradition for those connected to cinema, going back at least to the 1930s (see my post at  The crise du cinéma of the early-1950s, though, indicated the problems of an industry just six or seven years removed from the German control of World War Two and still rebuilding a domestic film infrastructure. The movies of the New Wave, beginning in the mid-to-late-1950s, certainly helped French cinema on the international market, but many of the same problems remained, and there would be no shortage of crises in the years to come, as well as periodic predictions in the press, echoing Monod, of the impending death of French cinema.

“Henri Jeanson talks about his troubles with censorship,” in L’Intransigeant, October 18, 1951

The Paris Cinema Project

“Market for Foreign Films in United States Triples in Three Years.” With that headline in the issue from April 16, 1938, the American trade journal Motion Picture Herald announced to industry insiders, and especially exhibitors, that they now might realize significant profits from importing movies from Germany, or Italy, or France. We tend to think of the United States as a historically poor home for foreign films, because of Hollywood’s determination to dominate domestic screens and also because US audiences just aren’t imagined to have been sophisticated enough, or interested enough, for films from other countries. For years, American film historiography had it that foreign movies only came to the US in any numbers after World War Two, with an influx of Italian Neo-Realist movies or, a few years later, French New Wave films. But in fact, throughout the 1930s, there were a number of important American venues for foreign movies that did well at the box office, and many of the most significant of those films came from France.

That same article in Motion Picture Herald claimed that foreign film imports had gone up from fewer than fifty films in 1935 to more than 180 in 1938. Sixty-five of those films had come from Germany, but France had the second-most of any country, with 23 (perhaps surprisingly, Hungary and Spain were next, with eighteen and seventeen films). That number of French movies made perfect sense to the Herald, which had headlined just a month before that the “Quality of French Production Seen at Peak,” with such films from 1937 as Julien Duvivier’s Un Carnet de Bal, Sasha Guitry’s Les Perles de la Couronne, and Jean Renoir’s great international hit, La Grande Illusion.

The Motion Picture Herald, April 16, 1938, proclaiming the box-office possibilities of foreign films

In New York alone, there were some 30 cinemas that “show foreign product almost exclusively,” with the Herald adding that some small cinemas and “neighborhood houses” operated by large exhibition circuits also occasionally booked foreign films. The Schubert Belasco cinema in New York, which just a few years before had been “dedicated to sex pictures,” had made a transition to showing more and more foreign films, and recently had hits with two French movies, Anatole Litvak’s Mayerling (1936), starring Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux, and The Life and Loves of Beethoven (1936), which featured a star with a great French following at the time but who was not well known in the United States, Harry Baur, who tended to specialize in tormented, imposing men. The Little Carnegie cinema, a 350-seat house on West 57th, had played “French, German, and Russian films with some success,” convincing the Herald that foreign films could attract viewers willing to travel to areas in the city they might typically avoid. “Although the theatre is located in an otherwise unimpressive downtown neighborhood,” the surprised writer for the Herald claimed, the Little Carnegie, with its program of foreign movies, “has commanded a so-called class audience.”

But we might expect New York to have been a significant market for these films. Chicago had ten cinemas specializing in foreign product, with the Sonotone and the World, both in The Loop, the two sites showing the most French films.  Philadelphia had six such cinemas, and the Herald reported that “Mayerling,” repeating its success in New York, “played at the Europa for 14 weeks and then was booked into 35 Warner Bros. neighborhood houses” in the city. Francophiles in Los Angeles could depend on the Esquire cinema on Fairfax Avenue for movies (in fact, this would be true until the early-1950s, when the cinema closed and Canter’s Delicatessen, which is still there, moved into the site).  Other major cities had one or two cinemas showing French films, for instance the Clay in San Francisco and the Little cinema in Washington, DC.

The interior of the Little Carnegie cinema in New York

There were other, far less urban spaces that had cinemas specializing in foreign films generally, and a few that concentrated on French movies. In Syracuse, New York, for instance, the Civic University cinema showed French as well as German and Russian films, while in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Pickwick played French films exclusively, and in Ames, Iowa, so did the Campus cinema, which probably was near or even on the Iowa State University campus.

As a result of these successes, more and more French films would come to the US in 1938. American cinemas that year showed Club de femmes (1936), which also starred Darrieux, or Renoir’s Les Bas fonds (1936), with Jean Gabin, or Mademoiselle Docteur (1937), with Dita Parlo, the latter two actors having acquired an American audience from their roles in La Grande Illusion. There would also be another Harry Baur film in 1938, Christine (1937), directed by Julien Duvivier, and one more starring Charles Boyer, Marc Allégret’s Orage (1938), along with many others.

In 1938, there were around 17,000 cinemas in the United States, and the Herald counted about 180 that emphasized foreign films. Of those, roughly two-dozen showed French films exclusively or along with films from other countries; but there were just over 30 cinemas that primarily showed Spanish-language films, and still more—37 cinemas—that typically ran German films. For the leaders of the American film industry, these numbers were more than generous, and a sign that the US welcomed foreign films but without any reciprocal hospitality. They complained throughout the period, and often in the Motion Picture Herald, about the difficulties of getting their own films into foreign markets. In March 1938, for instance, the Herald headlined, “U.S. Warns of Threats to Hollywood Abroad,” and there was a series of reports about the “Pact of Four,” a coalition of Italy, Germany, France, and England to “freeze American films out of the foreign market.” That pact, of course, never materialized, because of the war that would begin 18-months later and that would turn anti-Hollywood colleagues into geopolitical enemies.

The Esquire cinema in Los Angeles, as it looked in the late-1930s while showing the 1936 French film, Club de femmes

Even with these efforts to undermine the American cinema’s dominance, the Herald stressed in 1938 that “Hollywood is Stronger Abroad Despite Attempts to Weaken it.” Argentina at the time was the best customer for American movies, importing about 17-million feet of film, while France ranked seventh, at around eight million feet. At the same time, France introduced new censorship restrictions, designed to regulate national production but also vague enough to keep at least some American films out of the country. The Herald reported that the “new censorship regulations…provide for the banning of films that might affect the prestige of the French army or other governmental agencies, or provoke diplomatic incidents with foreign countries, or which show crime or criminals in such a way as to have an injurious influence on the minds of youth.”

It’s unclear that anything France tried actually worked. At around the same time, the Herald reported that, in 1937, of the 424 new feature films shown in France, 230 came from Hollywood, twice the number that had been produced in France, and, in fact, more than France, Germany, the UK, Soviet Union, and Italy combined. Clearly, then, and despite American film industry complaints, there was no possibility for French films to have anywhere near the presence in the US that Hollywood films had in France. But a fairly wide American audience for French films nevertheless existed in the period just before World War Two. The availability of French films almost certainly diminished during the war, and new French films made during the fighting, many of them produced by the German studio Continental Films, probably did not open anywhere in the United States. This may have led to the sense of a sudden, significant presence of foreign films, many of them French, after 1945. In fact, the postwar period seems mostly to have restored a system that had been very much in place by the late-1930s, and that provides the evidence for a fully international American film culture that now, more than 80 years later, we might not have expected to find.

Canter’s Delicatessen in Los Angeles, on the site of the Esquire cinema