How did movies circulate in Paris before World War Two? Of course, there’s no one answer. Distribution and exhibition practices certainly changed from the late-1920s through the 1940’s, the period that most interests me, and even at any one time there were so many variables, depending on the type of film and its popularity, the production studio, and so much more. I’ll be writing about a range of different films in future posts. For now, I’ll take a look at a film that was both extraordinary and typical, that became a cultural touchstone in the city, and that was quite possibly the most popular early sound film in Paris and also the rest of Europe. I’ll write today about L’Ange Bleu (The Blue Angel).
Most of you know about the movie. Produced by Ufa in Germany in 1930, the film was distributed in the United States by Paramount—in an English-language version and also a subtitled German print. The film premiered in Paris on 20 December 1930, about the same time that it opened in New York but well after its opening in Berlin in April, 1930. Probably because the film had been playing elsewhere in Europe, there was already significant interest in it when it opened at the Studio des Ursulines cinema on the rue des Ursulines in the fifth arrondissement.
La Semaine, a weekly that listed all of the cultural events in Paris, began the cinema section in its last issue for 1930 with “Twenty Things About L’Ange Bleu, the Great Success at the Ursulines.” The piece failed to mention Marlene Dietrich, interesting enough when you consider that the film would make her one of the first great European stars of the sound era, rivaled only by Maurice Chevalier. But ample attention was given to the remarkable performance by Emil Jannings, and to the direction by Josef von Sternberg. The article also detailed the oddity of the film’s exhibition, a case reserved for only a few foreign films playing in Paris during this period. The Ursulines would show L’Ange Bleu four times a day, twice in German and twice in a nearly-silent version. That L’Ange Bleu had a musical soundtrack and French intertitles, with the “silence” broken only by the sound of Dietrich’s voice, as the star performed the movie’s famous songs in German.
The dual exhibition practice was rare enough, but the film hardly stands out as exceptional in the broader film culture of Paris, which 85-years later sounds too good to be true. At the beginning of the film’s run at the Ursulines, King Vidor’s Hallelujah began showing at the new Miracles cinema in the very fashionable second arrondissement. The World War One drama À l’ouest rien de nouveau (All Quiet on the Western Front), a film that was perhaps a greater international success than even L’Ange Bleu, played exclusively at the Pathé-Natan on the Champs-Elysées. And because Universal hadn’t made a French-language version of À l’ouest rien de nouveau, Parisians watched a silent version with music and effects on the soundtrack. The Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers appeared at the Pantheon, one of the French cinemas that specialized in English-language films, while in other first-run venues or in the neighborhoods, fans could see G.W. Pabst’s L’Atlantide, or Maurice Chevalier and Claudette Colbert in La Grande Mère, or the return of the Garbo silent film, La belle ténébreuse (The Mysterious Lady). If fans sought out the ciné-clubs, they might attend the tribute to Jean Gremillon at La Tribune Libre du Cinéma, or parents hoping to divert their kids could go to Le Cinéma Pour les Enfants and watch Buster Keaton in The General. An astonishing list of first-runs and reprises—the Douglas Fairbanks Mark of Zorro, Rene Clair’s Sous les Toits de Paris, a young Jean Gabin in Chacun sa chance, or Jacques Feyder’s Si l’empereur savait ça—might go on and on.
The cinema that showed L’Ange Bleu also tells us something about Parisian film culture from the period. The Ursulines was small by any standard, with only about 120 seats, and it specialized in artsy rather than simply commercial films. L’Ange Bleu replaced a short program of films made before the war and also some avant garde films that played along with Pabst’s Trois pages d’un journal (Diary of a Lost Girl), while before that Hans Behrendt’s Danton had enjoyed a fairly extended run, starting in September after the Ursulines’ annual July and August closure, itself not typical of Parisian cinemas but not unique, either, in those days before air conditioning came to France (Danton, incidentally, played as would L’Ange Bleu, in alternating German and French versions). The screening at Ursulines shows the cinematic fluidity of 1930’s Parisian film culture. When L’Ange Bleu played at other cinemas in Paris, the venues were often grander than the Ursulines, but in particular they were sites that concerned themselves with cinema-as-usual rather than cinema-as-art, with L’Ange Bleu, as well as those other films that went from the Ursulines to other locations, clearly counting as both.
But the film wouldn’t go to any of those cinemas for a very long time. L’Ange Bleu played those four shows a day, in two languages, at the Ursulines for almost a year, until early November 1931. That kind of a first run wasn’t unheard of in Paris at the time—films like À l’ouest rien de nouveau might stay at single cinemas for months and months—but it was nonetheless very impressive. Far more common for an extraordinarily popular film would be Eddie Cantor’s Whoopee, which opened a few months after L’Ange Bleu in early March, 1931, at another fashionable cinema in the fifth arrondissement, the Pantheon. Cantor’s film played with a Thelma Todd short and a Crazy Cat cartoon until the end of May, and then was replaced by Douglas Fairbanks in Reaching for the Moon, which also played for a couple of months, all while L’Ange Bleu kept on showing four times a day, week after week.
When Sternberg’s film left the Ursulines (to be replaced by another German film that would be shown in original and French versions, Pabst’s L’Opéra de Quat’sous [3 Penny Opera]), it was major news. The newspaper Paris-Soir took note, and in a way that very much stressed the cinematic geography of the city. Paris-Soir wrote that after around 1000 screenings, “L’Ange Bleu will cross the Seine and continue its magnificent career on the right bank,” at the Aubert-Palace in the ninth arrondissement. In fact for a few years, it seems as if L’Ange Bleu played continuously in Paris. In 1933, it had an extended reprise in the very well-heeled second arrondissement at the Corso-Opéra, while other nearby cinemas were showing first runs of King Kong, the Frank Capra-Barbara Stanwyck melodrama Amour défendu (Forbidden), and Jean Benoît-Lévy and Marie Epstein’s La Maternelle.
I haven’t been able track L’Ange Bleu as it moved throughout France, but the French version—with Dietrich singing in German–opened in Lille in March 1931. Then, even as L’Ange Bleu kept showing in Paris, the film came to the Regent cinema in Algiers in June, 1931, to much fanfare, and showed for just one week, a typical run in the city even for a wildly popular film. I’ll be writing more about film culture in Algiers in a later post, but there doesn’t seem to have been a precise schedule for getting films from Paris to sites more peripheral to the capital, and may well have differed depending on a production studio’s distribution network. À l’ouest rien de nouveau, for instance, which opened in Paris well before L’Ange Bleu, didn’t make it to Algiers until December 1931.
In Paris, L’Ange Bleu caused a sensation like few other films from the early sound era— À l’ouest rien de nouveau and Chaplin’s Les Lumières de la Ville (City Lights) come to mind. From one side of the Seine to the other, audiences apparently couldn’t get enough of Dietrich’s legs or her singing, as the film marked out the spaces in Paris for an art film that was also a commercial success. In terms of the cinematic geography of the city, when a film was a sensation it became something of a fixture, even for a period of years, and even as it moved out to other parts of France and to French colonies.