The Paris Cinema Project

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.

The Studio des Ursulines, where L'Ange Bleu opened and which still shows movies today

The Studio des Ursulines, where L’Ange Bleu opened and which still shows movies today

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.

An advertisement in La Semaine during the first-run of L'Ange Bleu, stressing the dual versions of the film

An advertisement in La Semaine during the first-run of L’Ange Bleu, stressing the dual versions of the film

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.

The Monoprix on boulevard des Italiens, the site of the Aubert-Palace where L'Ange Bleu played after it left the Ursulines

The Monoprix on boulevard des Italiens, the site of the Aubert-Palace where L’Ange Bleu played after it left the Ursulines

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.

An ad for the opening of the film in Lille

An ad for the opening of the film in Lille

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.

The Paris Cinema Project

Had you taken a walk in Paris during the 1930’s on the boulevard de Rochechouart, not far from Montmartre, you would have had any number of opportunities to go to the movies. The boulevard borders the ninth and eighteenth arrondissements, and so you might have stopped in at the Palais-Rochechouart, or the Pathé-Rochechouart a few doors down, or the Roxy. If you wanted a smaller, neighborhood experience, you might have chosen the Clichy cinema just off the end of the boulevard. But if you were interested in the overall spectacle of the cinema, and in spending a few hours in absolute opulence, you would have walked just a few more yards and gone straight to the Gaumont-Palace, situated where Rochechouart ran into the Place Clichy and adjacent to the Clichy metro station.

The original Gaumont-Palace

The original Gaumont-Palace

The building’s first incarnation was as l’hippodrome de Montmartre, dating from the 1900 World’s Fair. Film entrepreneur Léon Gaumont bought the space in 1910 and shortly after that opened it as the Gaumont-Palace. Gaumont remodeled the beaux arts cinema in 1930 and reopened it a year later as an art deco showplace with 6000 seats. There was another renovation in the mid-1950’s, and then a decade later the Palace converted to a site for Cinerama and then for 70 mm films. For all of these dates and uses, the French Wikipedia page for the Palace (https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaumont-Palace) and also the Cinema Treasures website (http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/6787) are particularly useful.

At around the time of the 1930-31 remodel, there was at least one other Gaumont cinema in Paris, the Gaumont-Théâtre on the boulevard Poissonière in the very fashionable second arrondissement. Gaumont’s company went through bankruptcies and reorganizations, not surprising given the usual chaos of the French film industry during this period, but was, typically, a fully integrated corporation along the model of the Hollywood studios. There were other Gaumont cinemas in France and in French-speaking countries, although perhaps not as many as one might expect. In the research I’ve done, mostly on the 1930’s and centering on Marseille, Nantes, Lille, Lyon, and Algiers, I haven’t found any other cinemas with the Gaumont name, and, of course, it would hardly be surprising if Gaumont concentrated its efforts in the national market on Paris.

The reopening of the “new” Gaumont-Palace was a very big story in the French movie world in 1931. Les Spectacles, a movie trade tabloid for the north of France and particularly Lille, headlined “A Date in the History of Spectacle: The Reopening of the Gaumont-Palace,” and called the new space “the largest and the most modern,” and a “success for the entire French film industry.” The Palace was a showplace for Gaumont films, of course, but the company went in and out of film production throughout the 1930’s because of financial difficulties, and so the cinema showed a range of first-run movies, many of them with big stars but typically forgotten to us now. Here’s a random listing from the week of 1 January, 1937. The Palace was open every day starting at 2:00 pm, with the last show screening at 9:00. Afternoon screenings cost six to ten francs, evening shows seven to twelve, with prices rising a little higher on weekends and holidays. The feature presentation at the beginning of the year was the just-opened Mr. Flow, from the short-lived Vondas Films Company, directed by German émigré Robert Siodmak and with two major French stars, Fernand Gravey and Edwige Feuillère.

The Gaumont-Palace after its extensive remodel

The Gaumont-Palace after its extensive remodel

That was the Gaumont-Palace through most of the 1930’s. With the beginning of World War 2, however, things changed, really for all of the cinemas in Paris. As a German invasion and occupation of the capital seemed more and more inevitable, people left the city in droves, and any number of businesses, including cinemas, closed. In the very early-1930’s there had been about 170 cinemas in Paris, not counting cine-clubs and other specialty locations. By the end of the decade there were around 235. All of them had been shut down by the time of the French surrender in June, and the best information available indicates that the Gaumont-Palace had been among the first, perhaps because the operating costs for such a gigantic space were difficult to meet during a period of dwindling audiences and other scarcities. My evidence comes from Pour Vous, a weekly film tabloid that listed all cinemas in the city; the issue from 3 January 1940 lists only a little over 100 cinemas still open (including some very large exhibition sites, like the Louxor in the tenth arrondissement and the Marignan on the Champs-Elysées), and the list does not include either of the two Gaumont cinemas in the city. By 5 June 1940, just a few days before the surrender, the number of cinemas still showing movies had been cut in half.

The occupying Nazi force in Paris sought to give the illusion of business as usual in the city, and so reopened many of the cinemas there. Once again, information is hard to come by. The Nazis published a couple of French-language film magazines, and in 1943 or ‘44 they began running listings in one of them, Ciné-Mondial, of the films playing in Paris. The issue from 14 April 1944 lists just under 50 cinemas, including the Gaumont-Palace and the much smaller Clichy Cinema nearby, perhaps a sign that the Germans sought to emphasize both the importance of the great movie showplaces and also the more intimate, neighborhood locations. Neither of the cinemas ran seven days a week, however; the Palace was closed on Fridays, the Clichy on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, quite possibly because of the serious shortages—including the scarcity of electricity–that plagued the city during the Occupation

A full house at the Gaumont-Palace in 1941, during the Occupation

A full house at the Gaumont-Palace in 1941, during the Occupation

Perhaps because it ran smoothly during the war, the Gaumont-Palace didn’t skip a beat afterwards, showing the usual first-run French movies and also a backlog of American films that had been banned during the Occupation. For the new year in 1947, for instance, the Palace showed the 1944 MGM musical comedy Bathing Beauty (Bal des Sirènes), with Esther Williams and Red Skelton (and just to give a sense of the range of immediate post-war film culture in Paris, Rome Open City played just a few blocks away from the Palace, as did perennial favorite La Belle Equipe, with Jean Gabin, from 1936, as well as a new French film with Odette Joyeux, Messieurs Ludovic, and Ginger Rogers in The Major and the Minor, from 1942).

In 1947 the Gaumont corporation commissioned an extensive poll to assess those postwar audiences that watched movies at the Palace, the first time, to my knowledge, that a French film company had made use of the kind of scientific opinion tracking that had been so important in Hollywood for the past ten years. The fact of this  Étude du comportement des Spectateurs du Gaumont shows the importance of the Gaumont-Palace to all of the company’s plans, and also gives us some tantalizing information about Parisian taste in films and filmgoing. Gaumont wanted to know where Palace audiences came from (mostly from Paris rather than the suburbs, and mostly from the neighborhood around the cinema), whether they would stay to get in even if the line was too long (slightly more than half said they wouldn’t), and if they would still come in if the movie had already started (about a fifty-fifty split here). Viewers liked going to the Palace after work, and most of them preferred French films to American, but when they did see American films they liked them dubbed rather than subtitled. Their favorite female stars were Feuillere at the top, followed by Ingrid Bergman, Danielle Darrieux, Gaby Morlay, and Micheline Presle, while their favorite male star was Louis Jouvet, with Jean Gabin, who had spent most of the war in the United States, a distant eighth, just behind Errol Flynn. The poll indicated that Gaumont showed good sense in booking Bathing Beauty. Forty percent of all respondents said they had seen the film when the Palace showed it, the same amount that had seen The Best Years of Our Lives there, and only slightly less than the viewers for the recent favorite, For Whom the Bell Tolls. And despite their stated preference for domestic films, far fewer had gone to see them, with only slightly more than one-quarter of respondents having seen the most popular French film to show at the Palace, Le Mariage de Ramuntcho, and that number was probably helped by the curiosity of the film—the first Technicolor feature made in France.

I’ve lost track of the Palace after this, with listings and other information difficult to come by. At least in the late-1950’s the site had lost none of its status as a Paris icon. In Francois Truffaut’s Quatre Cents Coups (1959), it’s a very big night when Antoine Doinel, his mother, and stepfather go to the Palace to see Paris Nous Appartient, although I’m not at all sure that the film ever played there. This was probably just an in-joke between Truffaut and his friend Jacques Rivette, whose film wouldn’t even open until 1961. And Antoine’s stepfather is decidedly grouchy about going to the movies at all, and the Palace in particular. He frowns when he hears what’s playing there, and claims, anyway, that there are too many arsonists at cinemas, and at the Palace in particular.

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Arson had nothing to do with it, but the Gaumont-Palace closed in 1970 and was torn down two years later. In its place today is a shopping arcade, the Castorama, that sells kitchenware, furniture, and other household items, and that fronts the immense Mercure Hotel. There are some other cinemas nearby, notably a Pathé multiplex that dates from the 1950’s. But in addition to the Palace, the cinemas on the boulevard Rochechouart are all gone. As you walk into Castorama, you can get some sense of the vastness of the Palace, but the shopping and hotel complex really yields no evidence that the largest cinema in the world once stood there.

July, 2015--at the site of the Gaumont-Palace

July, 2015–at the site of the Gaumont-Palace

The Paris Cinema Project

Le-Tigre-Du-Bengale-DVD-Zone-2-900357494_MLWhen I was a graduate student in Paris, in 1980 and 1981, I walked home from classes and always passed a cinema, I think on the rue de Temple, that never changed its bill. Fritz Lang’s Bengal Tiger showed there for at least an entire year, and by the end of my stay I had come to count on the dependability of that one film at that same cinema week after week. When I saw The Bengal Tiger, there were probably only six or seven people in the audience, and I still remember the young woman who worked at the ticket booth, always smoking because she had nothing else to do. Practically no one was buying tickets to see the movie.

During that year in Paris, every Wednesday I bought the latest edition of Pariscope, which had complete listings of all of the films playing in the city and in the suburbs, a sort of weekly record of how new films and classics came and went and circulated through different neighborhoods. This was the kind of movement I had come to expect from growing up in Los Angeles, where subsequent-run theatres changed their bills every Wednesday, except when a popular movie might be held over, and where new movies rarely played in the first-run houses for more than a few weeks. I never really learned why, in Paris, most cinemas had a regular turnover while a few never seemed to change. Someone told me that the cinema on rue de Temple and others like it were subsidized by the government, and so didn’t have to change films, but that never seemed like a fully satisfying answer. Why did The Bengal Tiger never leave?

I’m fairly certain that’s when I began thinking about this project, about how movies circulated through Paris and about the relationships of cinemas to the movies they showed, to their neighborhoods, and to their audiences. I only really began working on it about a dozen years ago, after a trip back to Paris.

While I was there I found an odd shop, called Les Archives de la Presse, on the rue des Archives in the fourth arrondissement, stacked floor to ceiling with old French magazines. I went to the movie magazine section and looked through dozens of issues of Pour Vous, a popular film tabloid from the late-1920’s until the Occupation. And on the last page of each issue there was a complete listing of the cinemas in the city, the movies they were showing, and the times they showed.

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These listings provided the now long-gone cinematic geography of pre-war Paris. One could chart the ways movies moved through neighborhoods, the development (and closure) of cinemas, and the relative importance of movies to different parts of town (18 cinemas in the peripheral, working-class twentieth arrondissement, none in the first, which was spatially dominated by the Louvre). With these Pour Vous listings as well as some others, and with the availability of other sources, particularly those put online on its Gallica website by the Bibliothèque nationale, I began work on a project examining Parisian film culture from the late-1920’s until around 1950; the cinemas and the movies, the ciné-clubs and the preferred stars, and also the role of film journalism.

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I imagine this blog as an extension of that project. Paris will be at the center, but starting with the capital inevitably leads to the rest of France, to French speaking countries in Europe, and to France’s colonies. I’ve been taking pictures of old cinemas on subsequent trips to Paris, and also of the buildings—and there are many of them—where cinemas used to be.

I’ll be posting short pieces on individual cinemas or on groups of them, on what we can tell about the people who went to the movies in Paris, on the movies that played there as well as in Lille, Lyon, or Algiers. There are already some sites that do some similar work. Ross Melnick’s “Cinema Treasures” (http://cinematreasures.org/) offers an encyclopedic look at movie palaces and neighborhood venues around the world. “Cine-Facades” (http://sallesdecinemas.blogspot.com/) archives photographs of cinemas that still exist, and with no small amount of melancholy records those spaces that used to be cinemas. I am indebted to these sites. And I see this one as performing something of an archaeological function, working through layers of history to understand what it meant to go to the movies in Paris.

I’ll begin next time by writing about a movie theatre, the Gaumont-Palace in the eighteenth arrondissement. I hope to provide something of an historical walk through the area, and to try to understand the role of this great cinema palace in its neighborhood and in the city, and the mark it has left many years after its disappearance.