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

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