The Ciné-Clubs of Paris, Part One: The 1930’s
André de Fouquières was sort of a professional bon vivant and flâneur in Paris before World War II, when you could make a living doing that kind of thing. He wrote a regular column for La Semaine, organized as a day-by-day stroll through the city, dipping into and out of concerts, museums, conferences, and exhibitions, although he rarely paid much attention to the movies. But that wasn’t the case in his column for 12 April, 1935, when he suggested a full course of events for Friday of that week. First, one might take in the opening of the Goya Exposition at the Bibliothêque Nationale in the second arrdondissement, and then, at 3:00, move to the Musée d’Ethnographique du Trocadéro in the sixteenth for a display of photographs of Indo-China and Siam. One might then wander over to the Théâtre des Ambassadeurs in the eighth arrondissement for a 5:00 conference on “that distressing problem: ‘Will there be war?’” That evening, after all of that talk of war and after just a short walk to the Champs-Elysées, the interested aesthete could go to the Marignan cinema for a meeting of the Ciné-Club de la Femme. De Fouquières did not note the program at the club that night. For him, the gathering of the members at the Marignan was significant enough.
As much as anything, this marks the difference between the movies and the ciné-clubs in Paris during the 1930’s. Although the clubs were part of the film culture of the city, they were at the same time marginal to it, given the dominance of the commercial cinema. But the clubs had affiliations that the commercial cinema typically did not have, affiliations with a high-brow Parisian culture of the museum and the concert hall.
Despite its intellectual and artistic appeal to de Fouquières and those who followed his column, the ciné-club came to be defined in no small measure by an extraordinary level of nationwide bureaucracy. In France during the early 1930’s, the Annuare Générale des Lettres kept obsessive track of such things, and among its more than 600 pages of lists of authors’ deaths, awards to artists, university officials, taxes on artistic activities, and legislation affecting newspapers, there was also a section devoted to “Clubs Cinématographique.” The 1933-34 edition listed three, and all apparently in Paris. The Fédération française des Ciné-Clubs, with headquarters on the rue du Général-Foy in the eighth arrondissement, stood out as by far the most important with Germaine Dulac as president and Marcel L’Herbier, René Clair, and Abel Gance as members; then Cinéregardo, on the rue de Vaugirard in the fifteenth; and finally the club But. There were also some 16 satellite groups, mostly in Paris but also in Reims and Strasbourg and Nice, where Jean Vigo presided as president.
As early as 1929, the leaders of all of the clubs in France assembled in Paris for the Congrés des Ciné-Clubs, with Dulac running the meeting. Club leaders discussed their mission of foregrounding those films that initially had failed to find a public or had been forgotten, or were now only seen in incomplete and compromised prints. They informed each other about efforts to develop clubs and audiences throughout the country, in Agen, Montpelier, Angers, Troyes, Avignon, and elsewhere, and of the need for rigid administrative practices. Club leaders understood that film distribution must be absolutely systematic, or else the club system would fall victim to the same random uncertainties that marked so much of the French film industry, while the government would tax the clubs much more highly as individual entities than as members of a large federation. This system developed by the clubs appears to have lasted, more or less successfully, at least until the German invasion of France in 1940.
Paris was the center for the clubs, and it can be difficult now to determine which of them had affiliations with the nationwide organization. These clubs might cater to different as well as overlapping audiences. There was the club Cendrillon, for instance, specializing in children’s films, and Les Amis de Spartacus, aligned with the French Communist Party and typically showing films banned in France, such as Potemkin. There were clubs, as well, with connections to other media. One of the longest-lasting and best known of the clubs was Le Tribune Libre du Cinéma, established as an offshoot of the newspaper Le Tribune Libre, and by 1939 the club had its own radio program, with debates and discussions led by the well-known French polymath Maurice Bessy. Possibly because of the multi-media success of Le Tribune Libre du Cinéma, the film tabloid Pour Vous, itself the sister publication of the far right-wing newspaper L’Intransegeant, established its own Club des Amis de Pour Vous around 1940. Les Amis de Pour Vous showed premieres of major French films as well as reprises of popular films at 92 Avenue des Champs-Elysées, a fashionable address but one that seems not to have been a conventional space for showing movies.
Holding meetings in such a space was not unusual. Le Ciné-Club de Phare Tournant showed movies at 8 rue d’Athènes in the ninth arrondissement, at the building housing La Societé des agriculteurs de France, which more typically hosted gatherings dedicated to the future of French farming. Le Tribune Libre du Cinéma screened films in the seventh arrondissement at the Salle Adyar, a theatre rather than a cinema. Whether they met in cinemas or other spaces, however, most of the clubs—or, at least, those that we can find even sketchy records of today—met in some of the most exclusive parts of Paris. A number of clubs, including Cendrillon, Le Cercle du Cinéma, Le Ciné-Club de la Femme, and Le Club Cinégraphique, had their weekly screenings at 33 Avenue des Champs-Elysées, at the Marignan, one of the most important cinemas in Paris. Those club screenings, however, seem to have been in a small room adjoining the large space for regular screenings.
The club screenings during the 1930’s tended towards several major and often overlapping categories. The director retrospective always seemed popular, and René Clair was always a popular choice. There would also be some unexpected directors selected, for instance in December 1930, when Le Tribune Libre du Cinéma dedicated itself to the work of Jean Gremillon, who at the time had been making films for only a few years. There were also frequent club screenings of silent films, and there would be thematic series, for instance an entire evening (or more) dedicated to films about war. Avant-garde cinema always had a special place in the clubs, and so too would films that had been censored in France. In fact, in 1939 the cinè-club as a safe space for banned films became a legislative reality, through a law that put into place the absolute distinction between the clubs and typical cinemas. Now understood as fully private rather than public spaces, the clubs would not be allowed to admit just anyone who felt like attending. Rather, only club members who had paid their dues for the entire year would be allowed entrance, and as a result the clubs could show even the most provocative films without interference.
Throughout the 1930’s, though, many of the screenings seem to have been fairly conventional, with a significant number of commercial films from Hollywood and France as well as other countries. The real difference between the clubs and the commercial cinemas came after the screenings, with the clubs usually holding debates and discussions. This would be true for the clubs catering to serious cinéphiles, for instance in 1935 when Le Ciné-Club de la Femme showed George Cukor’s Little Women (1933), which was then followed by a presentation by prominent feminist attorney Yvonne Netter, or when in 1936 Le Ciné Club Mercredi screened Julien Duvivier’s La Bandera (1935), and then staged a debate about the merits of the film. But this might also be true for less aesthetically inclined audiences. Even the kids who went to Cendrillon to be amused by Mickey Mouse or Flip the Frog were subjected to post-film discussions and received guidance in the art of cinema.
The purposes as well as the spaces of the ciné-club changed dramatically during the Occupation, and then, of course, after the war we find the club culture that became such a central part of the New Wave and French film theory of the 1950’s. I’ll write about those developments in a later post.