The Paris Cinema Project

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.

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André de Fouquières’ column in the 12 April 1935 edition of La Semaine

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.

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Salle Adyar, the meeting place for Le Tribune Libre du Cinéma

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.

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The interior at 8 rue d’Athènes, at the La Societé des agriculteurs de France, where Le Ciné-Club Phare Tournant screened 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.

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The site for so many ciné-clubs in the 1930’s, the Marignan cinema as it looks today

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.

 

The Paris Cinema Project

Alcazar. Epatant. Feérique. Luna. Paradis. And Cocorico. These are just a few of the cinemas that were in Paris’ twentieth arrondissement. In fact, the twentieth had one of the densest concentrations of cinemas of any section of Paris, and all of them were neighborhood places rather than destination sites that drew audiences from all over the city.

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The twentieth arrondissement (the shaded area on the right). The boulevard de Belleville and the boulevard de Ménilmontant form the western border of the arrondissement and also of the Pére Lachaise cemetery (the large, darker area)

The twentieth arrondissement marks the easternmost part of Paris, incorporating the Pére Lachaise cemetery and with three suburbs, Romainville, Bagnolet, and Montreuil just beyond. While it’s gentrifying now, the twentieth had long been one of the centers of Parisian working class and immigrant life, and has always had one of the largest populations of all the arrondissements. Belleville and Ménilmontant are the two principle sections of the twentieth, and the latter in particular has a special place in Parisian culture. Maurice Chevalier was born there, and it served as the title of Dimitri Kirsanoff’s great 1926 short film as well as René Guissart’s 1936 comedy starring Pierre Larquey, who typically played likable working-class stiffs. Despite this romance of the tenement and Chevalier’s “roi du macadam,” or perhaps in part because of it, the twentieth has been all over the political spectrum, and as recently as the 1980’s elected the ultra-far-right Jean-Marie le Pen as its municipal councilor.

My earliest, and somewhat sketchy, records for the twentieth go back to 1922, when there were at least 11 cinemas there. By the early 1930’s there were 18 locations for seeing movies in the arrondissement, a number that would more or less stay the same throughout the decade. The twentieth shares its western border with the eleventh arrondissement, with the two separated by the extraordinarily long boulevard de Belleville which itself becomes the boulevard de Ménilmontant. There were six cinemas along this extended stretch, which probably means that they drew audiences from both arrondissements, and there were also cinemas clustered on other major streets, for instance three on the rue des Pyrénées. Most of the cinemas were above the Pére Lachaise Cemetery, and just a few—including the Avron-Palace, a photo of which hovers above this blog—below.

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The Cocorico, long after it had seen better days

There were some cinemas from major French exhibition chains, for instance the Pathé-Bagnolet and also three from the Palace circuit—the Avron, the Ménil, and the Stella—although the twentieth typically was not the place for major, first-run films, but rather a neighborhood for movies in their subsequent runs through the city. And while double-bills always had a vexed place in Parisian film culture, the cinemas in the twentieth often showed more than one film at a time. Finding out about all of these movies, however, could prove difficult. The important Parisian newspapers—Le Matin, Le Figaro, and others—tended only to print listings for more well-to-do areas. La Semaine and Pour Vous were the best references for movies there, but the Paris Weekly, the trimmed down, English language version of La Semaine, designed for tourists from the UK and the US, never ran information about the twentieth, as if it was inconceivable that any foreigner might want to see a movie there, let alone have dinner, go dancing, or go to a music hall in such a neighborhood.

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A 1931 issue of The Paris Weekly, for tourists from the US and the UK, with no mention of anything to do or see in the twentieth arrondissement

The peripheral status of the twentieth might be marked in other ways. After the beginning of World War Two and the Nazi march towards Paris, vast numbers of people left the city for seemingly safer places. This led, inevitably, to the closure of many businesses, and one might imagine that the best neighborhoods might be affected the most, because that’s where the people lived who had the means to get out of Paris. But at least in terms of the cinema, the twentieth was hit harder than perhaps any other neighborhood. By March, 1940, just a few months before France’s surrender to Germany, only one cinema remained open in the twentieth, the 280-seat Ciné-Bellevue on the boulevard de Belleville.

Two films at the Bellevue were the last to play in the twentieth before the surrender. One of the movies on the double bill was the aptly named Le monde en armes (1939), about a French conscript. Le monde en armes had opened at the Marivaux cinema in the second arrondissement just a few weeks before, and then, with greater than usual speed perhaps because of the dwindling population of Paris, moved to the Ciné-Bellevue. The other film playing there, and with an irony that would become apparent in just a few days when France surrendered, was a 1938 German production, Der unmögliche Herr Pitt (Un soir d’escale).

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The site of the Ciné-Bellevue today

All of the cinemas in Paris closed after the surrender. Within the first year of the Occupation, the Nazis reopened around 45 of them, mostly the larger venues in the better parts of town, and none of them in the twentieth. After the war the cinematic geography of Paris changed quickly once again. By January, 1947—the first postwar listings I’ve been able to find—there were 22 cinemas in full operation in the twentieth, and in the same locations as before the war along with a few new ones. The neighborhood seemed to remain, however, the place for subsequent-run films. During the week of 14 January, 1947, 14 films played in the twentieth. Two French films from 1946, Jeux de femmes and L’Assassin n’est pas coupable (the latter with Albert Préjean), each played in three cinemas. And a few other films played in two cinemas each: Tarzan l’intrépide (Tarzan the Fearless) from 1933 and with Buster Crabbe in the starring role, L’Etrangere (All This, and Heaven Too) from 1940, with Bette Davis and Charles Boyer, and Nuits d’alerte, a 1946 film directed by Léon Mathot.

All of these films in the twentieth give us a sense of Parisian film culture right after the war. Because of the Nazi embargo on Hollywood movies during the Occupation, there was a backlog of American films, not only L’Etrangere but also, from 1944, La route semée d’étoiles (Going My Way, with Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald) and René Clair’s C’ést arrivé demain (It Happened Tomorrow, with Dick Powell and Linda Darnell). Audiences in the twentieth could also see Humphrey Bogart and Alexis Smith in La mort n’était pas au rendez-vous (Conflict), from 1945. Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, ville ouverte (Rome, Open City) played throughout Paris that week, including at the Palais-Avron in the twentieth. Viewers who perhaps had little taste for neo-realism could walk just a block or so up the rue d’Avron from the Palais to the Family cinema for Le Rocher de la mort, a reissue of the 1936 western from Reliable Pictures Corporation, Santa Fe Bound, with Tom Tyler and Jeanne Martel. All of the foreign films in the twentieth that week, from Rossellini’s to Laurel and Hardy’s 1933 short Joies du marriage (Twice Two), played in dubbed versions, which had become very much the standard throughout the city. These films were joined by a few other French reissues playing in single cinemas, for instance Marcel Pagnol’s César, from 1936, and the 1940 Le café du port, starring René Dary and Line Viala.

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Lining up to see a Truffaut film at the Féerique in 1968

I have no record of the cinemas in the twentieth for the next forty years. But if you were to take a walk through the neighborhood now, you would have no sense of the once vibrant possibilities for seeing movies there. In the late-1980’s there was just one cinema in the twentieth, and even now there are only two, both multiplexes. One of them, the MK2 Gambetta, is on the site of the old Gambetta cinema at 6 rue Belgrand. The other old locations have been put to different uses. The Family cinema, for instance, at 81 rue d’Avron, is now the site of an office of Electricité de France, part of the state-owned French utility company. The Séverine, the Tourelles, the Ménil-Palace, Le Pelleport, the Féerique, and the Palais-Avron cinemas are now supermarkets.

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The Marché Franprix supermarket on the site of the Féerique cinema