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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.