When the great French music hall star Mistinguett played the Majestic theatre in Algiers in 1930, she called her revue C’est Paris, and two years after that success she came back with Voilà Paris. As much as anything else, Mistinguett in Algiers shows us just how fully Parisian the “official” culture was there. And the cinema of Algiers during the period would be much the same, at least to the extent we can understand it now.
From around 1930 to the end of World War Two, there were always between fifteen and twenty cinemas for the 400,000 or so inhabitants of Algiers, and many of them had the same names as those in Paris: Alhambra, Majestic, Splendid, Alcazar, Bijou, and Le Colisée, for instance. Only one seemed to have a name that had anything specifically to do with Algiers proper–the Blida-L’Empire, named in part for a nearby province and city.
My sources for information about the cinema and other entertainments in Algiers are two newspapers, Les Spectacles d’Algiers and L’Echo d’Algiers. It’s very difficult to tell, now, if all of these cinemas were more or less the same, although Les Spectacles routinely listed only six or seven of them, which might indicate that those were the most significant sites for seeing movies while the others might be for lesser films or for subsequent runs.
In the early-1930’s, those major cinemas were Le Colisée, Le Splendid Cinéma, Le Régent, Olympia, L’Empire, Trianon, Cinéma Musset, and Le Ciné-Théatre, and throughout the latter part of the decade and the early-1940’s a few more were added to the list. The films that played there give further evidence of the importance of those cinemas. In just the early 1930’s, the most significant, most awaited films—for example L’Ange Bleu (The Blue Angel), A l’ouest rien de nouveau (All Quiet on the Western Front), L’Opéra de Quat’ Sous (Threepenny Opera), and Jeunes filles en uniforme (Madchen en Uniform)–all opened at one of those half-dozen or so cinemas.
All of those films, of course, had extended runs in Paris, but in Algiers, they played for only one week, indicating not so much a lack of popularity as, simply, the time it took for a film to attract all of the viewers it could there. Or perhaps there were limited prints made available to North Africa, and film companies preferred getting them out quickly to major locations rather than letting them stay in any one city for too long a time. Only occasionally would a film play longer than seven days, with the six week run of Chaplin’s Les Lumières de la Ville (City Lights) at the Splendid Cinéma in the spring of 1932 indicating that the film was as significant to the cultural landscape of Algiers as it had been to all of Europe.
Other films that ran for more than one week at around the same time, however, are unknown to us now, and show that it wasn’t just the universally acclaimed film that might attract an extraordinary audience in Algiers. An Egyptian film, in French called La Chanson du Coeur—itself a rarity in a film market dominated by movies from France, the United States, and Germany–played for two weeks at the Olympia in 1932, and so too did a French film made by Paramount at its studio outside Paris, Avec l’assurance, which featured Madeleine Guitty, who had been the star of Germaine Dulac’s 1923 film, La souriante Madame Beudet (The Smiling Madame Beudet).
Movie fans in Algiers had certain favorites among performers, at least if the French colonial press is to be believed, and they tended to be the most famous Parisian—and French—performers. Mistinguett returned to the music halls of Algiers again and again, and so too did Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier. In fact, Chevalier, as a live performer and as a movie star, gives us a sense of the place of French popular culture in Algiers during the 1930’s, and also provides a lesson in what we might call differential film history, in this case regarding the introduction of sound film.
When Chevalier appeared in Algiers in person, in the 1930 revue Un dimanche à New York, Les Spectacles d’Alger asserted the star’s importance as a French treasure, lovingly referring to him as that “celebrated national music hall star.” A few years later when the film Une heure près de toi (One Hour With You, 1932) premiered there, the same newspaper claimed the French performer as theirs, informing readers that the film starred “our own” Maurice Chevalier. And, really, it was the sound of Chevalier’s voice that seemed most to excite the colonial press. At the opening of Chevalier’s sound film debut, La chanson de Paris (Innocents of Paris, 1929), in Algiers in January 1930, the newspapers gushed. Les Spectacles d’Alger announced, “We have seen and heard, in our city, several artists on-screen with synchronized sound” in short subjects, and then dismissed those efforts as “interesting,” but not really cinema. Now, though, the real thing had come to the Splendid Cinéma, with Chevalier’s film standing out as the first feature-length sound film shown in Algiers.
At a time when it might take a film anywhere from six to eighteen months to move from Paris to Algiers, audiences there saw La chanson de Paris even before they had the chance to watch Al Jolson in Le Chanteur de Jazz (The Jazz Singer), which opened in Paris in January 1929 but didn’t come to North Africa until February 1930. With that film, Jolson had become a major star in France, and he would be popular in French colonies as well. But for audiences in Algiers, the film that is understood to inaugurate the sound era is the one that stars the quintessential Parisian, Chevalier.
During World War Two and after the French surrender, the Nazis placed Algeria, and indeed other French colonies in North Africa, under Vichy authority. In November 1942 the Allies launched one of their first major operations of the war in North Africa, and liberated Algiers quite quickly, without facing much resistance. But even under German control, the film culture of Algiers differed significantly from that of Paris and much of the rest of France.
In Algiers, unlike Paris, American films maintained a significant presence in cinemas even prior to the liberation, although they were mostly reissues. At the end of April 1942, for example, La Peur du Scandale (Fools for Scandal, 1938) with Carole Lombard and French actor Fernand Gravey appeared at the Splendid, and 3 Camarades (Three Comrades, 1938) with Margaret Sullavan and Robert Taylor showed in two cinemas, the Rio and the Musset. The 1938 Loretta Young film Kentucky played at the Midi-Minuit, while Zaza (1938, with Claudette Colbert) was at the Lux, Quels Seront les Cinq (Five Came Back, 1941) showed at the Caméra, and Marie Antoinette (1938) appeared at the Roxy. Quasimodo (The Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1939) ran at three cinemas, the Colisée, the Vox, and the Plaza (which themselves seemed linked in a small theatrical chain, with a reissue of Garbo’s La Reine Christine [Queen Christina, 1933] also playing at all three in 1941). There were just a few French films available that week, for instance Fernandel in L’Acrobate (1941) at the Empire and the Majestic, and Viviane Romance and Claude Dauphin at the Marignan in Une Femme dans la Nuit (1942), with both films probably making their first appearances in Algiers.
I’ve lost track of the cinemas in Algiers after World War Two. Journalistic sources are scarce, and even before the Algerian war began in 1954, the French governmental sources that I’ve seen don’t seem to consider Algiers much of a market for French films. Even when we examine the thirties and forties, it is difficult to know the exact relationship between the cinemas in Algiers and the French film industry, by which I mean, for instance, how many of the cinemas may have been locally owned and how many controlled by French companies (indeed, the Roxy was almost certainly an American-owned exhibition site). Many of the cinemas from the 1930’s and ‘40’s still exist, although mostly as abandoned exhibition sites. I certainly don’t mean this as an exercise in colonialist nostalgia, lamenting a lost golden age of cinema, but rather as a brief attempt to reconstruct a film culture under colonialism, while acknowledging the difficulty of knowing just which audiences these cinemas served, how reliably we can take the extant newspaper accounts from the period, and what different populations in the city thought about the dominance there of films from France and Hollywood.