The Paris Cinema Project

Just a few days before France surrendered to Germany in June 1940, only around 50 of the 250 or so cinemas in Paris still were showing movies. By the time the Germans began their occupation of the city, all of the cinemas had closed. The process had been a gradual one, with all manner of businesses shutting down in the first few months of the year as so many Parisians, confronted by the inevitability of the Nazi army, fled the city.

The Nazis, of course, wanted to give the idea that Paris was back to business-as-usual, and they understood that reestablishing the film culture of the city was central to that project. They published two film magazines, in French, for all of France but with a focus on the capital: Vedettes (thanks to Judith Mayne for telling me about this one) and Ciné-Mondial. They also established a film company to produce French movies, and with a name so vague that it couldn’t really be associated with Germany—Continental Films. And they reopened at least some of the city’s cinemas, which also supplied German authorities with convenient sites of surveillance.


Ciné-Mondial from 6 August 1943, with Michèle Alfa on the cover

The first record I’ve found for these exhibition sites is from the week of 6 January 1943. By then, around 40 were back up and running, and that number would increase just a little by the liberation of Paris in 1944. These cinemas were disproportionately in the best parts of town, the areas so central to the concentration of Nazi power in the most well-heeled areas of the city, those with the fewest Jews and immigrants. Ten of those cinemas were within just a few blocks of each other on the Champs-Elysées—Le Biarritz, the Elysées-Cinéma, l’Ermitage, the Lord-Byron, the Portiques, and the Normandie, as well as a few more. For the duration of the Occupation there were no cinemas that reopened in the more peripheral areas of Paris, in terms of distance from the center of the city and also in terms of class and ethnicity, for example the densely populated and impoverished neighborhoods of the nineteenth and twentieth arrondissements.

Regardless of location, none of these cinemas showed movies all week. Almost all of them were closed on Tuesdays and many of them chose one other day as well to shut down, probably a result of the crippling shortages in the city, and particularly of electricity.

The Nazis staged gala reopenings for a few of these cinemas. In December 1940, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées showed a movie for the first time in almost a year, since Ennuis de ménage (Boy Trouble, 1939) played there in the middle of January. This cinema, at 118 avenue des Champs-Elysées, wasn’t particularly large but it was nevertheless prestigious, and advertisements ran in Parisian newspapers announcing both the newly reopened cinema and a new star for French audiences, Brigitte Horney in Les Mains Libres. Horney, the daughter of psychoanalyst Karen Horney, was already a star in Germany, and she had come to be characterized by her elegance, intellect and cosmopolitanism. Making this subtitled version of her 1939 movie, Befreite Hände, the first film shown in such a significant, and newly reopened, venue shows how hard Nazi authorities tried to turn her into a more international celebrity, one who might signify the benign, culturally uplifting nature of the Occupation.


A publicity still of Brigitte Horney, probably from the late-1930’s

Along with the cinemas in Paris, the ciné-clubs had closed, too, at the beginning of the Occupation. The Germans seemed interested, though, in not only reestablishing the everyday experience of cinema in Paris but also the more serious aspects of the city’s film culture. As a result, by 1943 they had started two new ciné-clubs, each connected to one of the film magazines I mentioned earlier. The only listings I’ve come across, however, are for the club linked to Ciné-Mondial.

That club met at first in the Salle Pleyel, a concert hall in the fashionable eighth arrondissement, and then moved to the building of La Societé des agriculteurs de France, which the Ciné-Club de Phare Tournant had used as its headquarters before the war. The club itself really looked little like those from the 1930’s. In this new ciné-club movies were almost never shown. Instead, it was a place for film celebrities to gather and entertain an audience. At a meeting in early-January, 1944, for instance, the stars Bernard Blier and Charles Moulin were present, and so too were Jean D’Yd and Pieral, two of the supporting actors from the Jean Cocteau film L’éternal retour, which had been produced during the Occupation and released in Paris just a few months before. At another club session later in 1944, Louis Jourdan was there with the actress Françoise Perier, the latter telling stories about the early years of her career. The following week Sessue Hayakawa was the club’s special guest. To the extent that evidence exists, the stars at the clubs always seem to have been French rather than German, or, as in the case of Hayakawa, foreign performers who had had extraordinary success in France.

There was still some vestige of previous clubs in the Ciné-Mondial group. Those earlier clubs typically took took their pedagogical function very seriously, and always had speakers talking about film history. In the spring of 1944, Ciné-Mondial sponsored just such an expert, the journalist Jeander, who spoke to club attendees about the future of French cinema. The following week, however, all of the club’s functions went back to normal, as guests would be amused by the movie stars Georges Marchal, Yvette Lebon, Alexander Rignault, and Armand Mestral.


The Salle Pleyel concert hall, the first meeting place of the Ciné-Mondial ciné-club

The Germans believed that this Ciné-Mondial club, at least, was so important to the Nazi cultural project in Paris that it remained open even as Paris was on the verge of being liberated, and as power shortages were closing down almost everything in the city. At the end of May 1944, Ciné-Mondial ran an ad stressing that its club would continue to meet, “despite the crisis in electricity” (“malgré la crise d’électricité”).

The splashiest film event of the Occupation was the 1944 Paris premiere of Les Aventures fantastiques de baron de Münchausen, produced in Germany at Ufa to mark the studio’s 25th anniversary and starring a who’s who of German cinema, including Hans Albers as the baron, Brigitte Horney as Catherine the Great, and Ilse Werner as Princess Isabella. The rococo, Technicolor fantasy of Münchausen seemed to remove it from the realm of ideology, probably just what Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels hoped for when he commissioned Ufa to make the film.

Ciné-Mondial ran articles about the move and photographs from it for weeks in preparation for the film’s opening at the Normandie cinema on 9 February 1943 (although accounts of the opening date differ just a bit). The Normandie, at 116 avenue des Champs-Elysées, had closed in early February 1940 (Les quatre plumes blanches/The Four Feathers had been the last film to play there), and its reopening, along with the other cinemas on the Champs-Elysées, had been a priority for the Nazis. At least by early-1943 the Normandie was back up and running with Mariage d’amour, a French film from the German-run Continental studio.


The Normandie cinema on the Champs-Elysées, during the 1944 run of Les Aventures fantastiques de baron de Münchausen

Münchausen played at the Normandie through 16 May, when it was replaced by yet another Continental film, La vie de plaisir, starring Albert Préjean. That three-month run was a long one for the Occupation, but not unheard of; the week Münchausen opened at the Normandie, L’Inévitable M. Dubois, starring Annie Ducaux, was finishing up a four-and-a-half month appearance at the cinema next door, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées. But leaving the Normandie didn’t mean leaving Paris. Münchausen reopened immediately and exclusively at the very fashionable Caméo cinema at 32 boulevard des Italiens in the ninth arrondissement. The film played there for more than two months, at least through the week of 26 July 1944. Those are the last listings I’ve found for Parisian cinemas during the Occupation. In fact, it’s possible that as the Allied army closed in on the city, and with a surge in fighting in the streets between the Resistance and the Nazis, often right in the center of Paris, cinemas began closing once again, just as they had four years earlier. The move to liberate Paris began in full on 19 august 1944, and the city was free by the 25th. I have yet to find any records of cinemas from the immediate aftermath of the Liberation.


The Mercedes-Benz dealership that used to be the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées





The Paris Cinema Project

After Walter Benjamin saw L’Impossible Monsieur Bebé (Bringing Up Baby) in Paris in the summer of 1938 he wrote to Gretel Adorno, Theodor’s wife. “I recently saw Katherine Hepburn for the first time,” Benjamin told her. “She’s magnificent and reminds me so much of you. Has no one ever told you that?” Benjamin had enjoyed the film, and also Hepburn’s performance immensely. But where, exactly, was he when he was struck by this resemblance between the star of Howard Hawks’ great comedy and his very close friend? And how long had he waited to see the film?


Gretel Adorno in an undated photograph

I’d like to thank Charlie Bertsch for telling me about Benjamin and L’Impossible Monsieur Bebé, and about the Hepburn/Gretel letter. Benjamin dated it 20 July, about four months after the March opening of Bebé at the Miracles-Lord Byron cinema at 122 avenue des Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement.


One of the posters for L’Impossible Monsieur Bebé

The Miracles was not one of the very grand cinemas on the Champs-Elysées, but it was nevertheless a prestigious venue, and it was one of twenty or so first-run cinemas in the most fashionable parts of the city that specialized in foreign films shown in their original languages and subtitled in French. In the case of the Miracles, and in fact many of these other cinemas, those films typically were from Hollywood. When Bebé opened at the Miracles, for instance, Marie Walewska (Conquest) with Greta Garbo showed at Le Paris in the eighth arrondissement just a few blocks away, while the Warner Bros. musical Monsieur Dodd part pour Hollywood (Mr. Dodd Takes the Air) was at Le Helder in the ninth, and La rue sans issue (Dead End) played the Ciné-Opéra in the second. Of course, there were also dubbed films showing in Paris. When audiences watched Cary Grant in Bebé during the film’s opening in March, they also could have seen the actor in another of his comedies from the period, Le couple invisible (Topper), at the subsequent-run cinema Mirage on avenue Clichy, although they would have heard a French actor speaking Grant’s lines.

Lord Byron 1960

The Miracles-Lord Byron cinema around 1960

Based on the available press coverage, it seems to have been a fairly big deal in Paris when L’Impossible Monsieur Bebé opened, and the movie had a very healthy first run at the Miracles, showing for a little over two months until the end of May. But that was hardly extraordinary. Bebé replaced another Cary Grant film at the Miracles, Cette sacrée verité (The Awful Truth), which had played there for three months (before that, Ange [Angel], with Marlene Dietrich, had lasted only about one month, perhaps indicating that Dietrich’s star was fading a bit in Paris at the time).

Given the dates of Bebé’s run at the Miracles, it seems doubtful that Benjamin saw it there and then waited six weeks or more to write his letter to Gretel. The film disappeared for a short time after it left the Miracles, and then returned, once again in exclusivity and with sub-titles, at another cinema on the Champs-Elysées, L’Ermitage. For a movie to go from one prominent cinema to another with not much time in between was common in Paris at the time, although the venues were not often so close to one another. I’ve written earlier, for instance, about L’Ange Bleu moving from one exclusive run to another in 1931, but in cinemas on opposite sides of the Seine.


L’Ermitage cinema in the late 1980’s

Benjamin almost certainly saw Bebé at this second location, with the movie playing there from the end of June until 20 July, the date on the letter. On 21 July Bebé left L’Ermitage, to be replaced by Bob Hope and W.C. Fields in The Big Broadcast of 1938. Hawks’ film wasn’t absent from Parisian screens for long, though, as it had reopened at the Courcelles cinema, in the seventeenth arrondissement, by the end of the month, and played there for a few weeks. This appearance at the Courcelles would mark the last chance for anyone in Paris, Benjamin included, to see and hear Hepburn and Grant in the film, because Bebé went straight from the Courcelles to the Mozart cinema in the sixteenth at the end of August, but this time in a dubbed version.

It’s difficult to tell whether other cinemas in Paris were showing Bebé as well by this time, because most of the available sources are somewhat sketchy. Newspapers, like Le Figaro, Le Petit Parisien and Le Matin never listed all of the cinemas in the city, and even the communist newspaper of record in Paris, l’Humanité, concentrated only on the “better” venues.  If Bebé appeared in any other neighborhoods, however, it almost certainly would have been in the same French language version showing at the Mozart, with this trajectory from exclusively in English at a single cinema to throughout the city in a dubbed format more or less the pattern for the period.  In addition, the film now played on double bills, first at the Courcelles, with the 1937 Barbara Stanwyck film Déjeuner pour deux (Breakfast for Two), and then at the Mozart with a film I have been unable to identify beyond its title, Guerre Tax.

Bebé moved through the rest of France during this period, and also France’s colonies. The film seems to have come to North Africa in the spring of 1939. I haven’t found any evidence of Bebé playing in Algiers, but it showed in a nearby suburb, Hussein-Dey, in March of that year, on a double bill with Révolte à Dublin (The Plough and the Stars), the 1936 Barbara Stanwyck/John Ford film, at the Cinéma-Royal. In fact the film reached the Algerian market even before it had played in many parts of France. Bebé didn’t show in Nantes, for instance, in Western France, until the week of 13 June 1940, at the Apollo cinema. Gunga Din, a Cary Grant film from 1939, was playing at the Palace that week, just a few days before the surrender to Germany, making them quite possibly the last two American films to play in Nantes, and among the last to play in France, until the end of the war.

Also on 13 June, Benjamin fled Paris with his sister, a day ahead of the Nazis marching into the city. Before this, Benjamin, the Jewish émigré, had been rendered stateless; imprisoned in France for several months at the outbreak of the war as a German national despite the Nazis having removed the citizenship rights of all German Jews. Benjamin made his way to Spain, but then, when faced with deportation by the Franco government, he committed suicide on 25 September 1940. Gretel Adorno died in 1993.


The Bistrot Romain on the site of the Miracles-Lord Byron

In the almost eighty years since L’Impossible Monsieur Bebé opened in Paris, the cinematic geography of the city has changed dramatically. The Miracles-Lord Byron is now a now a restaurant, part of the Bistrot Romain chain. L’Ermitage cinema currently is a smartphone store. And the Mozart, like so many of the old cinemas in Paris, has become another of the ubiquitous Monoprix outlets, selling food, hardware, clothing, and household items.


L’Ermitage cinema is now a smartphone store