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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.