The Paris Cinema Project

Just after the Liberation of Paris the city’s cinemas were allowed to show movies only two nights a week. In their bulletin of 23 October 1944, however, the Comité de la Libération du Cinéma Français announced that cinemas would now be showing movies on five days, all except Tuesday and Thursday. And instead of just a single evening screening at 9:30, cinemas would be authorized to show one matinee on Saturday and two on Sunday. The Comité itself had been formed by filmmakers Jacques Becker, Jean Painlevé, and others in 1943, and the group had been working since then as part of the Resistance and also in making plans for postwar French cinema. But two months after the late-August liberation of Paris, things were still moving slowly in bringing the city’s film culture back to anything resembling the vibrancy of the pre-war period.


The 23 October 1944 Bulletin Officiel du Comité de la Libération du Cinéma Français

Assessing the last few weeks of the Nazi occupation and the first few months after the Liberation is extraordinarily difficult, at least for the film historian based in the United States. The evidence remains sketchy at best, and is often non-existent. Here is what seems to have been the case. By the end of July 1944 there were still some 45 cinemas open in Paris, a number that had remained stable throughout most of the Occupation. Just three weeks later, around the middle of August, with the Resistance fighting Nazi forces in the middle of Paris and more than holding their own, that number had gone down to three: the Normandie cinema on the Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement and two other first-run cinemas in the eighteenth, the Palais-Rochechuart and the Gaumont-Palace. During this period, these three cinemas seem mostly to have been screening documentaries, and within just a few days the Gaumont-Palace would be closed. Cabarets and theatres were closing as well, with the latter often presenting their shows only in the daytime (“jouant à la lumière du jour”), probably to save on the electricity that was in increasingly short supply in the city.

On 25 August the Germans surrendered Paris. As difficult as it is to find information about the cinema there in the weeks just before the Liberation, it is, seemingly, impossible for the five weeks that followed. By 1 October at least five cinemas had opened: once again the Gaumont-Palace and the Normandie, but also Le Savoie in the eleventh arrondissement, the Ciné-Batignolles in the seventeenth, and the Paramount in the ninth. Audiences didn’t have much choice, however, about what they saw. All of those cinemas showed the same thing, France Libre, a compilation of actuality footage made by the Comité de la Libération du Cinéma Français and that documented the liberation of Paris.


Parisians lining up to see France Libre at the Normandie cinema

By 15 October at least seven cinemas were open, and audiences had a limited range of films from which to choose. In the second arrondissement the Rex cinema, one of the largest in Paris, was back up and running. The Rex had been a “Soldaten Kino” during the Occupation, one of several in the city reserved for members of the German military, but now, open once again to the general public, it presented Deanna Durbin in Eve a commencé (It Started With Eve) from 1941 but making its first appearance in Paris. Durbin was popular in Paris that week; her film also played at the Avenue cinema in the eighth arrondissement. The 1939 World War One melodrama starring Junie Astor and Léon Mathot, Deuxième bureau contre kommandantur, which had been released initially just a few days before the 1940 French surrender and so probably didn’t play widely in France because of its anti-German sentiment, also showed at two cinemas, the Aubert-Palace and the Club des Vedettes, both in the ninth arrondissement. At two cinemas just a couple of blocks apart on the boulevard des Italiens in the second arrondissement, a new French film, Coup de tête, premiered at the Marivaux and Jean Delannoy’s Pontcarral, colonel de l’empire, from 1942, was in reissue at the Imperial. Just two weeks after France Libre had blanketed the city, the only real reminder of the war was at the Normandie, which showed a documentary that became something of a hit in Paris, Un jour de guerre en URSS.

Over the next few weeks more and more cinemas opened, many of them among the most important in Paris. In early November there were around 30 cinemas open, including the posh Biarritz in the eighth arrondissement (showing the Paris premiere of Julien Duvivier’s 1942 Hollywood film, Six destins/Tales of Manhattan) and also, in the second arrondissement, the Ciné-Opéra, one of three cinemas in the city showing the 1941 Alfred Hitchcock film M. et Mme Smith (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) which was playing in Paris for the first time. As typically had been the case in pre-war Paris, there were also important reprises: L’extravagant Mister Deeds (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [1936]) at the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, and perhaps most significantly given the recent Liberation, Jean Renoir’s celebration of the French Revolution, La Marseillaise, at the Moulin-Rouge in the eighteenth, and Jean Gabin in Quai des Brumes at Les Portiques on the Champs-Elysées. Gabin’s films seemed to play continuously in Paris from the mid-1930’s until the beginning of the war, but then the Nazis banned his movies when it became clear that the star had no intention to leave the United States and return to France. As far as I can tell, this presentation of the great 1939 film he made for Marcel Carné, and that co-starred another French exile to Hollywood, Michèle Morgan, was the first Gabin film to play in post-Liberation Paris.


The Paramount cinema, around 1946

By the end of 1944 there were more than fifty cinemas open in Paris. They showed new French films (Jean Delanoy’s Le Bossu at the Vivienne in the second arrondissement), Russian movies (L’arc-en-Ciel at the Max Linder in the ninth), a range of American films from before the war (Ames à la Mer/Souls at Sea, from 1937, at the Gaité-Clichy in the seventeenth), and Hollywood films that had been kept out of Paris because of the Occupation (John Stahl’s comedy Mme et son clochard/Our Wife, from 1941, at l’Ermitage in the eighth). One such Hollywood film playing at the time was perhaps the most eagerly anticipated movie event of the immediate post-Liberation period, René Clair’s Ma femme est une sorcière (I Married a Witch), from 1942, showing at both the Biarritz in the eighth and the Caméo in the ninth. At least in the popular press, Clair was understood at the time as the father of modern French cinema, and a Clair film that Parisians had to wait more than two years for seemed to cause even more excitement than a new film by the master.

Along with the much-anticipated opening of Clair’s film, the event that marked the full return of Parisian–and French–film culture was certainly La Grande Quinzaine du Cinéma Français. We tend to think of the 1946 Cannes Film Festival, held for the first time after the 1939 planned opening was put on hold by the war, as the sign that French cinema had regained its prominence. As important as that may have been on an international scale, on a more local level La Grande Quinzaine (or “fortnight”) marked Paris once again as a film capital. For two weeks beginning on 4 December, the Normandie cinema, always one of the most important in Paris, would show fourteen “grandes productions” made between 1940 and 1944. These films played in addition to the newly-released movie showing exclusively at the Normandie throughout December, the Annie Ducaux vehicle Florence est Folle. A film schedule for La Quinzaine seems no longer to exist, but it’s safe to assume that nothing shown there would have been made by Continental, the German studio that made so many French-language films during the war. The only film I’ve been able to identify so far is Jacques Becker’s murder mystery Goupi mains rouges, from 1943.


Georges Rollin and Blanchette Brunoy in Goupi Mains Rouges, one of the films in La Grande Quinzaine du Cinéma Français

There were also less elevated signs of the film culture of Paris having returned to pre-Occupation levels. Also in December, just as La Quinzaine was getting under way at the Normandie, the major cinema chains in the city announced an end to the post-Liberation policy of giving French soldiers discounted admissions to Saturday and Sunday screenings


The Paramount cinema, now the Gaumont-Opéra, in 2015





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