How did movies make their way across France? We might assume that major films, at the very least, opened in Paris and then went on to other cities and then to less urban areas. But, really, what were the patterns involved?
The evidence typically doesn’t exist, at least if you’re working from the United States. As much as we can know about Paris, it’s extraordinarily difficult to find out many of the details of the film cultures of Havre, or Lyon, or Bordeaux, let alone any of the smaller cities and towns in France. For the 1930s, the period that interests me here, we have some national facts and figures. In 1937 the government announced that there were 4,000 cinemas in France, and perhaps surprisingly 500 of them still had not been wired for sound. It’s difficult, though, to go much beyond that, and we have to get the evidence wherever we can find it.
The film weekly Pour Vous focused most of its energy on Paris and on the films showing there. At least occasionally—or perhaps in a national issue meant for the rest of the country—the tabloid ran the column “Aux quatre coins de la France…ce qui se passe” (“What’s going on in the four corners of France”), announcing regional productions, the comings and goings of movie stars, and the films that had just opened. From the issue of 22 January 1931, readers found out that René Clair’s great, early sound film, Sous les toits de Paris, had just started playing in Lille, while a comedy unknown to us now, Mon coeur incognito, had premiered in Marseille.
On the southern coast of France, Marseille had a population of around 600,000 at the time, probably enough to make it the second largest city in France (2.9 million lived in Paris). Lille, in northern France, had just over 200,000 inhabitants, which almost certainly ranked it around tenth largest in the county (the position it holds today).
Mon coeur incognito was actually a German production. The film starred Mady Christians, who was Austrian, and Jean Angelo, a French actor who had had an extensive silent film career and appeared in sound films for just a few years. Two versions seem to have been made, one in French and one in German. At about the same time that the film opened in Marseille it started running, as well, in Paris, the week of 16 January 1931 at the Caméo-Aubert cinema on the boulevard des Italiens in the ninth arrondissement.
This certainly doesn’t count as definitive evidence, but it may well indicate that films opened more or less simultaneously in larger cities. Indeed, when Pour Vous announced Mon coeur incognito in Marseille, the tabloid also mentioned that G.W. Pabst’s Quatre de l’infanterie (Westfront 1918) continued its run there, which would closely match the film’s December 1930 opening in Paris. By this time Quatre de l’Infanterie had also already played in Havre, according to Pour Vous, and so it seems likely that Pabst’s film had opened throughout France (Havre was only just getting A l’Ouest rien de nouveau—All Quiet on the Western Front—which for the last month had been a sensation in Paris).
Other cities, even large ones, had to wait their turn. In Western France, audiences in Nantes–typically the fifth or sixth largest city in the country–had been hearing about Mon coeur incognito for months after it first began showing in Paris. Throughout the winter and spring of 1931 there had been weekly radio broadcasts in Nantes of music from the movies, and songs from Mon coeur always seemed to be featured, performed by the chanteuse and actress Florelle, who had a part in the movie, Bernadette Delpart, and others. But Mon coeur didn’t come to Nantes until September 1931 when it premiered at the Majestic cinema there.
Sous les toits de Paris presents a more difficult case than Mon coeur. Clair’s film also had links to the German film industry; Tobis Klangfilm, a German company created to produce sound films, opened a studio outside of Paris, in Epinay, to make French movies and recruited Clair for Sous les toits de Paris. The appearance of any Clair film at this time stood out as a major cultural event in Paris, and the press certainly treated the film as something very special when it opened, in April 1930, at the Moulin-Rouge cinema on the boulevard de Clichy in the eighteenth arrondissement, and then as the film made its way to other countries in Europe and the United States. The details of its national release in France, however, are difficult to locate.
The Moulin-Rouge cinema had opened in 1929, next door to the famous Moulin-Rouge cabaret, and it quickly became an important location for films in their opening engagements in Paris. The eighteenth didn’t have many first-run cinemas, but if you walked just a few blocks away from the Moulin-Rouge to the place de Clichy, you could see a movie at the Gaumont-Palace, the largest cinema in France and a showplace for major films (and the subject of an earlier post).
I have found no listings for Marseille from the period of the initial release of Clair’s film, so it’s impossible to tell when it played there. But Sous les toits de Paris didn’t arrive in Nantes, at the Apollo cinema, until early-October 1930, a month after the film opened in Antibes, at the Casino cinema (the film premiered in North Africa, in Algiers, two weeks before the Nantes opening). And then, of course, Sous les toits de Paris didn’t come to Lille until January 1931. Where a film might play, and in how many cinemas at once, certainly depended on how many prints had been struck in the first place. Sous les toits de Paris played exclusively at the Moulin-Rouge in Paris for several months and then moved to another months-long exclusive engagement in the city, at the Clichy Palace in the seventeenth arrondissement. After that the film didn’t fan out to multiple Parisian cinemas, often the practice for successful films that might go from an exclusive engagement to simultaneous playdates at multiple cinemas, sometimes eventually playing in ten or fifteen at once. Clair’s film seems only to have gone out to three or four cinemas in Paris for the next few months, through the spring of 1931, and then disappeared from the city. Perhaps the film wasn’t as successful as we might have thought, or perhaps Tobis, for whatever reason, produced relatively few prints, which may also have kept it out of multiple cinemas at any one time, either in Paris or in different cities.
My guess is that during the 1930s most French films opened in Paris and Marseille, and perhaps one or two other cities in France and quite possibly Brussels as well, at about the same time. There may also have been different practices for films from different countries. Once again the evidence is difficult to find. As just one example, the Hollywood film Les Quatres Plumes blanches (The Four Feathers ), with Richard Arlen and Fay Wray, opened in Paris in May 1930 but didn’t premiere in Marseille until July.
There is no question that Paris was the most significant city in France for film exhibition. I have yet to find any evidence that a film might play anywhere else in the country for months on end, in the manner of L’Ange Bleu (The Blue Angel ) in Paris, or A l’Ouest rien de nouveau, or Sous les toits de Paris. But we also need to keep in mind just how important other urban locations were to the success or failure of any film, and just how much Marseille, let alone Lyon or Nice or Toulouse or Nantes, meant to the French film industry.