The Paris Cinema Project

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.


Joan Crawford on the cover of Pour Vous from 22 January 1931

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 nouveauAll 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.



Two views of Nantes. At the top, on the right of the frame, The Majestic cinema, where Mon coeur incognito opened, shown during the 1936 flooding. On the bottom, the bank building currently on the site of the Majestic

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).

Moulin Rouge5

The Moulin-Rouge cinema in Paris around 1932

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.


The Apollo cinema, where Sous les toits de Paris opened in Nantes

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 [1929]), 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 [1930]) 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.


The movie ads from L’Echo d’Alger from 28 September 1930, for Sous les toits de Paris and also for Greta Garbo in Le Baiser (The Kiss)



The Paris Cinema Project

This Gun for Hire, Mrs. Minniver, Gaslight, Laura, The Woman in the Window. And Citizen Kane. These were some of the American films made during World War Two that, in January 1947, had only just been introduced to Parisian film audiences. At the same time, Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête continued its exclusive run at the very chic Madeleine cinema in the eighth arrondissement, Marcel Carné and Jacques Prévert’s Les Portes de la nuit showed at the Marivaux in the second, and Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, ville ouverte and David Lean’s L’Esprit s’amuse (Blythe Spirit) played in multiple cinemas throughout the city and its suburbs. Because of films like these, Paris has come to be considered as the place to see movies just after the war, with years worth of American films coming into the city seemingly all at once coinciding with a backlog of British movies, an invigorated French film industry, and national movements like Italian neo-realism. But what was it really like to go to the movies in Paris right after the war?

For the historian working in the United States, this isn’t an easy question to answer. In fact, there are many more materials available from the 1920’s and 30’s than there are from the decade following World War Two. My only evidence comes from a lucky find on a trip to Paris a few years ago, at the now gone magazine store Les Archives de la Presse in the fourth arrondissement (I wrote about this incredible place in my post from 5 October). Among a bunch of issues of the film magazine L’Ecran, I found one that still had an insert listing all of the films for the week of 15 January 1947. Since that very fortunate discovery I’ve been unable to find anything else like it. So I’ll be using just that one source to try to make some general comments about late-1940’s Parisian film culture.

Ecran Insert

The listings in L’Ecran for the week of 15 January 1947

At the time there were just over 300 cinemas in Paris, around 70 more than the total from my last complete prewar listing of a decade before, in January 1937. Numbers during the Occupation can be unreliable at best, but there seem to have been about 165 cinemas in operation during the early-1940’s. The great, exclusive, “cinémas des boulevards” remained constant, regardless of politics, war, or peace: the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, the Marignan, the Elysées-Cinéma, and L’Ermitage all within a few blocks of each other on the Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement, the Paramount and the Olympia in the ninth, and the Gaumont-Palace in the eighteenth, among others. There were also the “cinémas des quartiers,” the neighborhood cinemas, for instance the twenty or so in the twentieth arrondissement, the two-dozen in the nineteenth, or the six cinemas in the fourth arrondissement.


The Olympia cinema in the summer of 1946, showing Tyrone Power in Requins d’acier (Crash Dive from 1943)

That week, those 300 cinemas showed 150 feature films. There was, of course, an influx of American films, by my count 70, most of them made after the French surrender in June 1940 and before the liberation of Paris in August 1944, a period during which the Germans banned Hollywood movies throughout the Occupied Zone of France. So now Parisians could see everything they had missed: Hantise (Gaslight [1944]) playing at the Max-Linder in the second arrondissement as well as at L’Ermitage, Le Tueur à gages (This Gun for Hire [1942]) at the Broadway in the eighth, Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940) showing at the Empire in the seventeenth, the Marx Brothers in Chercheurs d’or (Go West (1940]) at the Ciné-Opéra in the second, and Citizen Kane at the Artistic in the ninth. The American films that had just opened showed mostly in “version originale,” that is, in English with subtitles. Once they went out to the neighborhoods, though, those same films typically were shown dubbed, and marked by a “d” in the listings for “doublé.” That’s how Vendetta (The Corsican Brothers [1941]), L’Etrangere (All This and Heaven Too [1940]) with Bette Davis, and Julien Duvivier’s Lydia with Merle Oberon and Joseph Cotton played throughout Paris that first month of 1947.

At least for this very brief postwar period, the French cinema held its own against the Hollywood product. During this same week in January more than 60 French films showed in Paris, and around 30 of them had been released in 1946 or ’47. Besides La Belle et la Bête and Les Portes de la nuit, there was also Duvivier’s Panique at the Olympia and also at the Normandie in the eighth arrondissement, René Clément’s Le Père tranquille at the Club cinema in the ninth, and Marc Allégret’s Pétrus, with the great star Fernandel, at the Studio Universel in the fourth and the Panthéon in the fifth, to name just a few of the new French films from the period. Indeed, 1946 would be a terrific year for French cinema, with the production of anywhere from 100 to 120 feature films (depending on the source reporting the numbers), four or five times the total from 1944. Not coincidentally, this level of production came before the impact of the 1946 Blum-Byrnes agreement with the United States fully could be felt, and that so favored the exhibition of American films at the expense of French movies.


The poster for the Marx Brotheres in Chercheurs d’or, showing at the Ciné-Opéra in the second arrondissment in January 1947

In addition to all of these new films there were also standards showing in the neighborhoods: Pagnol’s César (1936) at the Florida in the twentieth, for instance, as well as his La Fille du Puisatier (1940) at the Abbesses in the eighteenth. In a return to a prewar habit, when one or two of his movies always seemed to be playing until they were banned by Nazi officials, Jean Gabin in La Belle équipe (1936) also played in the eighteenth, at the Myrrha.

Gabin’s films had been forbidden when it became clear that the star would not be leaving the United States and returning to France while the war still went on. For postwar audiences, the chance to see Gabin’s movies once again must have signaled that the Occupation was indeed over. But the film culture of Paris in those first years after the liberation did not completely repudiate the memory of Nazi control. One of the films playing in Paris that week had been made by Continental Films, the Nazi company founded during the war to produce “French” movies. Pierre et Jean (1943), directed by André Cayatte and starring Renée Saint-Cyr and Noël Roquevert, appeared at the Gloria cinema in the seventeenth arrondissement and the Stéphen in the eighteenth, neither one a prominent site, but nevertheless. From just a week’s worth of evidence, it’s difficult to tell whether Continental’s movies were commonly shown or just used to fill in here and there, given the exhibition demands of the Parisian film market.

Perhaps predictably, there seems not to have been much of a market for German films in Paris. Only one played that week, at the Méliès cinema in the ninth arrondissement: Symphonie inachevée (Leise flehen meine Lieder), a 1933 period drama about Franz Schubert, significantly removed from any aspect of the war.


The Panthéon cinema in the fifth arrondissement as it looks today, and where Marc Allegret’s Pétrus played in 1947

There was little presence of any other foreign films, really, besides those from the United States. Ten or eleven films from the UK played in Paris that week, including, in addition to L’Esprit s’amuse, La Septieme voile (The Seventh Veil (1945]) and Elephant Boy (1937). There were only about a half-dozen other foreign films, with Rome ville ouverte the most prominent and playing in multiple cinemas. There was also Ordet (1943) from Sweden, and, from the USSR, Il était une petite fille (1944). Even the ciné-clubs that week concentrated on French and American films. At Ciné-Art, audiences could watch another Continental Film production, the Henri-Georges Clouzot classic Le Corbeau (1943). Two groups featured the work of Marcel Carné, the Club-Boulogne-Billancourt screening Hotel du Nord (1938) and the Club Universitaire showing Jenny (1936). Both the Ciné Liberté club and the Club Jeanson de Sailly showed Renoir’s Le crime de Monsieur Lange (1936), and the Club Poissy played Pépé le Moko (1937), with Jean Gabin. Fans of American films that week could go to the Ciné-Club for La Chevauchée fantastique (Stagecoach, 1939) or the Ciné-Club de Paris for Murder My Sweet (1944). Only two clubs showed movies that weren’t produced in France or the United States, the Ciné-Club Renault with Luis Buñuel’s Terre sans pain (1933), produced in Spain although filmed in French, and the Moulin à Images, which showed Fritz Lang’s German classic, Metropolis (1927).

The temptation, then, is to say that Parisian cinema immediately after the war was less varied, less cosmopolitan, than it had been just before, when there typically would be a far wider schedule of foreign films. The available evidence might be suggestive, but is just too sketchy to claim anything so definitive. Still, from just this one week in early-1947, we might see the signs of a surprisingly vibrant exhibition industry in Paris if not the rest of France, a fleeting golden age of French film production, and the ongoing, and probably increasing, domination of Hollywood.