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.
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.
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 ) playing at the Max-Linder in the second arrondissement as well as at L’Ermitage, Le Tueur à gages (This Gun for Hire ) 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 ), L’Etrangere (All This and Heaven Too ) 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.
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.
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.