“French cinema has collapsed. There is nothing to discuss…I give you the cinemas of Paris, the major ones and the best, which never play a French film. Never. The Paris, the Lord Byron, the Balzac, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, the Cinéma de l’Etoile…Never a French film, never.” That’s what playwright Pierre Wolf told the French Parliament during the 1937 government inquest into the future of the French film industry, Où va le cinéma français?
French cinema hadn’t exhausted itself from lack of production; French movies still were being made. For Wolf, the cause was an inability to gain access to the best exhibition sites, not around the world and not even in France, but rather in Paris.
Still, what did Wolf know? He seemed an unlikely expert witness. He had written a few screenplays but was known mostly for his work in the theatre, although he did write some film reviews for Paris-Soir. Just before his complaint about exhibition sites, he played the role in parliament of the outraged, effete French intellectual, horrified at the practices of the common people. “Public taste!” he yelled. “Right now there is a film playing on the Champs-Elysées called Paris” [from 1937, and starring Harry Baur and Renée Saint-Cyr]. The film showed the typical French tourist sites as it told the story of a taxi driver and his two children. When foreigners saw the film, a dismayed Wolf claimed, they could only say, in disbelief, “This is Paris?”
Nevertheless, it’s worth investigating his claim about Parisian cinemas. The cinemas he mentioned were not all ostentatiously large (while the Paris could hold 1000 viewers, the Balzac had seating for only around 650, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées about 500, and the Lord Byron 370), but they were among the most important “cinemas d’exclusivité” in the city. All of them were in the very ritzy eighth arrondissement, and four of them—all except the Studio de l’Etoile—were within a few blocks of each other on the the avenue des Champs-Elysées. To a snob like Wolf as well as to others in the French film industry and also, probably, to the general public, these were significant sites for seeing movies.
And, indeed, Wolf seems to have been correct, or at least almost. I looked at six months of film listings, from the beginning of July 1936 until the end of December, and these cinemas typically played only foreign films, and mostly movies from Hollywood.
It must have galled Wolf, as well as others, that while these cinemas showed some of the most prestigious foreign films, they also showed movies that were closer in spirit to the low budget cabdriver drama Paris than to the highest quality productions from the United States or France. In July 1936, while the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées was in the midst of a months-long run of Frank Capra’s L’Extravagant M. Deeds (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ), the Balzac had just started a four-week showing of Le Secret de Charlie Chan (Charlie Chan’s Secret ). Then when Charlie Chan finally left at the end of the month, another four-week run of a Hollywood film began at the Balzac, Le Médecin de campagne (The Country Doctor ), featuring the Dionne Quintuplets. Needless to say, the success of these films at the Balzac must only have confirmed Wolf’s dim view of public taste.
During this period, it was the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées that always seemed to show “quality” films. When Deeds left at the end of October (and moved to another exclusive showing in the ninth arrondissement, at Le Helder, a cinema that also typically showed films from the United States but didn’t seem to incur Wolf’s wrath), the new offering would be Dodsworth (1936), a prestige film from Samuel Goldwyn, directed by William Wyler. The Lord Byron seemed to go back and forth between what would be considered even at the time as fluff and what might be thought of as aspiring to higher things, with two Carole Lombard films playing practically one after the other serving as the best examples. Ce que femme veut (Love Before Breakfast ), which co-starred Preston Foster, played for about a month that summer at the Lord Byron, and then after two weeks of a Jean Parker film, Surprise à Hollywood (The Farmer in the Dell ), My Man Godfrey (1936) settled in for an extended run. In fact, Lombard seems to have been a popular draw in Paris that year and a major attraction at the cinemas d’exclusivité in the eighth arrondissement; the Paris cinema, which often showed double-bills of American films, ran Une princesse est à bord (The Princess Comes Across ) for several weeks that summer, along with Ray Milland in Le Retour de Sophie Lang (The Return of Sophie Lang ).
Not all of the foreign films at these cinemas came from Hollywood. The Studio de l’Etoile showed only German films during this period. The cinema began July with the 1936 comedy Allotria, which had been directed by Willi Forst, and then replaced that with another Forst film, Symphonie inachavée (Leise flehen meine Lieder ), a biopic about Franz Schubert. After six weeks, Symphonie made way for the great Max Ophüls film Liebelei (1933), followed by Gosses de Vienne (Singende jugend ) as well as other German movies through the end of the year.
All of the foreign films at these cinemas in the eighth played in their original languages, with French subtitles (“stf” in the listings, for “sous titres français”). This, indeed, would be part of the attraction of seeing these films in their opening runs, at least for Parisian cinéphiles. As soon as they went out to the neighborhoods, most of these movies played only in dubbed versions.
Over the last six months of 1936 only one French film played in the cinemas mentioned by Wolf in his testimony. Julien Duvivier’s La Belle équipe, with Jean Gabin, opened at the Paris cinema the week of 18 September 1936 and played there for six weeks. Of course, any Jean Gabin film counted as a major cultural event in Paris during the 1930’s; his films always seemed to be playing somewhere in the city. Indeed, this may have been the exception that proved Wolf’s rule. Only a film as significant and anticipated as La Belle équipe might break the hold that American films had on the best cinemas in the eighth arrondissement.
There may also have been little room for French films at these cinemas because of how long the American movies tended to play there. The Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, for instance, changed bills only three times during this six-month period, from Deeds to Dodsworth to La Vandale (Come and Get It ) at the very end of the year. The Balzac changed just five times, while the Paris cinema was the busiest of all of them, but still had only eight programs during the six months.
So Wolf’s frustration may well have been justified. We might lament his superiority and his scorn for public taste, but he had isolated a significant problem for the French film industry. Many of the very best cinemas in Paris devoted most of their time to showing American films. We would have to have access to records from the era to know if this was because of longstanding distribution deals or other arrangements with Hollywood studios, or the result of simply judging the preferences of their clientele. And, certainly, French films had splashy and extended opening engagements at other major cinemas in Paris like the Normandie and the Rex and even the Paramount, which was controlled by the American film company. But at least along the Champs-Elysées, which probably signified “Frenchness” more than any other Parisian thoroughfare, the cinema of choice was American.