“The film is in German, but the subtitles by Colette make it easy to follow the action, which is already so involving.” That’s how the French film periodical Hebdo ended its June 1932 review of Jeunes filles en uniforme (Mädchen in Uniform), with Leontine Sagan’s classic already in the midst of a successful run in Paris at the exclusive Marigny cinema just off the Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement. Certainly it was a mark of the prestige of the film that a writer as famous as Colette would compose the subtitles, and it would make sense that the press would comment on her authorship. That same issue of Hebdo, however, also reviewed another German film playing just a few blocks away from Jeunes filles at the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, Quatre dans le tempête (Ein Mädel von der Reeperbahn ). The magazine mentioned yet again the author of the French subtitles, Jean-Vincent Brechignac, a journalist and writer who was hardly known at the time.
So the subtitled film in France, at least during the early sound period, might sometimes count as a significant literary event, with authorship duly noted and credited as much to the translator of the dialogue as to the original director or scenarist. But during this transition to recorded sound, a subtitled film was not the only way that a foreign film might be shown in Paris. If we return to that same issue of Hebdo, we would see that the lead review was for Frankenstein, and the opening line alerted potential viewers that this was a “film spoken in French by ‘dubbing.’” That dubbed version was a big hit in Paris, playing for several months during the summer of 1932 at the Apollo cinema in the ninth arrondissement and then moving to another exclusive engagement in the same neighborhood, at the elegant Roxy.
This period marking the movement from silent film to sound provided Parisian audiences with a range of options for seeing foreign films. Charles O’Brien has written a terrific book about French and American cinema during these years and the impact of a new mode of production, Cinema’s Conversion to Sound: Technology and Film Style in France and the U .S. And, of course, some of the oddities from this era still turn up now and again. I remember, when I was a graduate student in Paris in 1981, going to the Cinémathèque française, which at the time showed films at the Palais de Chaillot in the sixteenth arrondissement, to see the French version of Twentieth-Century’s Folies Bergère (1935). Most of the same performers appeared in this version as well as the one in English, which added to the logic of having the bilingual Maurice Chevalier as the star and also provided the pleasure of Ann Sothern speaking what sounded like phonetic French.
I’m fairly certain this was one of the last of the Hollywood multi-linguals, but in going through a lot of Parisian film listings from the early-1930s I haven’t found many of these films playing in the city. In one of the few examples I’ve come upon, in December 1932 Laurel and Hardy in Les Carottiers, a French language version that combined two of the stars’ Hal Roach 1931 shorts—Be Big and Laughing Gravy–played at the Folies-Dramatiques cinema in the tenth arrondissement (you can see the film at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvBqFOZq3ME). For the most part, though, American films seem to have played in Paris, during this transitional period, in either subtitled or dubbed versions.
There were other ways of exhibiting foreign films. Some movies made with recorded dialogue screened as silent versions with sound effects, as was the case with A l’ouest rien de nouveau (All Quiet on the Western Front ), which Universal had filmed in English and in German but not in French, and which had an extraordinary success in Paris at the Ermitage cinema on the Champs-Elysées. Other films might be shown in multiple versions. I have written in an earlier post how L’Ange bleu (The Blue Angel), the other great hit, along with A l’ouest, of the 1930-31 season in Paris, opened in the fifth arrondissement at the Ursulines cinema, which specialized in artsy and often foreign films, with four screenings per day; two in the original German and then two in French, which meant, really, a silent version of the film with French intertitles, and then all of Marlene Dietrich’s songs in German. When G.W. Pabst’s L’Opéra de quat’sous replaced L’Ange bleu at Ursulines, that same exhibition strategy would be followed, with a significant difference. This time the film screened in German and then in French, with the advertisements for the film making it clear that “both versions are original and not post-synchronized,” or, rather, “dubbed.” M played the same way when it came to the Ursulines in 1932, and here the press praised the French script by the dramatist and screenwriter André Lang as well as the adaptation of the German story by R. Goupillières (who seems to have vanished from any available record of French writers).
At least at the time, critics seemed to prefer these multilinguals as well as subtitled films to dubbed movies. That same Hebdo review of Frankenstein ended by warning readers that, while the acting was excellent and the photography artistic, “the dubbing was not the best.” Then around the same time, in May 1932, La Semaine à Paris, a weekly chronicle of the goings-on in the city, ran an opinion piece by the well known essayist, historian, and biographer François Ribadeau Dumas, headlined, simply “Dubbing” (“Doublage”). Perhaps predictably, this man of letters ridiculed the process, and in fact insisted (incorrectly) that it would end soon. He condemned the very idea of an unknown actor speaking for another, and ridiculed the impossible synchronization between actors speaking in French and the lip and mouth movements of those “speaking” on the screen. He claimed that most audiences agreed with him, and typically laughed at the dubbing they heard and at the apparent cost-cutting practice of having one actor speaking two or three parts.
Of course, sometimes any effort to translate a foreign film would meet with resistance. At the end of April 1932, Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express, with Marlene Dietrich, opened at the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées. Quite simply, any film by Sternberg, and especially any film with Dietrich, was a very big deal in Paris at the time (their previous film together, X-27 [Dishonored] was playing at nine cinemas that same week). Ribadeau Dumas wrote the review for La Semaine, and he extolled the artistry of the film, its technique, its editing, its cinematography. And then, as if any attempt by someone other than Sternberg to present the story to Parisian audiences was doomed to fail, the dependably snobbish Ribadeau Dumas emphasized the tedium of watching such a film translated with subtitles for those who didn’t know English.
Dubbing, of course, would continue, and there is ample evidence that French audiences preferred “doublage” to subtitles. Nevertheless, during this transitional period, the French film press considered subtitling to be a skilled and delicate business, and when newspapers ran ads for Jeunes filles en uniforme they typically highlighted the “texte français de Mme Colette.” For at least a few years, then, in this case and many others, the adapted foreign movie, typically with subtitles, might be understood as doing as much credit to French literary culture as to the film culture of the nation of origin.