“Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, chosen by French theaters as the final English-language film to be shown before the recent Nazi-ordered countrywide ban on American and British films went into effect, was roundly cheered.” That’s from a 4 November 1942 Hollywood Reporter press clipping that Capra included in his autobiography, and it went on to say that “when the ban became known…the French people flocked to the cinemas to get seats for the last showing of an American film,” and that “in many provincial theaters…Mr. Smith…in the original English version, was chosen for the occasion and a special farewell gala performance was staged.”
This is a remarkable story of a sort of cinematic resistance, of the French determined to hold up Capra’s film as a symbol of the democracy that the Germans had taken from them. But is it true?
I’ve been unable to track down the original Reporter article, mostly because I don’t have access to the trade journal, either on microfilim or online. Capra included any number of reviews and other newspaper pieces in his book, though, many of which I have seen, and so I have little doubt that this short notice did indeed appear in the Reporter. That trade journal was often a reliable source, but the farther away its stories got from the United States, the less and less reliable the Reporter became. In his encyclopedic biography of Capra, The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride makes no mention of the French insisting on Mr. Smith as the final film before the ban. We do have evidence though, from around the same time, of the film achieving a significant status as a sort of beacon of hope and principled politics in Europe. In March 1941 the rather perfectly named James Stewart, American Consul General in Switzerland, wrote to Secretary of State Cordell Hull that the film had “achieved a position as a symbol of democracy” in Switzerland, and that it had played to packed houses in Zurich from September to October 1941, and then returned in January 1942, “to a medium-sized picture house in a laborers’ section” of the city and once again seemed to mobilize all of the audiences that saw it.
But how had the film played in France? And might there still have been prints of the movie in the country as late as the end of 1942, when the Reporter ran its story?
Monsieur Smith au sénat (1939) arrived in Paris towards the end of January 1940, and showed exclusively at the fashionable Biarritz, a 600-seat cinema on the Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement that typically showed first-run films from Hollywood and the United Kingdom. The film attracted immediate attention in the press, and not just because all of the proceeds from its opening night went to charities benefitting French soldiers currently fighting the Germans. Even the highbrow Journal des débats, a weekly newspaper devoted to “politics and literature,” noted the opening of the film and “recommended it without reservation.” M. Smith played in the eighth arrondissement for three months, until the end of April, when Le Petit Journal announced that the film would “irrevocably” leave the Biarritz, to be replaced by the Joel McCrea (and Jascha Heifetz) film Mélodie de la Jeunesse (They Shall Have Music ).
I lose track of Capra’s film in Paris and the rest of France after this, but even while M. Smith was still playing at the Biarittz, in March 1940, it opened “en triple exclusivité” in Algiers, at the Colisée, the Vox, and the Plaza, three cinemas that were among the most important exhibition sites there, and that seem to have been linked in a small chain of cinemas. This mode of film distribution, with a movie arriving in North Africa almost certainly before it had played much throughout France, was not the norm for the period, but nor was it unusual. I’ll get back to Algiers in a moment, because it plays such a central role in the exhibition of M. Smith during the war, but first it’s important to say something about the Nazi ban on American films.
The ban in the Occupied Zone, which of course included Paris, went into effect almost immediately after the surrender in June 1940. But the Nazis did not ban American films in Vichy—the “Free Zone” of France—until November 1942. That’s what the Hollywood Reporter article refers to, and so it’s possible that M. Smith indeed was one of the final American films to play in this southern section of the country. Capra’s film had come to one of the major cities in Vichy, Lyon, earlier that year, in May, and it met with the instant approval of the Lyon edition of the far-right newspaper L’Action Française, a recommendation that might or might not change our sense of the film’s relationship to the democratic values.
Information about film screenings in either Occupied France or the Free Zone is difficult to come by. There is, however, a great deal of information, at least in relative terms, from North Africa during the period. The Nazi ban on American films apparently didn’t apply to France’s colonies, and M. Smith kept coming back to Algiers. After its initial playdate there in March 1940, the film returned in November 1941, first at the Marignan cinema for a couple of weeks and then to the Splendid and ABC cinemas. It was back about a year later in December 1942, at the Regent, and then in January 1943 moved to the Majestic when the Regent began showing another film starring Jean Arthur, The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936). In June of that year the film returned once again, this time to the Olympia, and in July it screened at the Rio (and here the local newspaper, L’Echo d’Alger, specified that this was the English-language version of M. Smith, with French subtitles).
That’s the last listing I’ve been able to find for the film in Algiers, and these constant reprises for any film are extraordinary there for the 1930s and ‘40s. The film obviously had struck a nerve in Algiers, and so it’s possible that the story in the Hollywood Reporter may have gotten some of the details wrong, and just might have been referring to the importance of the film to North African audiences. But these constant screenings in Algiers might also indicate that prints of M. Smith were always in circulation in the region, and so indeed might have come to Vichy just before the ban, and played there steadily until the ban took effect. Capra’s pride in the film may have been justified, and it’s possible that—in an autobiography full of half-truths and out and out fictions—this extraordinary instance of film, and film audiences, opposing fascism might be true.