“While watching and listening to Anna Christie, I dreamed of the beautiful silent film that Clarence Brown might have made.” That’s how René Lehmann began his 1931 review in Pour Vous of Greta Garbo’s first talking film, just after a subtitled version opened in Paris at the elegant Cinéma des Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement. Lehmann’s reverie of a never-made but preferred Anna Christie made it seem as if the silent cinema was now only a distant memory, the unrecoverable past of a new, fully technologized—and noisy—modern film industry.
In fact, silent cinema persisted in Paris at least through 1931 or ’32, and not because new silent movies were being produced. A few years after the 1929 Paris premiere of Le Chanteur de jazz (The Jazz Singer ), audiences could see silent films everywhere in Paris because of the exigencies of film exhibition—many cinemas in the city installed the necessary equipment for screening sound films only very slowly.
When Lehmann wrote his review of Anna Christie, there were around 175 commercial cinemas in Paris, and fully 60 of them, more than one-third, only showed silent films. We can get this information because every week Pour Vous listed Parisian cinemas by neighborhood, each of the twenty arrondissements in the city. To assist readers, those listings indicated exhibition technology, whether or not a cinema was equipped to show films “sonore et parlant,” with recorded sound and also speech.
The film listings that I’ve seen cover almost all of 1931, and they do demonstrate the steady progress of the conversion to sound. In January 1931 Pour Vous showed almost 70 cinemas that had yet to be wired for talking films, with that number declining to 60 around the time that Anna Christie opened to fewer than 40 by November. By 1933 Pour Vous had stopped the practice altogether of labeling cinemas as either silent or sound, which probably indicates that the conversion in exhibition technology had been completed.
Parisian exhibition at the time was dominated by two chains, Pathé and Gaumont, with about sixty cinemas combined, and it seems as if those exhibition sites adapted to the new technology more quickly than others. The Pathé-Bagnolet was one of the very few in the first chain to be showing silent films in 1931; in early-April, that cinema featured Greta Garbo in La belle ténébreuse (The Mysterious Lady ), but this was a site on the Parisian periphery, in the working-class twentieth arrondissement, and so was probably not as important to Pathé’s dominance of exhibition in the city as those cinemas more centrally located.
Neither location nor class counted for everything, however. In the wealthy and well-situated seventh arrondissement, two of the seven cinemas—La Pagode and the Récamier—had yet to be wired for sound by early-April 1931, and in the sixteenth, on the western edge of the city and always one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Paris, five of the nine still showed silent films exclusively (Flamenca la gitane, for example, a 1928 French films, was featured at the Victoria on 23 rue de Passy, while La Prison du coeur (Four Walls ), starring John Gilbert and Joan Crawford, showed just across the street at the Regent).
There were some cinemas that made a deliberate choice against converting to the new technology. In the tenth arrondissement, the Boulevardia screened silent films exclusively at least through 1933, which by then made it one of the few commercial locations where audiences might watch a Douglas Fairbanks film from the 1920s, or one with Harold Lloyd. For other cinemas, especially those not belonging to an exhibition chain, the choice was almost certainly based on the expense of the new technology.
The twentieth arrondissement seemed to have the slowest conversion, with seven out of nineteen cinemas still not wired for sound in January 1931, and that number hadn’t changed by the end of the year. Most of those seem to have been independent cinemas, and one of them served as a sort of all-purpose cultural center. La Bellevilloise, on the rue Boyer at the corner of the boulevard de Ménilmontant, was founded as a workers’ cooperative in 1877, just a few years after the Paris Commune. The building would be an educational site and also a cultural one, and showed films only erratically throughout the early-1930s (during the same week , and in the same arrondissement, when the Pathé-Bagnolet featured Garbo in La belle ténébreuse, La Bellevilloise screened Le joueur d’échecs, a 1927 French film, as well as a Charlie Chaplin short). Because cinema was only one of the activities at La Bellevilloise, and far from the central one, it must have made little sense to install sound technology there, and this cooperative enterprise probably would have had trouble coming up with the money to do so.
I should point out that during this very measured conversion to sound at Parisian exhibition sites, even approximate numbers of cinemas showing silent films can be unreliable. If we remain in the twentieth arrondissement, by November 1931 the Pathé-Bagnolet was still listed in Pour Vous as a cinema that had not yet been wired for sound. But in the first week of that month, it screened Autour d’une enquête, the French sound version of a 1931 Franco-German co-production directed by Henri Chomette (the German-language version was directed by Robert Siodmak). Had the Bagnolet been wired for sound by then, even though Pour Vous failed to mark the transition? Or perhaps there was a silent version of Autour d’une enquête, designed for those French cinemas that had not yet been adapted for sound films.
Similar examples run throughout the Pour Vous listings, the only ones from the period that I’ve found that take any notice of exhibition technology. And, indeed, even those cinemas that could show sound films sometimes didn’t. Or, at least, they showed films that featured recorded sound rather than speech—“sonore” instead of “parlant.” This seems to have been the case with À l’ouest, rien de nouveau (All Quiet on the Western Front ), which had a sensational, months-long run at the Ermitage cinema on the Champs-Elysées in 1930 and ’31. Universal, the Hollywood studio that produced the movie, had not made a French-language version, and so Parisians saw, essentially, a silent film with music and effects.
The last great silent film event in Paris during the early-1930s was the opening of Chaplin’s Les Lumières de la ville (City Lights ) in April 1931. That film showed at the Théâtre Marigny in the eighth arrondissement, like La Bellevilloise not a typical cinema, but in all other aspects—history, tradition, and clientele—completely different from the workers’ cooperative in the twentieth. Anticipating that film, Pour Vous called it the first silent film made in the United States in 18 months, since Garbo’s Le baiser (The Kiss ). As with the review of Anna Christie from around the same time, this seemed to make silent film—or, at least, silent film production—fully a phenomenon of the past, to be brought back only by those artists, like Chaplin, working on their own. But if we shift our sense of history just a few degrees and concentrate on film exhibition, it becomes apparent that silent cinema had a significant place in Parisian film culture far longer than we might have thought. René Lehmann may have dreamed of a soundless Anna Christie, but around that time he also could have gone to any number of cinemas in Paris and watched an actual silent movie starring Greta Garbo.