In its issue of January 30th 1931, La Semaine à Paris, a weekly listing of cultural events in the city, ran advertisements on the same page for two new movies currently in release, L’Ange bleu (The Blue Angel) and La Féerie du jazz (The King of Jazz). Taken together, the ads might represent the extraordinary breadth of Parisian film culture during the period, from the low-tech, high-brow German art film to the Technicolor middle-brow emptiness of the American musical. Or, they might also be a sign that most films in Paris, even these two, were really one and the same. Both L’Ange bleu and La Féerie du jazz make use of the standard racist tropes of so many films from Europe and Hollywood, representationally and in their appropriation of popular musical forms. La Féerie du jazz does this in more ways than anyone could count, in advertisements that contrast African “savages” with the film’s star, the aptly named Paul Whiteman, to the smiling African-American girl who sits on Whiteman’s knee during one especially painful number, to the narrative’s effacement of almost all African influence on jazz. But even in L’Ange bleu, think of the cabaret-style jazz and also the black doll that Lola Lola carries with her.
I’ve written about L’Ange bleu in Paris before, in a post from October 21st 2015. That film was the great sensation of 1930-31, and played almost continuously in Paris at least through 1933. But what about La Féerie du jazz? This was, after all, the revue musical that Universal planned as its blockbuster followup to A l’ouest rien de nouveau (All Quiet on the Western Front ), which had been perhaps an even greater hit throughout Europe than L’Ange bleu. La Féerie du jazz recently has been spectacularly restored to its original, hallucinatory two-color Technicolor intensity, and it is both a breathtaking film to see and also sort of a creepy one, mostly because of the race politics of this movie about jazz. How did it fare, though, when it played in Paris?
La Féerie du jazz opened on December 19th 1930 at the Olympia cinema on the boulevard des Capucines in the ninth arrondissement. The Olympia was a large cinema in Paris and an important one. It seated about 2000 and was operated by the great movie impresario Jacques Haïk. There was a fair amount of press interest in the film, because of the color and also because Whiteman’s fame had reached Europe, but the reviews weren’t completely positive. L’Action Française, the daily rightwing newspaper, felt that the movie provided the kind of pleasant sensation that “emptied the viewer’s head without really boring him.” Apparently, most Parisians seemed not to want to have their heads emptied at the time, and so La Féerie du jazz played at the Olympia for only two weeks. This wasn’t extraordinary for the Olympia, which seems to have been a cinema contracted for brief rather than extended runs, but there were nevertheless movies that played there for longer than that.
After this short opening appearance the film disappeared from Paris for a month, and then reappeared at the Rialto, once again in the ninth arrondissement, on the Faubourg Poissonière, and just a few long blocks away from the Olympia. La Féerie du jazz played here throughout February 1931, and towards the end of the month it went into a second cinema, the Palais des Fêtes in the third arrondissement, where it played for just one week, after which, once again, it was available only at the Rialto. This exhibition strategy seems uneven enough, and then, in early March, not quite three months after its grand opening, the film was relegated to the periphery of Parisian film culture, to the Cocorico cinema in the working class twentieth arrondissement on the eastern border of the city. After a week there the film came and went to the “cinémas des quartiers,” the neighborhood places, playing at one or two cinemas and almost always on double-bills; at the Monge in the fifth arrondissement with the French film Les tentations d’un garçon vertueux, to the Danton in the sixth along with La Dame de Shang-Hai (Shanghai Lady ) starring former Ziegfeld girl Mary Nolan, and then, in May, back to the twentieth arrondissement and the Avron cinema, paired with a film that seems the perfect match for one with the American title The King of Jazz, Le Tzar de Broadway (The Czar of Broadway ).
There are plenty of films at the time that move through the city in ways that make perfect sense. The trajectory of La Féerie du jazz, however, indicates that the path through Paris might also look completely chaotic, with a film appearing and disappearing with no apparent logic or order. To make things even more interesting, the film seems to have opened in Lille at the end of September 1930, even before it came to Paris, and then, as it made its way through the rest of France, La Féerie du jazz also maintained a presence on the radio, with numbers from the film playing on Radio-Rennes as well as Radio-Paris throughout 1931.
The film also made its way to France’s colonies. Probably a single print of La Féerie du jazz moved through North Africa, and when the film opened in Algeria, first in Oran, then in Mostaganem, and finally in Algiers in October and November of 1932, it almost certainly showed to predominantly white audiences. The reviews in the newspapers in these places don’t tell us much, so we are left to wonder how these viewers understood the depiction of Africa in the film as well as its complete erasure. Even before that, though, the film showed in Hanoi, in May 1932, and in a cinema that seems to have been as opulent as any in Paris. At the Majestic cinema, viewers paid different prices to sit in the loge or in the orchestra, and slightly less for a cushion—“un fauteuil de balon”—rather than a seat, with evening prices just a bit higher than those for matinees. First there would be some newsreels, then the Walter Lantz cartoon Chile con Carmen (Chilly Con Carmen ). Lantz, in fact, had also made the cartoon that appears in La Féerie du jazz, and that shows viewers how Whiteman found jazz in Africa and brought it to the United States. Then, after all of the preliminaries, the Majestic would show La Féerie du jazz.
To complete the exhibition circle, La Féerie du jazz returned to Paris in December 1933, first at the Delambre cinema in the fourteenth arrondissement and then at the Ba-Ta-Clan in the eleventh, where it played with the Pierre Fresnay film, Âme de clown (1933). During this three-year period, L’Ange bleu moved from the Ursulines cinema to others in the city, usually playing at only one place at a time. A l’ouest rien de nouveau, as I’ve mentioned in other posts, played exclusively at one cinema for a few months, then moved to another, and then fanned out to multiple cinemas throughout the city in ways that seem sensible and familiar to historians with a knowledge of American exhibition. La Féerie du jazz, however, indicates the period’s uneven distribution patterns in Paris as well as throughout France and the colonies. This Universal superproduction may well have left Parisians cold, and that may have had something to do with its hit-and-miss distribution. But the complicated history of La Féerie du jazz shows us how much we still need to learn about systems of film exhibition, even in a city as important to world cinema as Paris.