The Paris Cinema Project

Just a little more than a year after the Liberation, when all of the city’s exhibition sites were closed, and a few months after the end of World War Two, around 275 cinemas showed movies in Paris. The evidence is still scant, but a new movie weekly, Cinévie, began publication in October 1945, and typically ran complete listings for Paris as well as articles that give us a sense of film culture in the city in the immediate postwar period. About 40 of the cinemas would be considered cinémas d’exclusivité, the most important screening spaces in the city and mostly in the “best” locations, in the eighth arrondissement, for instance, on and around the avenue des Champs-Elysées, or on the boulevard des Italiens in the second and ninth arrondissements. Some, like the Gaumont-Palace in the less chic eighteenth arrondissement, were simply among the very largest cinemas. These locations typically showed the newest films and, if they were foreign movies, in subtitled rather than dubbed prints. The other sites were those cinémas des quartiers, many still in the better parts of Paris but others that were farther away from the center and from the more affluent districts. These locations tended to show films only after they had been featured en exclusivité for at least a week, and then frequently screened dubbed versions of foreign films. The distinctions between these two brands of exhibition sites were not, however, always absolute.


Rita Hayworth on the cover of Cinévie, October 17 1945

Cinévie listed not only the addresses, metro stops, and the feature films at cinemas in the city, but also which days they would be open for business. Paris still faced a crushing shortage of electricity in fall 1945, the “régime des restrictions d’électricité” according to Cinévie, and this utility problem was the great equalizer among cinemas. Most of them only showed movies on Sundays, or perhaps also on Saturdays, and practically all of them were only open for one afternoon screening and one in the evening, usually at 8:00 or 8:30, a restriction apparently mandated by law. Only a few cinemas ran films every day, and none of them was a cinema d’exclusivité. In the fourth arrondissement the Rivoli and the Saint-Paul stayed open tous les jours, as did the Fantasio in the eighteenth arrondissement and just a very few others, while the Alésia-Palace in the fourteenth added a third evening, Thursday, to its Saturday and Sunday offerings. By the end of November 1945, Cinévie announced that because electricity was now in somewhat better supply cinemas would be allowed to schedule one or two extra screenings, depending on the length of the program, between 2:00 pm and 6:00.

Alesia Big

The toy store at 120 rue d’Alésia, the site of the Alésia-Palace

For the week of October 17 1945, 26 films were playing in the exclusive cinemas that reported their listings to Cinévie. There were American films made during the war that now appeared in Paris for the first time, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s L’Ombre du doute (Shadow of a Doubt [1943]) at the Triomphe cinema at 92 avenue des Champs-Elysées and Prisonniers de Satan (The Purple Heart [1944]), with Dana Andrews, at the Biarritz just across the street. Parisians might also see new French films like La route du bagne (1945), with the great star Viviane Romance, or La cage aux rossignols (1945) featuring Noël-Noël. These major cinemas did not just show new films, however, and there were also some reprises of movies with stars who had large followings in Paris; the most notable that week was Drôle de drame (1937), directed by Marcel Carné and featuring two iconic performers, Louis Jouvet and Michel Simon. Throughout the rest of Paris, around 120 films, most of them either American or French, played in the neighborhood cinemas. Many of these were reprises of older movies, and some of them were films that had recently been showing en exclusivité. As might be expected, given his consistent status as one of the fathers of French cinema, René Clair was well represented, with films in the best cinemas as well as the neighborhoods during this period, while other movies demonstrated the typical range in Parisian film culture from low-brow to high.

January 1945

Le Triomphe cinema on the Champs-Elysées in January 1945

Firmly in the former category, various parts of the twelve-episode, low-budget Republic Pictures serial Les vautours de la jungle (Hawk of the Wilderness [1938]) played throughout Paris at the end of 1945, featured at cinemas, at various times, in the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and thirteenth arrondissements, and so too did Universal’s African adventure serial, Richard le Téméraire (Tim Tyler’s Luck [1937]). At the other end of the scale, however, Robert Bresson’s Les dames du Bois du Boulogne (1945) had just opened in Paris at two cinémas d’exclusivité, the Ermitage on the Champs-Elysées and the Rex on the boulevard Poissonière. This was only the director’s second feature-length film and perhaps the most accessible of all of his work, but it is a Bresson film nevertheless and we might not think of it today as a possible commercial hit. Yet Les dames played exclusively throughout the late-summer and early-fall of 1945, and then moved immediately and systematically to cinemas in the neighborhoods. During the week of October 31 and after having left its exclusive engagements, the film showed in seven cinemas, including one of the larger locations in the city, the elegant, Egyptian-style Louxor-Pathé in the tenth arrondissement, and also two cinemas each in the sixteenth and seventeenth arrondissements. A week later, Les dames had left the Louxor and its run had contracted to three cinemas, all of them different from the week before. Showing, perhaps, the logic of Parisian distribution, Bresson’s film moved that week from one edge of the eighteenth arrondissement to the other, from the Select cinema on the avenue du Clichy on the western edge to the Capitole on the rue de la Chappelle on the eastern border. The following week, the film had crossed the eighteenth arrondissement again and gone back to the western side at the Metropole cinema, and opened at four cinemas in the seventeenth and two in the sixteenth, as well as one in the third.


The opulent Louxor-Pathé in the tenth arrondissement, in the 1930s

Les dames du Bois du Boulogne has come down to us as a significant critical and commercial flop, mostly because of François Truffaut’s 1954 retrospective on the film’s reception, when the filmmaker wrote that the public came to see Les dames only to smirk, and that the producer “was ruined.” This indeed may have been the case. The evidence in Cinévie, though, seems to indicate that Bresson’s film found an audience just after the end of the war, in Paris if not the rest of France, and this apparent success perhaps indicates the possibility for a film with significant artistic pretensions to have a place in the everyday film culture of the city. But there also may have been a broader economic incentive to the way Les dames made its way through Paris, as it seems to have been part of a distribution package of films with high aspirations, paired with Sérénade, a 1940 Franz Schubert biopic starring Louis Jouvet and the great German actress Lilian Harvey, who had left Germany and her career as a Nazi star just the year before. At each of the cinemas where Les dames had played the week of October 31, for example, Sérénade, appeared the following week. The films had been made by different, and very small, production companies, but their apparent combination here does seem to hint at the possibility of larger distribution firms handling films like these, and renting them in packages to neighborhood cinemas.

Parisian film exhibition itself might indicate renewed French control of the cinema after the long years of Nazi occupation, and show, as well, the connection of postwar film culture to that of the prewar period. If we move ahead to 1946, in March Cinévie announced a new Parisian cinema in the ninth arrondissement, this one called the Méliès in honor of one of the first and certainly one of the greatest French filmmakers, Georges Méliès. The location on the boulevard des Italiens seemed predetermined for a cinema that honored the great magician of the movies, the man who made Le voyage dans la lune (1902) and so many other films full of astonishing sleight of hand. The Théâtre Robert-Houdin, founded by the great magician Houdin himself, and which Méliès had owned for a few years, had been on that site from the late-nineteenth century until its demolition in the 1920s. The film that inaugurated the new cinema was American rather than French, but seems to have been perfectly suited to the occasion, Le magician d’Oz (The Wizard of Oz [1939]), which because of the war had not yet played in Paris. In this case, then, the location of film viewing rather than the film itself, and the history of the exhibition site, asserted the continuity of French cinema and Parisian film culture.


Cinévie features Le magician d’Oz, the first film to play at the new Méliès cinema on the boulevard des Italiens