The Paris Cinema Project

Paul Virilio has described the national shock, after the French surrender to Germany in June 1940, at the loss of taken-for-granted items of pleasure and relaxation. “At a stroke,” he wrote, “there would be no more American magazines, no more newspapers, above all, no more movies.” In the Occupied Zone, which included Paris, the Nazis banned those movies almost immediately, although they waited until 1942 to embargo American films in the so-called “Free Zone” of Southern France, administered by the Vichy regime of Philippe Pétain. But while they made it impossible to show movies from Hollywood, they didn’t absolutely prevent the French collaborationist press from reporting news from the American movie capital.

There wasn’t much, but there wasn’t a total blackout, either, probably as part of an effort to normalize French culture during the war, and to make it seem as if things had hardly changed at all during the Occupation. If we consider the sources that are available today—newspapers like Le Figaro, Paris-soir, and Le Petit Parisien— the reporting from Hollywood seems particularly grim, detailing the deaths of popular stars.

Before the war, it was always big news in the Paris newspapers when American stars died, especially when those deaths came unexpectedly. On June 6th 1937, Paris-soir reported that Jean Harlow was “seriously ill” (“gravement malade”), and on June 9th 1937, devoted most of its front page to her death at only 26, and in the arms of William Powell (“Jean Harlow est morte à vingt-six ans dans les bras de son meilleur ami et partenaire William Powell”). Le Figaro also put the news on the front page, with an article comparing the “ravishing” Harlow to another remarkable young woman, Amelia Earhart, who had recently begun her round-the-world flight, and who herself would be dead in just a few weeks.

Paris-soir Harlow 6-9-37

The Paris-soir front page story covering Jean Harlow’s life and death, June 9th 1937

There wouldn’t be another shocking death of a young and internationally famous Hollywood star until January 1942, when Carole Lombard was killed in a plane crash. That happened eighteen months into the German occupation of Paris and well after the ban on American films there, and also following the Nazi takeover of Parisian journalism. The major Paris papers duly covered the tragedy, but not with the same style they lavished on Harlow’s death. Paris-soir ran a single-paragraph on page two about the “mort tragique,” noting that Lombard was married to Clark Gable and that her mother died in the crash with her. Le Petit Parisien printed a story just as short, at the very bottom of page two and surrounded by listings of the major cinemas, theatres, and music halls in the city. Le Figaro saw fit to announce the death on page one, at the bottom, and gave the briefest of biographies of the star; her birth in 1909, her first marriage to William Powell, her current marriage to Gable. Only Le Journal devoted significant space to the actress’ death, with a short report about the crash on page one followed by a more extensive page three biography of the “vedette d’Hollywood: Carole Lombard.”

Paris-soir 1-19-42

On the left, the one-paragraph, page-two Paris-soir story about Carole Lombard’s death, January 19th 1942

The German-controlled press could only report so much. None of the available news stories about Lombard explained that she had been travelling in the first place because of her active participation in America’s war effort; she had gone with her mother to Indiana, to participate in a rally to sell war bonds.

Lombard had always been extremely popular in Paris as well as in the rest of France. As late as June 1942, five months after her death and just before the Nazis banned American films in Vichy, her 1938 film, La Peur du scandale (Fools for Scandal) played at the Studio-Fourmi cinema in Lyon. But the deaths of other stars, too, stars who perhaps didn’t have quite the same celebrity as Lombard, were also reported in the press. In 1943, Leslie Howard, like Lombard, died in a plane crash. Paris-soir didn’t put Howard in the headline on page one (“L’avion Lisbonne-Londres se perd avec ses 12 passagers”), and in the very short story that followed mentioned the three women and three infants who died before getting to “the well-known movie actor Leslie Howard.” A few days later, the far rightwing newspaper L’Action Française ran a brief report on Howard’s death, although, like Paris-soir, without naming the actor in the page two headline (“Après la perte de l’avion faisant la liaison Londres-Lisbonne”). Just like those stories about Lombard, these are most notable for what they don’t say, and for neglecting information that was in most of the American stories about the crash; that the flight was shot down by a fighter plane in the German Luftwaffe.


The Cinéma la Fourmi in Lyon, which as the Studio-Fourmi had shown Lombard’s Peur du scandale in June 1942

So the war could have no place in any news from Hollywood. This would not be of much consequence in some of the obituaries from the time. When John Barrymore died in 1942, the Parisian press gave it short notice, and commented, more or less correctly, that the cause was some combination of pneumonia, a stomach ulcer, and cirrhosis of the liver. In 1943, however, Conrad Veidt died. Veidt had played Cesare, the somnambulist in Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1919), and had starred in a number of other German films. He had emigrated to the United States in the late 1920s to make movies in Hollywood and also worked in France and the United Kingdom, and appeared in his last German film in 1935 (Wilhelm Tell). In the United States, of course, he was often typecast as the evil Nazi, most famously as Major Strasser in Casablanca (1942). The available obituaries in Parisian newspapers made no mention of his German films, in fact of any of his roles, nor of his expatriation from Germany. He was simply referred to as a “movie star” (“la vedette de l’écran”). The stories noted that he had died after playing a round of golf, perhaps a veiled comment about his leisure-class lifestyle in America, in much the same way that reports of Barrymore’s cirhossis of the liver may have been meant to indicate a death attributable to the debauchery of Hollywood.

As far as I can tell, movie star obituaries were the only reports from Hollywood that Parisians received during the war. They learned about Lombard’s death, but they would have read nothing, at least from collaborationist newspapers, journals, and fan magazines, dealing with her great comedy about the war, To Be or Not to Be (1942). I have posted before about how the Nazis used the cinema to try to make it seem as if the Occupation really made no difference in the lives of Parisians. Nevertheless, the various sites of popular culture in the city—from the cinemas, which were perfect locations for surveillance, to the massive roundup of Jews at a bicycle velodrome, the Vel d’Hiv, in July 1942—emphasized exactly how much everyday life had changed. The Nazis enforced a blockade on American films and on almost all news from Hollywood. But the stories that were allowed in, about Lombard or Howard or Veidt, to the exclusion of all other Hollywood reporting and even manipulated to avoid any mention of the war, nevertheless emphasized the perversity of the Occupation as well as the Nazi culture of death and dying.

NYT Howard 6-3-43

The New York Times story about the death of Leslie Howard, with the emphasis on the actor’s plane having been shot down by Nazis, June 3rd 1943





The Paris Cinema Project

What brought Laurel and Hardy to the Champs-Elysées in December 1965? Had you been on the famous thoroughfare then, your opportunities for refined cultural and commercial activities might have seemed endless. Perhaps you could pick up something to wear at the Carven fashion house, run by the famous couturière Marie-Louise Carven. Then you might have gotten something to eat at Café Fouquet’s, one of the oldest and most famous brasseries in Paris. After that you may have strolled just a few blocks to the avenue Montaigne and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, to see The Prodigal Son, the just-opened play by Langston Hughes. But if you preferred far simpler pleasures, you could have started off with a matinee or ended the day with an evening screening of Laurel et Hardy au Far-West (Way Out West [1937]) at the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées.

I’ve probably overstated the difference between the famous comedy team and Hughes, at least to Parisian sensibilities. Laurel and Hardy seem to have always had a large following in Paris, among average filmgoers as well as cinéphiles, but we still might not expect a nearly thirty-year old film of theirs to be playing in an elegant cinema in the middle of one of the city’s most important neighborhoods for seeing the newest films.


Café Fouquet’s, at 99 avenue des Champs-Elysées, across the street from the location of the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées

The Cinéma des Champs-Elysées had started out as a location precisely for that kind of movie experience. It had opened at 118 avenue des Champs-Elysées, in the eighth arrondissement, in February 1931, and it was an intimate space for seeing movies, with only around 400 seats. For its first program, the cinema showed the Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. film, L’Aviateur, made by Warner Bros. and apparently only in French and only for French-speaking audiences. The second film to play there, though, fully showed the significance of the new cinema: Greta Garbo’s first talking film, Anna Christie (1930), one of the most important international motion picture events of the early sound era.

After that and throughout the 1930s, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées showed major Hollywood films almost exclusively, and became a frequent focus of criticism for French filmmakers and critics who felt that the country’s own movies had been banished from many of the best cinemas in Paris. As just one example among many from the 1930s, Frank Capra’s L’Extravagant Mr. Deeds (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [1936]) played there for months in 1936, for anywhere from 12 to 20 francs per ticket—around 75 cents to $1.25—depending on the time of day and the quality of the seat. Like most American films at the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, Deeds played in the original English, with French subtitles, before a dubbed version went out to the less well-heeled neighborhoods.

By the late 1930s, nine cinemas were in business on the Champs-Elysées, all of them within a few blocks of each other. There was Le Paris, and also the Marignan, the Colisée, the Balzac, and L’Ermitage, all of which were “cinémas d’exclusivité,” usually showing films that had just opened in Paris. There was also the Elysée, which billed itself as a “ciné-music hall,” and would show a film and also present a half-dozen or more live acts. Just next door to the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, at 116, the Normandie cinema opened in 1937, and there was also Les Miracles-Lord Byron at 122.

Like all of the cinemas in Paris, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées had closed by the time France surrendered to Germany in June 1940. As a sign of that cinema’s importance, however, and as part of their attempt to normalize the film culture of the Occupation, the Nazis staged a gala reopening in December 1940, presenting the German actress Brigitte Horney in Les Mains libre (Befreite Hände [1939]). The attempt to turn Horney into a major French movie star failed, and the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées went through most of the rest of the Occupation showing run-of-the mill movies like L’Inévitable M. Dubois (1943) with Annie Ducaux, some major French films, although not always in their first run (for instance Marcel L’Herbier’s La Nuit fantastique, from 1942), and reprises of older films (Les Misérables, from 1934, which screened at the cinema in January 1944).


A photo of Brigitte Horney in “Le Matin,” 1 January 1941, announcing her film, “Les Mains libre,” at the newly reopened Cinéma des Champs-Elysées

After the war, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées maintained its status as a “cinema d’exclusivité,” but it showed mostly reprises from Hollywood and France; for instance Nous irons à Paris (Good Girls Go to Paris [1939]), with Melvyn Douglas and Joan Blondell, in October 1945, and in 1947 Un carnet de bal, from 1937. After this, I lose track of the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées for 10 years, but by 1957 it had undergone one of the most significant changes of any major Parisian cinema from the postwar era.

During this period, the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées became something of a cinémathèque, screening “Les Grands classiques de l’écran” and changing its program every Wednesday. The first schedule I’ve found covers the spring of 1957, and begins with Pierre Prévert’s Adieu Leonard (1943), followed by William Wyler’s L’Insoumise (Jezebel [1938]), and then René Clair’s Les Belles de nuit (1952). The season ended with Le Troisième homme (The Third Man 1949), Disney’s Les Aventures de Peter Pan (1953), and finally Marc Allégret’s Julietta (1953). For at least the next eight years, the showings typically alternated between American and French standards: La Poupée de chair (Kazan’s Baby Doll [1956]) and La Main au collet (To Catch a Thief, Hitchcock’s 1955 film), as well as Cocteau’s Les Parents Terribles (1948) and the great French star Fernandel in Le Schpountz (1938).


The cover of the cinema’s program from summer 1961

This brings us back to Laurel and Hardy. The team seems to have made their first appearance at the new Cinéma des Champs-Elysées in 1961, for a two-week screening (the only one I’ve found) of “Le Super Show Laurel & Hardy,” with four films showing three or four times each during this stretch: La Bohémienne (The Bohemian Girl [1936]), Les Montagnards sont là (Swiss Miss [1938]), Les As d’Oxford (A Chump at Oxford [1940]), and C’est donc ton frère (Our Relations [1936]). Then, of course, there was the late-1965 showing of Laurel et Hardy au Far-West, which screened one week after another classic comedy, Jacques Tati’s Jour de fête (1949).


The schedule for the “Super Show Laurel & Hardy” from 1961

There had been much governmental and industrial handwringing around this time, and especially during the 1950s, over a declining French film market and a less than enthusiastic French film audience, but the reasons for the transformation of the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées are still unclear. It’s also difficult to gauge the success of this shift in screening policy, from standard cinema to repertory house, and I’m not sure how long the screening practice lasted. I lose track of the Cinéma des Champs-Elysée completely after 1965. Today, of course, the Champs-Elysées remains the most famous street in Paris, and it is perhaps even more of a tourist attraction than it was fifty or sixty years ago. Café Fouquet’s is still open, and it remains an elegant place for a drink or a meal. The Carven fashion house, however, has turned into a Barclay’s bank. On the site of the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, where movie audiences watched some of the most important new films in the 1930s, and then classics in the 1950s and ‘60s, there is now a Mercedes-Benz dealership.


The Mercedes-Benz dealership on the site of the old Cinéma des Champs-Elysées