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.
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.”
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.
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.