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 ) 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.
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 ) 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 ). 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).
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 ), 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 ), 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 ) 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).
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 ), Les Montagnards sont là (Swiss Miss ), Les As d’Oxford (A Chump at Oxford ), and C’est donc ton frère (Our Relations ). 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).
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.