“Donnez-nous des films français! Parlez-nous en français!” “Give us French films! Speak to us in French!” That’s what the Parisian audience yelled at the screen on Saturday, December 7th 1929, during the 5:00 screening of Fox Folies (Fox Movietone Follies of 1929), which had opened that day at the newly-renovated Moulin Rouge in the eighteenth arrondissement, around Montmartre. But this gets ahead of the story just a little bit.
The Moulin Rouge had been one of Paris’ leading music halls since 1889, except for a six-year period after it burned down in 1915 and then was rebuilt for a 1921 reopening. It had occupied the same space on the boulevard de Clichy during all of that time, and just about everybody who was anybody in French popular music had performed there: Mistinguett, Max Dearly, Maurice Chevalier, Jean Gabin, and many, many others. The Moulin Rouge closed once again in 1929, but not because of any natural disaster like a fire. Rather, this time the building’s main theatrical space (there were several inside) was being transformed into a cinema.
This constituted a significant shift in the Parisian cultural landscape, and the press took notice. In November, La Rampe, a weekly review of cultural events in Paris, let readers know that there was no end in sight to the “invasion of talking films” from Hollywood, and that the Moulin Rouge would reopen for Christmas, completely transformed, with the latest American musical revue, Les Fox Folies. Of course, other sound films from Hollywood had played in Paris and had not caused any trouble at all, so there was no reason to believe that Fox Folies would be any different.
In its coverage, Les Spectacles gushed that the city was being given the gift of “a large and luxurious cinema,” and that the director of the Moulin Rouge had invited all of the best people in the city (“le tout-Paris”) to the grand opening. The weekly film journal Cinéa reported on the transformation of the Moulin Rouge and called it a “tour de force,” and gave special praise to the new “American-style” mezzanine. Not all progress, however, was necessarily for the better. Cinéa also acknowledged the “justified irritation” of those in Montmartre who lamented such a major change and mourned the passing of the music hall.
I’ve written about the Moulin Rouge before (see my blog post from July 30th 2016). It would become a major cinema, but it would never attain the status of the great cinemas in and around the avenue des Champs-Elysées. In fact, in the same issue, in a capsule review of Fox Folies, Cinéa presciently warned that it would be “difficult to show a film in a foreign language except in one of those exclusive cinemas frequented by a more cosmopolitan audience” rather than a place like the Moulin Rouge. In other words, residents of the eighteenth on the northern edge of the city might not be as sophisticated as those who went to the movies in more central, upscale locations, and might not be as ready, at least this early in the transition to sound, for a film with subtitles.
Opening night at the Moulin Rouge didn’t go well. Le Figaro reported many of the details. The subtitles for Fox Folies were “written in deplorable French”; as a result, the “audience quickly tired of following a story it did not understand”; they became unhappy, and the ensuing “ruckus” was such that the management called off the next show. The following day, Sunday, the same thing happened again, and that’s when the audience started shouting at the screen, with those protests, according to the newspaper, becoming “something of a leitmotif” for the entire screening.
In the interest of fairness, the reporter for Le Figaro talked to the management at the cinema. They said that the film already had been a big success in Marseille and Nice, where it went off without a hitch (Fox Folies, apparently, was one of those infrequent films that opened elsewhere in France before coming to Paris). Even if the public had been unaware of those earlier screenings, they certainly knew, through advertisements as well as the posters at the cinema, that the film was from Hollywood, and that, anyway, there just weren’t enough French sound films available to be shown (the first French film with recorded sound, Le Collier de la reine, had only opened two months before, in October 1929, and at the time of the incident at the Moulin Rouge only one French sound film, Les Trois masques, was in circulation).
This may have all seemed reasonable enough. But then the management fell back on a time honored Parisian tradition; blame any problem on outside agitators. First, the management named a “cabal” to whom the current owners had refused to sell the Moulin Rouge, and who had paid off some members of the audience to cause trouble. Then they suggested that a few disaffected projectionists, who had quit just before the screening, may have been responsible for the unpleasantness. Finally, management claimed that the transformation of the Moulin Rouge into a cinema had infuriated the old music hall’s orchestra members who suddenly were out of a job, and may have come to Fox Folies looking to blow off a little steam.
In its report on the “noisy and violent incidents,” the Parisian fascist newspaper L’Action Française, which always seemed ready to blame Jews or communists for any unrest in Paris, this time chose not to single out anyone from outside, or to place responsibility on outraged orchestra members. The newspaper devoted almost two full columns to the events at the Moulin Rouge, and gave the story a dramatic headline: “The Fall of Fox Follies” (“La Chute des Folies-Fox”). The newspaper gave much more detail about the violence at the cinema than Le Figaro had, saying that spectators had torn the metal numbers from their theatre seats and thrown them at the screen. The analysis in L’Action Française, at least at the beginning, is surprisingly measured, and mostly places the event within a nationwide context of a film industry unable to produce sound films as quickly and efficiently as the Americans. L’Action Française clamed not to be surprised by any of this, and said that it had been warning readers for weeks that an influx of American films would cause problems. And, of course, a musical revue like Fox Folies could only remind readers of what they had lost with the transformation of the Moulin Rouge, from music hall to cinema.
After this, L’Action Française reverted fully to form. The article complained not only of hearing only English rather than French, but to add visual insult to linguistic injury, Fox Folies also showed “blacks and whites” (“noirs et blancs”) on screen together. This was, according to the newspaper, more than viewers could take.
The press kept the story going for some time. Not quite a week later, La Renaissance, a very serious weekly journal of politics and culture, ironically headlined its article about the Moulin Rouge events, “À Propos of Progress in the Cinema,” and felt that the audience was fully justified in its complaints, which also included shouts of “In French!” and “Shut up!” (“ta gueule”), and then, as viewers stormed out of the cinema and saw others standing in line for the next show, “Stay out!” (“N’entrez pas!”). As late as March 1930, the monthly—and very sober–French review Europe ran its own story, arguing that the sound film would undoubtedly evolve slowly, and that while Fox Folies may have been enough to make Americans proud, it certainly wasn’t sufficient, technically or aesthetically, for French audiences.
The Moulin Rouge would recover from the events of December 7th and 8th. In April 1930, René Clair’s Sous les toits de Paris would open there, and played exclusively at the Moulin Rouge for several months. For most critics and intellectuals, this was the film that showed the astonishing promise of the French sound film, and so these showings at the Moulin Rouge seemed to indicate a triumphant response to the “invasion” of films from Hollywood.
As far as I can tell, in going through available listings for the rest of 1929 and 1930, Fox Folies left the Moulin Rouge after a week or two and never played at another Parisian cinema. If this was indeed the case, it would have been extraordinary for a major American film to have such a brief run and then disappear completely, even if there were still relatively few Parisian cinemas wired for sound at the time. This certainly wouldn’t have been the original plan for the film, so French cinemas at the time must have been able to break contracts with distributors for Hollywood films, or had agreements that allowed them to cancel showings at fairly short notice. If this is what happened, it marks a rare occurrence of the French film industry responding quickly and directly to the apparent demands of its audience, demands that were vocal and violent and difficult to miss. At least in the very earliest months of the transition to sound in France, some Parisians literally refused to remain quiet about the films they wanted to see and hear.