“Why won’t more sites that show foreign films in their original languages adopt the policy of the Washington cinema, which allows the image to remain intact while the subtitles are shown on a smaller screen especially for this purpose?” That was the question posed by film critic Valéry Jahier in the journal L’Esprit in February 1936. He had just reviewed the film by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, The Scoundrel, and complained that it was all “jostled” (bousculées) by the intrusion of written words over the image. Not since Madchen in Uniform (1931) had set a new standard for subtitles, which had been written by Colette (see my blog post of September 24th, 2016), had Jahier been so upset by the practice as he was at the screening of this new movie from Hollywood.
If we take Jahier at his word, his upset seems justified. But what are we supposed to make of his praise for the Washington? How exactly did that cinema show foreign films? About five years after almost all of the commercial cinemas in Paris had converted to sound technology, when we would expect to find standardized methods for showing all kinds of sound films, had the Washington developed its own method of projecting subtitles, different from any other cinema in the city?
The Washington had been around, at the same address at 14 rue Magellan in the eighth arrondissement, at least since the mid-1920s. During that period it had been called the Washington-Magellan, for its address, and then in 1934 became the Washington-Palace, probably an indication that it had gone from being an independent cinema to a member of a circuit. There were a number of Palace cinemas in Paris during the 1930s, many of them affiliated with one of the largest, vertically integrated cinema corporations in France, Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert.
At this time the Washington almost always showed American films from a variety of studios in Hollywood, and typically in their first run in Paris, but this was still not one of the great cinémas d’exclusivités in the city. Rather, it would often be referred to as a cinéma specialisé for its emphasis on American films, a step up from the cinémas des quartiers, the neighborhood exhibition sites. As a sign of its status among cinemas, and unlike, say, the Marignan or the Normandie just a few blocks away, the Washington through the early-1930s was unable to keep even the most popular films for more than a week or two. In fact, it was at least a minor news story when the Washington, “contrary to its policy,” arranged to hang onto the hit Warner Bros. movie 42nd Street for week after week in the spring of 1933, and then after that turned into what would be called in the United States a “run of the film” cinema, with movies lasting there for as long as the public would go see them.
Most French cinemas at the time, just like their counterparts in the United States, were subject to block booking, renting perhaps an entire season’s worth of films sight unseen from distributors. The Washington seemed in particular to acquire films from the Hollywood studio RKO, and typically advertised the films in their original titles: The Lost Squadron (1932), What Price Hollywood (1932) Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men (1933), Hips, Hips Hooray (1934), or Stingaree (1934) as just a few examples among many. But there were also films from MGM (Tarzan l’intrépide (Tarzan the Fearless ), Paramount (One Sunday Afternoon ), and other studios. These films always were shown in English, with subtitles.
This was, in fact, typical practice in the eighth arrondissement, one of the city’s very posh districts and the location of several of the most important cinemas in Paris (see my blog post of August 27th 2016). Like the Washington, many of the cinemas in the eighth, and especially those on and around the avenue des Champs-Elysées, specialized in movies from Hollywood. Over the decade of the 1930s, the eighth became more and more densely packed with cinemas. In 1931, the Washington was one of only nine cinemas in the arrondissement. By 1936, there were eighteen.
For a few years in the mid-1930s, the Washington shared its space on rue Magellan with another cinema, the Washington-Club. This may have been one of the city’s ciné-clubs, and it, too, specialized in American films shown with subtitles, although the precise relationship of the two cinemas is difficult to pin down. When both advertised their programs, they typically played movies at the same time, so it’s possible that the space had been divided into two screening rooms.
Sometime in the late-1930s, both of the screening spaces disappeared. There are no listings for the Washington in available newspapers from the German occupation. By 1947, just a few years after the liberation of the city, there were 23 cinemas in the eighth arrondissement, but none of them was on the rue Magellan. This really was nothing extraordinary. At first glance, and except during the occupation, the cinematic landscape of Paris typically seemed to be expanding during the period. But cinemas closed nevertheless, and the end of the Washington may perhaps have been tied to problems with the Palace chain of cinemas, or competition from all of the exhibition sites that had opened nearby, or for some other reason that we can never really know. The building at 14 rue Magellan today yields no clues, and no evidence that a cinema had ever been there. Now it’s a mixed-use office and apartment complex, and looks to have been built in the last thirty years or so.
Nor is there any further trace of how subtitled films were shown there. I have found only one other reference to watching foreign films at the Washington, and that’s from an American source. The New York Times had their man in Paris, Herbert Matthews, and he wrote frequently about the cinema; the films that were popular, the stars, and also the exhibition sites. In fact he preferred the latter to the movie theatres in New York, mostly because Parisian cinemas served alcohol. Matthews wrote about the Washington just once, after he had seen Jean Harlow in Bombshell there in January 1935. He spent most of his column commenting on the subtitles, and on some of the more interesting differences between French and English. When someone was called a “sap,” the translation used nouille, or “noodle,” and “you dirty double-crosser” became espèce de Tartuffe, “a kind of Tartuffe,” I suppose because of that character’s hypocrisy and scheming in Molière’s play.
There were instances, as well, that simply left Matthews mystified, and that seemed to speak more to inept translation than to anything particular about French culture. When Harlow asked her butler, “Have you ever had a baby?” the butler replied, “No, but I have a married sister.” The subtitle, however, had him answer, at least according to Matthews’ translation, “No, but I have had appendicitis.”
Matthews could only scratch his head at that one, but he gave no indication that the subtitles were shown at all unusually. We are left, then, with only Jahier’s account from a little more than a year later about that separate screen, and about the possibility that the Washington, alone among the cinemas in Paris, had discovered the perfect solution to the problem of subtitles.