When Roman Scandals opened at the Lord Byron cinema in Paris in April 1933, the advertisement in La Semaine à Paris gave top billing to star Eddie Cantor, and duly mentioned costar Ruth Etting and the appearance of 200 Goldwyn Girls, all against an illustration of two nude women in a chariot. And then the ad reminded readers of the real sensation at the Lord Byron: “Et toujours ‘Les Trois petits cochons’ de Walt Disney, 25ème Semaine!” (“And always, Walt Disney’s Three Little Pigs, in its 25th week!”).
Six months and counting was an impressive showing for any film in Paris at the time. Some movies ran even longer than that, for instance the great hit of 1931, L’Ange Bleu (1930), which played at the Ursulines cinema in the fifth arrondissement for about a year (see my blog post of October 21st, 2015). But it’s safe to say that no cartoon had ever had the success in Paris of Les Trois petits cochons, and the only animated film that would top it would be another Disney product, Blanche Neige et les sept nains (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [1937)), which still probably counts as one of the great global hits in film history.
That a cartoon was mentioned at all in the advertisement was something of a rarity. Using various film journals and newspapers, we can put together fairly complete listings of the feature films that played in Paris during the 1930s. But the accompanying shorts, including cartoons, are another matter. The only source I’ve found that would list them with any consistency, and this only for the very early-1930s, was a weekly called Paris-Films, which advertised Programmes complets de tous les cinémas in the city. As just one example, for the week of March 27th, 1931, Paris-Films listed a variety of dessins animés: Koko peau rouge (which I believe to be a Betty Boop film) playing with Marcel L’Herbier’s Le Mystére de la chambre jaune (1930) at the Ciné Magic-Palace in the seventh arrondissement, or La Chasse au desert (a cartoon I have been unable to identify) showing with La Folle aventure (1930), which starred Jean Murat and Marie Glorie. It was only Disney cartoons that would be listed anywhere else, and then only with intermittent regularity.
The Lord Byron, at 122 avenue des Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement, was one of the cinèmas d’exclusivité in the “better” parts of Paris that typically showed American films in their first runs, and with subtitles rather than dubbed (although my guess is that Les Trois petits cochons would have been shown with French voices, but with all of the singing done in the original English). With only around 450 seats, the Lord Byron wasn’t one of the grandest cinemas in Paris, but it was one of the most prestigious. Les Trois petits cochons opened there at the end of September 1933, along with Alexander Korda’s La Vie privée d’Henry VIII (The Private Life of Henry VIII ), one of the more anticipated films of the year. Disney’s film and Korda’s replaced Al Jolson in Hallelulah, I’m a Bum! (1933), which had been showing with the live-action short, Première à Hollywood (1933).
Week after week, Les Trois petits cochons lasted longer than anything else at the Lord Byron. La Vie privée had a terrific run, leaving at the end of January 1934. Then came Le Masque de l’autre (The Masquerader ), with Ronald Colman, and that was followed a month later by the Raoul Walsh film Bowery (The Bowery ). Then, about four weeks after that, Roman Scandals opened, with Les Trois petits cochons still playing.
By December 1933, three months into its showing at the Lord Byron, Disney’s film had entered even more broadly into the cultural landscape of Paris and the rest of France. On Christmas that year, seriously ill children watched the film as well as some Mickey Mouse cartoons, and then were given gifts at a holiday celebration at the very posh Blumenthal hotel in the sixteenth arrondissement. Throughout the country during the first few months of 1934, French radio stations played the cartoon’s theme song, Qui craint le grand méchant loup? (Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?), I believe in English, with the pigs’ original voices. When they did, it was advertised in newspapers that always noted the composer and lyricist, Frank Churchill. In one such listing, in L’Ouest Éclair from April 12th, 1934, a national radio station announced a special version of Churchill’s music arranged for piano, played right after a Schubert minuet.
From January through May 1934, the Lord Byron presented special matinees, not of any of the feature films showing there, but rather of a selection of Disney’s Silly Symphonies, and I don’t doubt that Les Trois petits cochons was one of those cartoons.
Those matinees ended only when Roman Scandals—and Les Trois petits cochons—left the Lord Byron. Dorothy Arzner’s Nana (1934), which starred Anna Sten in her first Hollywood film, opened there in early May, and newsreels were the only advertised accompanying films. There may have been contractual reasons for Disney’s film finally leaving the Lord Byron, or it may just have seemed that the musical cartoon would have been out of place with an adaptation of Zola’s novel of the excesses of the last few years of France’s Second Empire (although when the equally adult 1934 Abel Gance adaptation of La Dame aux camélias played at the Sèvres cinema in the sixth arrondissement in February 1935, the film that played along with it was Les Trois petits cochons).
Even as it continued to play at the Lord Byron, Les Trois petits cochons made its way to North Africa. In December 1933 Disney’s film opened at the Colisée cinema in Oran, Algeria, showing with the Marcel L’Herbier film L’Épervier (1933), which starred Charles Boyer. In fact, in its advertisement for the show, the exhibition site made sure to point out that Disney’s film could only be seen there, letting potential audiences know that it was “exclusive to the Colisée.” Both the feature and the cartoon were scheduled for just a one-week run at the cinema, standard in Oran for the period, and it’s difficult to tell where Les Trois petits cochons went in the region after that. We might be able to assume its success, however, because at the end of May 1934, the Consortium Distribution Alger, which distributed movies throughout North Africa, ran a newspaper article and an advertisement announcing that it had sole rights in the area to eight Disney cartoons, including Les Trois petits cochons. At the end of 1934, Les Trois petits cochons was still in circulation in Algeria, advertised prominently as the accompanying film to Knock, a comedy starring the great French star Louis Jouvet, playing at the Olympia cinema in Bel Abbès.
Possibly the surest proof of the impact of Les Trois petits cochons in France and France’s colonies is the way that it entered into everyday activities there, not as a film but as a general cultural reference. There was the song, of course, played over and over again in various versions on French radio. But there would be other occasions, as well. In June 1935, a children’s benefit in Oran staged a comic ballet of the cartoon, with kids performing all of the parts, with the three little pigs and also a dozen helpers dancing around the wolf’s corpse. Then, as late as October 1936, the very chic French women’s magazine, La Mode et la Maison, ran an article on “Decorating a Child’s Room.” “What a joy for maman to set up a room for her little boy or girl” the article began, and went on to provide “maman” with ideas about lighting, wall decorations, and furniture. The article then moved to the importance of bedspreads and sheets, claiming that children slept best when they were covered up by their favorite characters—Le Petit Poucet (Tom Thumb), La Belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty), Mickey Mouse, and then, of course, Les Trois petits cochons.
When film historians, in the United States at least, have written about The Three Little Pigs, they’ve usually maintained that its astonishing success was attributable to the film somehow capturing an American spirit of optimism during the worst period of the Depression. But this tends to collapse all viewers into just one, insisting that everyone watched and appreciated the cartoon in the same way, and really only considers audiences in the United States. Understanding responses to Disney’s film becomes much more complex if we think in terms of its international success and the various ways that people encountered it, in this case in Paris and the rest of France as well as in North Africa, from the kids’ matinees at the Lord Byron to the exclusive showing at the Colisée in Oran to La Mode’s perfectly decorated bourgeois home.