In 1944 Parisians celebrated the liberation of their city from Nazi control by going to the movies to watch Deanna Durbin in Eve a commencé (It Started With Eve ). I’ve written in a previous post (April 12th, 2016) how the first American film to play in a newly-freed Paris was Eve a commencé, which opened in October 1944 and showed in two of the seven cinemas that were up and running, the Rex in the second arrondissement and the Avenue in the eighth. I wrote that at the time of the Liberation all cinemas had closed, and then took weeks to open largely because of the shortage of electricity in the city. But I hadn’t been able to figure out why Durbin’s film would have this particular significance in Parisian film history, and how it had gotten to Paris in the first place.
Film historians have been aware for a long time of Durbin’s incredible celebrity in the United States and the United Kingdom, especially among teenage girls and young women, the fans who were around the same age as the actress when she was at the peak of her popularity in the late-1930s and early-1940s (see, for instance, Jackie Stacey’s terrific book, Star Gazing: Hollywood Cinema and Female Spectatorship). At the same time, Durbin was also extremely popular in France and France’s colonies. In October 1937, the film journal Ciné France ran a photo of Durbin across half of its first page, with the caption “new star, new singer, and the new ingenue who triumphs” in Deanna et ses boys (One Hundred Men and a Girl ). That same year, the daily newspaper Le Petit Parisien also put a photo of Durbin on its front page, and in fact ran a double-column practically down the length of the page to advertise a long story about the young woman with the grownup soprano inside the paper, calling her “the great new star from the Hollywood sky.” A year later, again in Ciné France, an article compared the teenager to the great new French star Michele Morgan, herself only 18, and predicted a global trend towards ever younger actresses. That article referred to Durbin in a mixture of French and English as “la child-woman,” who “knew how to cry and laugh through her tears, and who was one of the most gracious stars” of cinema. French radio played Durbin’s recordings throughout the country, and her celebrity reached to the colonies and the French expatriate community, with the Saigon newspaper La Nouvelliste d’Indochine, for example, profiling her in a January 1938 column on “Stars from Hollywood.”
Still, there were other Hollywood stars who were just as famous in Paris, if not even better known, and whose films might seem more appropriate for breaking the embargo on Hollywood movies that had been imposed by the Nazis during the Occupation. Why, then, was Deanna Durbin the first great symbol from Hollywood of the liberated French capital?
This probably had something to do with the vagaries of international film distribution during wartime. Of course, the Nazis had banned American films in the Occupied Zone, including Paris, in 1940, and then in Southern France, in Vichy, in 1942, bans that would stay in effect until the Allies drove the Germans out of France in the summer and fall of 1944. French North Africa, however, had been liberated by early 1943, and American films began showing in major urban areas like Algiers very shortly after that. By August 1944, Eve a commencé was showing there, at the Royal cinema.
It would make things convenient to be able to say that Durbin’s film simply moved from Algiers to Paris when cinemas began to open after the Liberation, but following that initial run at the Royal, Eve a commencé came back to Algiers, playing at the Cameo cinema at precisely the same time it showed in Paris, in mid-October 1944, and the film played in both cities for the next month or so. My guess is that the two prints of Eve showing in Paris, along with the other one at the Cameo in Algiers, indicates that there were several copies of the film in North Africa when Paris was liberated, making it easy to move to the French capital while also staying in colonial cinemas.
Exhibition information from the period remains very hard to come by, so it’s difficult to know if this was the standard procedure for the period just after the Liberation, with films going to major North African cities and then to Paris, reversing the usual route. There were films, though, that ran truer to pre-war form; another of the first American films to play in Paris after the Liberation, Américan pur sang, (Joe Smith, American ) opened there about the same time Durbin’s film did, in October 1944, and then premiered in Algiers at the Bijou about six weeks later. So it’s possible that American film companies established their Paris distribution offices, or at least their methods for getting films into Paris, within just a few weeks of the Liberation.
Because it opened a new era in Parisian film culture, Eve a commencé generated a great deal of excitement. Combat headlined its movie page “Les Premiers films étrangers à Paris,” (“the first foreign films in Paris”), and then went on to discuss Durbin’s film and also Un Américain pur sang (which as far as I can tell had not yet premiered). The reopening of Parisian cinemas had brought huge crowds, so many that exhibitors “thought they were dreaming.” Then Combat, founded as a Resistance newspaper and hardly known for its sentiment, itself went on dreamily about Durbin, viewing her as the perfect symbol of a new beginning but also of what was lost during the Occupation. This wonderful reopening of cinemas “was also cruel for us,” because “it reminded us how we had aged.” Combat continued that when Parisians had last seen Durbin (and this was probably in First Love, from 1939, or That Certain Age from 1938), she was “just a little girl,” and now “we find her almost a woman.” This aging seems less a reference to films that were made, really, only a couple of years apart, but rather to not having seen Durbin at all, or any American films, for the four years of the Occupation.
Eve a commencé seems to have been reviewed in every Parisian newspaper of every political persuasion: Temps Présent, Figaro, Jeunesse, Carerefour, Libération, Ce Soir, Front National, Les Lettres françaises, l’Humanité, Populaire, and others. As well, some of the most distinguished critics in Paris weighed in on the film. Roger Leenhardt, who would begin a significant career as a filmmaker in a few years, praised Durbin in Les Lettres françaises, but then acknowledged that the film couldn’t stand up against the great American prewar comedies directed by Frank Capra, L’Extravagant Monsieur Deeds (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ) and Monsieur Smith au Sénat (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ). The journalist Jeander, who had lectured on film history in Nazi ciné-clubs in Paris during the war, called the film “charmante” in Libération, which had begun in 1941 as a newspaper of the Resistance. Paul Barbellion, who worked as Robert Bresson’s assistant director on Les Dames du Bois du Boulogne (1945) also wrote about Eve a commencé, and so, too, did André Bazin, for Le Parisien libéré, which had begun publication only two months before.
Bazin used the occasion of the film—after first calling attention to Durbin’s great beauty—to comment on the state of American cinema, and comedy in particular. For Bazin, the film proved how Hollywood comedies had become more and more standardized, and in such a way that it was impossible to be bored while watching them. Nevertheless, the conditions of the screening also needed to be standardized. As proof, Bazin moved to a recent viewing at the Madeleine cinema in the eighth arrondissement of Ernst Lubitsch’s great 1938 comedy, La Huitième femme de Barbe-Bleue (Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife). That revival was ruined for Bazin because the film had been dubbed. He wrote that he didn’t understand a word of English, but nevertheless subtitles would allow any viewer’s imagination to become perfectly oriented to the story, and that one would soon forget that the film was in a foreign language.
Eve a commencé may seem like a negligible film to us now. At the time of the Liberation, however, after years of waiting for American films, which themselves would signal the end of German control of Paris, Durbin’s movie was anything but inconsequential. Eve a commencé certainly tells us something of interest about international distribution during the period, but also leaves a number of questions unanswered. We are left, then, with Deanna Durbin, “toujours aussi jolie” according to Bazin, and her perhaps brief but astonishing impact on Parisian audiences in October 1944.