On Thursday, May 24th, 1934, 300 French filmmakers piled into ten buses and crisscrossed Paris, from the Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement, to the Place de l’Opéra in the ninth, to the Place de la République on the other side of the city, bordering the tenth and eleventh arrondissements. Along the way, they stopped, unfurled banners (“French filmmakers are starving!” “People of France, save your country’s cinema!”), marched, then got back on the buses and kept going. This has the sound of something out of a comic, anarchist film by René Clair or Jean Vigo, but it was, really, quite serious, and with a political and economic point of immediate interest to the filmmakers. They were concerned with the “Frenchness” of French cinema, not in terms of representation, or of preserving national values on screen, but instead in terms of labor, and who got to make French movies.
Planning had gone on for at least a week. On May 16th, the Syndicat des Chefs cinéastes, a union of directors and writers founded in 1933, met at their club in the fifteenth arrondissement at 85, rue de Vaugirard, a building that, at the time, housed a professional school, the École technique de photographie et de cinéma. A who’s who of French filmmakers attended, including Julien Duvivier, Marc Allégret, and Jean Renoir, although Jacques Feyder was among those “excused” from taking part. The next day, probably to gain some publicity for their cause, they met once again, at the office of the newspaper Le Matin, this time joined by representatives of the Fédération nationale des syndicats d’artisans français du film—comprised of art directors, set designers, editors, cinematographers, film composers, and others. There was at least one report that the filmmakers met a second time on the 17th, in the evening at the Salle Poissonnière, a cinema in the ninth arrondissement and just a few doors away from the Le Matin office.
The press that covered each meeting understood the main issue facing the filmmakers, and used the same term to describe it; the film journal Hebdo wrote that the meeting was called to address “the invasion of foreign workers among French artisans,” while Le Journal lamented “the veritable foreign invasion” so apparent in the credits of movies that were ostensibly labelled “French.” Other reports varied, but only on the point of how dire the situation was. Hebdo suggested that two-thirds of all workers at French film studios were foreign, while Le Temps put the figure at 75% (the actual numbers were probably not so extreme; a government report from 1934 placed the total of foreign film workers at anywhere from 25-50%, depending on the category of work).
We tend to consider issues of foreign influence in French cinema at the time as being mostly about films from other countries dominating French screens, and especially films from the United States. And indeed, when representatives of the French film industry complained about foreign film workers, they often railed against foreign films at the same time. Just a week after the demonstration, the journal L’Homme Libre reported that Marcel Vandal, an important and respected film producer (he had co-produced Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet in 1923, and had worked closely with Duvivier on such projects as L’Homme á l’Hispano , Au Bonheur des dames , and David Golder ), had issued a multi-point plan for safeguarding French cinema. Along with “protection of French workers,” he included a three-month moratorium on importing foreign films as well as an end to block-booking and blind-selling, trade practices that particularly worked to the advantage of Hollywood studios. Vandal insisted, as well, that when foreign films entered the market, they would necessarily be dubbed by French studios, rather than those in Germany, the United Kingdom, or the United States.
Nevertheless, the action of May 24th seemed to be primarily about who would get to work on French films. The demonstration itself apparently went off without a hitch. Hebdo reported that, even as they sped around Paris in their buses, the filmmakers maintained “perfect dignity,” and that everything “went off without provocation.” Comoedia described a sympathetic public “applauding” as the buses, which were covered with banners, zoomed past.
The administrative bureaucracy controlling French cinema at the time was extraordinarily dense, making the available evidence difficult to interpret, but the national government did seem to respond to the demands of the filmmakers. In March 1935, the Journal Officiel de la République française, which tracked all parliamentary debates, reported that the Minister of Commerce had instituted legislation that more stringently regulated the important of films, although still not to the satisfaction of the Fédération nationale. The opening of the article in the Journal Officiel, however, announced the shift in policy that seemed to have been most important to the filmmakers—that the new ministerial declaration included “the defense of the French worker” (comporte la défense de la main-d’oeuvre française). The French technician, or set designer, or director would now, apparently, have some protections against the foreign “invasion”
As far as I can tell, the filmmakers’ demonstration has been discussed only a few times in histories of French cinema. Paul Léglise mentions the incident in the first volume of his Histoire de la politique du cinéma français, as part of a broad discussion of film personnel. Colin Crisp, in his invaluable history The Classic French Cinema, gets the date wrong, placing it in March 1935, but he stresses the importance of the filmmakers’ action, and calls it “a rehearsal for the larger national strikes triggered by the CGT (Conféderation Générale du travail) in 1936.” In his recent biography of Jean Renoir, Pascal Mérigeau points to this event as the reason for Renoir’s resignation from the Syndicat des Chefs cinéastes—he had been one of three original members of the board of directors—just before the demonstration.
But why would this have been the case, given Renoir’s typical leftist politics, and Crisp’s assertion of the link to the Popular-Front supporting CGT? Neither the far-right Parisian newspaper L’Intransigeant nor the communist L’Humanité covered the demonstration, and this apparently was the case, as well, for other dailies with an evident ideological inclination one way or the other. As a result, it’s hard to get a sense of the perceived politics of the filmmakers’ demonstration and their demands, beyond acknowledging that most of the available reports were generally supportive.
Jean-Pierre Jeancolas gives the most direct account, in Cinéma des années trente: la crise et l’image de la crise, which was published in Le Mouvement social in 1991. For Jeancolas the reason for the filmmakers’ concern was clear—their antisemitism, their belief that Jewish technicians, writers, and directors fleeing Nazi Germany were taking their jobs. The French feared that they had little to offer against these Germans, who brought with them the superior know-how and sophistication of the film studies in Vienna and Berlin. Jeancolas adds that the popular press shared these views. I haven’t found direct evidence of that, exactly, but the repeated warning of an ongoing “invasion” certainly corresponds to the language of the typical anti-Semitic panic, in France and elsewhere.
This may well have been the reason for Renoir’s break with his colleagues. It also tells us something about entrenched attitudes in France, attitudes that we would hope not to find in filmmakers like Duvivier, Allégret, Feyder, or so many others. In this instance, filmmakers dashing from one neighborhood to another turned familiar boulevards and other locations into parts of the cinematic landscape of the city, to protest injustices that still seem reasonable—block booking and blind selling, for example—as well as those that show French culture’s ongoing engagement with the far-right in the years leading up to another world war.