The film journalism of France in the 1930s typically was located in Paris and also concentrated on the French capital, on the cinemas there, the films that played in the city, and the stars who visited. In 1933, the Annuaire Général des Lettres, which kept obsessive track of such things, listed around thirty film journals with their headquarters in Paris, and the same would be true for most of the literary and political magazines that occasionally covered the cinema. But there was also a vibrant regional film press. According to the Annuaire Général, there were nine journals with interests beyond Paris: Bourdeaux-Ciné, Le Cinéma d’Alsace et de Lorraine, L’Écran Lyonnais, and L’Écran d’Outre-Méditerranée, for example. And there was also Revue de l’Écran, “the official organ of the Association of Film Exhibitors in Marseille and the Midi Region.”
The Midi encompasses Southern France, mostly but not exclusively on the Mediterranean coastline and extending from the Spanish to the Italian border. This includes the Riviera, and small tourist towns like Antibes, Villefranche-sur-Mer, and Juan les Pins, and extends to Monaco and Monte Carlo, principalities rather than parts of France. Of course, Cannes is on the Riviera as well.
At least since 1946 and the first year of the film festival there, Cannes has emerged as a particularly important city in France’s film culture, second only to Paris. Even before that, however, the cinema flourished in Cannes, at least in terms of exhibition, perhaps more than in any other area of the Midi.
In occasional issues, Revue de l’Écran published lists of cinemas in the Midi, fairly exhaustive except for larger urban areas like Nice and Marseille. So we know that, in 1937, for instance, there were seven cinemas in Cannes. This was actually a significant number. Population figures can be hard to come by, but in 1945, just eight years later, there were about 45,000 residents in the eight square miles that make up Cannes (this number does not count the tourists who came there), or about six or seven thousand people per cinema. Other areas in the Riviera had similar ratios. Antibes, for example, with about 25,000 people, sustained four cinemas. Just as a comparison, in Paris at the time there were around 230 cinemas for a population of just under three million (which doesn’t include the nearby suburban population), an average of one cinema for every 12,000 people or so. That would make Paris the equal of Cagnes-sur-Mer in the Midi, which had just one cinema, the Casino, for the 12,000 people who lived there.
To exhibitors at the time throughout Europe, much more important than the number of cinemas was the number of cinema seats, and these were also listed by the Revue (that single cinema in Cagnes-sur-Mer, for instance, had room for only 250 viewers). Here, too, Cannes seems to have had at least as many places for residents as Paris did. Most of the seven cinemas in Cannes were large ones, ranging from 700-800 seats (the Riviera cinema and the Lido) to 1000 (the Majestic and the Star) to the 1200-seat Olympia (the largest cinema on the Riviera). The smallest cinema in Cannes, the Femina, still had 450 seats. There was no monolithic exhibition site in Cannes similar to the 6,400 seat Gaumont-Palace in Paris, the largest cinema in Europe. Nor was there a cinema that even matched the 2,800 seat Rex, a cinema in the French capital’s second arrondissement. But Paris was also known for more intimate spaces, too, like the 120-seat Ursulines cinema in the fifth arrondissement.
Most of the cinemas in Cannes were close to each other, and so may well have been part of a small entertainment district just a few blocks away from the coast. The Majestic, the Olympia, and the Star all were located on the rue d’Antibes, while the Riviera on the rue Félix-Faure and the Femina on the rue Hoche were just a few hundred meters away. We can’t know, though, what movies those cinemas showed, because while the Revue listed the names of cinemas, their addresses, their seating capacities, and the nearest metro stops, the journal never mentioned movies.
There was one other, rather curious, detail that the Revue always listed; the sound system that each cinema used. Film scholars have tended to think that by 1937, the international film industry had left behind the chaos of the early-sound period, when so many different systems were available. By then, the United States and Europe had negotiated sound technology treaties that would respect different patent rights and award different regions to different companies. But this apparently didn’t mean that individual cinemas in the same location had no choice whatsoever as to the system adopted. This may have had something to do with the corporate decisions of exhibition chains of multiple cinemas, or simply with the preferences of particular exhibitors, or something in-between. Whatever the reason, the six of seven Cannes cinemas reporting on sound made use of four systems. The Lido and the Majestic had contracted with the German company Tobis-Klangfilm, the leading European sound company that seemed to concentrate on the larger areas in the Midi, Antibes as well as Cannes, and ignore most of the smaller locations like Mougins, Puget-Théniers, and Valbonne. The Olympia and the Star in Cannes adopted American technology from Tobis’ leading competitor, Western Electric, while the Femina and the Rex used much more obscure systems, Nalpas in the first case and Microtechnica in the other. There were still other systems throughout the Riviera, systems that we know practically nothing about today, from Cinétone to Equipé to Madiavox, with this last a company located in the area, in Marseille.
Even as it focused on the South of France, the Revue couldn’t avoid Paris. Most issues provided “News From Paris” (Nouvelles de Paris), and here major cinemas would be listed, and also the films playing there. There might also be articles about the movie hits in Paris, like the 1937 Deanna Durbin film Deanna et ses ‘boys’ (One Hundred Men and a Girl), which would be written up in the issue of January 8th, 1938. We need to keep in mind, however, that at least at the time, French cinema was understood as much in regional as in national terms. Audiences, distributors, and exhibitors in the Midi, or Alsace, or the areas around Lille or Bordeaux as well as so many other spaces, clearly understood the centrality of Paris to all aspects of the country’s cinema. But they understood, as well, their own specific film cultures that might include distinct exhibition practices, different technologies, and their own modes of writing about the movies.