The Paris Cinema Project

When I was a graduate student in Paris in 1980 and ’81, I took long walks through the city’s neighborhoods and took hundreds of pictures along the way. My main interest at the time, though, was going to the movies; I was much more absorbed by films then than I am now, and much less interested in the cinemas where they played, the city’s exhibition sites. I took only one photograph of a cinema specifically, when I went to see the Moulin Rouge, a site as iconic as the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe. By that time, this famous tourist attraction had been divided into two spaces for seeing movies, the four-screen Paramount and also the Moulin Rouge itself (when I took the photo, the 1980 Christian Lara film Vivre libre ou mourir was playing there). But in other photos that I took that year, there are some cinemas that turn up, in street scenes that include other buildings as well as cars, buses, dogs, pigeons, and people.


The Moulin Rouge cinema in the eighteenth arrondissement, December, 1980

I dated most of my pictures after I had them developed, and so I know that on February 12, 1981, I took a picture looking down the rue St. André des Arts in the sixth arrondissement, and part of the scene is the incredibly narrow, two-screen cinema named after the street. A couple of months later, on April 20th, 1981, I went on a walk from my apartment in the fourth arrondissement to the very ritzy second, so I could take some pictures of the spectacular Paris Opera theatre.  I got there via the boulevard des Italiens, which borders the second and ninth arrondissements, and on my route I took a photograph of this grand boulevard, and a good part of that shot is taken up by the Imperial cinema. The marquee is partially visible. Three films were playing there, although I believe there was just one screen at the Imperial at the time, with this practice of multiple movies showing throughout the day not at all uncommon in Paris at the time. The two films that can be identified were almost certainly in their opening, exclusive runs in the city: Nashville Lady (Coal Miner’s Daughter, with Sissy Spacek [1980]) and Le Concours (The Competition [1980], with Richard Dreyfus, Amy Irving, and Lee Remick).


The Imperial cinema on the boulevard des Italiens, April 20th, 1981

By the time I took the picture, the Imperial had been a very important cinéma d’exclusivité for at least fifty years. My first listing for the cinema comes from December 1930, when the new German film Le Chemin du paradis (Die Drei von der Tankstelle) with the great stars Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch showed there. Just as it was in 1981, the Imperial had long been a site for important foreign films, and often those from Hollywood as well as Germany, although major French movies showed there as well. A look at just a couple of months, right after World War Two began but before the French surrender, gives a sense of those movies. In early-January 1940, a French film directed by Robert Siodmak, Pièges (1939), and starring Maurice Chevalier and Pierre Renoir, played there, and that film was followed by Fric Frac (1939), with two iconic French actors, Fernandel and Michel Simon. Then, a month later, a 1939 French film directed by German filmmaker G.W. Pabst, Jeunes filles en détresse, showed at the Imperial. That was the last film to play there before the surrender; the Imperial closed just after that, as did so many cinemas and other businesses as the Germans advanced on the city.

At least through the 1930s and ‘40s, the Imperial was part of the Pathé chain of about thirty-five cinemas in the city and nearby suburbs. The Marivaux-Pathé, just down the block on the boulevard des Italiens, was the most important of all the Pathé cinemas in Paris, but the Imperial was probably next in line. In fact, the Imperial stood in one of the most vibrant areas for movies in a city rich with opportunities for seeing films. Within just a block or two on the boulevard des Italiens, movie fans could see first-run films at the Aubert-Palace, the Caméo, the Ciné Michodière, the Corso-Opèra, and Le Helder, as well as the Marivaux and the Imperial. If they walked just another few blocks to the boulevard des Capucines, which runs into the boulevard des Italiens, they could go to two of the most glamorous of all the cinemas in the city, the Paramount and the Olympia.


The St. André des Arts two-screen cinema, on the left in this view of the rue St. André des Arts, February 12th, 1981

The Nazis reopened the Imperial, as well as the other cinemas on the boulevard des Italiens, shortly after the Occupation began. As far as information is available—and it’s fairly sketchy from this period—the Imperial showed mostly films made by its parent company, Pathé, which maintained a regular production schedule during the war; the romantic comedy Je suis avec toi (1943), with Yvonne Printemps and Pierre Fresnay, played there in December 1943, for instance, while the comedy L’Aventure est au coin de la rue, with Michèle Alfa, was featured in May 1944.

The Imperial didn’t skip a beat after the war. In October 1945, the cinema hosted a reprise of Renoir’s La Règle du jeu, probably the first time the film had played anywhere in France since the surrender in June 1940. After that, it would be the usual list of significant if not always memorable films. In October, 1945, Michael Powell’s 1940 spy film Espionne à bord (Blackout), showed there, almost certainly the film’s first appearance in Paris. Six weeks later, the crime film Seul dans la nuit, starring Bernard Blier, opened there, and then in January 1946, Marc Allégret’s new film Lunegarde premiered at the Imperial.


The second arrondissement is the shaded area in this map, the ninth just above it and running slightly to the west, with the boulevard des Capucines and the boulevard des Italiens forming much of the border between the two

Information from even a few years later is very hard to find. But of course, by the time I got to Paris in 1980, the Imperial was still a very important cinema. In 1989, on my next visit, the Imperial still typically showed three films a day, and once again these were movies in their opening engagements. I saved an issue of Pariscope, which recorded all of the cultural events in the city, from the week of August 23rd of that year, and the films showing then were Burning Secret (1988), with Faye Dunaway, Pour la gloire (For Queen and Country [1988]), with Denzel Washington, and a French film from 1989, À deux minutes près, with Charlotte de Turkheim, a star who worked mostly on television.

By that time, however, there were only three other cinemas on the boulevard des Italiens. The Gaumont Opéra was next door to the Imperial and the Pathé Français across the street, as was the UGC Opéra, which combined the spaces of the old Caméo and Helder cinemas. The Olympia had long since been turned into one of Paris’ leading concert venues, and the Marivaux had simply ceased to exist.


From La Semaine à Paris, December 19th, 1930, an advertisement for Lillian Harvey in Le Chemin du Paradis, playing exclusively at the Imperial

Twenty-five years later, the cinematic landscape around the boulevard des Italiens had changed completely. By 2015, only the Pathé Français was still there, now as the Gaumont Opéra Français. The Imperial was long gone, transformed into an Italian restaurant, the Noura Opéra. But there were still parts of Paris that had seen less dramatic transformations. The Moulin Rouge remains, of course, as a major tourist attraction, although now as a place for stage extravaganzas rather than movies.  In the sixth arrondissement, though, the St. André des Arts cinema, in the background of that picture that I took in 1981, has managed to stay in business, a tiny two-screen cinema when I used to go there almost forty years ago that has now, somehow, been divided into three.

The Paris Cinema Project

In its issue of January 22nd, 1932, Ciné-Journal ran the headline, “Is a Talking Film the Same as a Theatrical Piece?” At first glance, this might seem like another of the hand wringing essays that were fairly common in the early years of sound, weighing in on whether cinema had lost its artistic specificity, and would be reduced, simply, to filmed theatre. But instead, this article posed the problems associated with sound, and the differences between films and plays, in legal terms.

In 1931, Osso Films had released L’Aiglon, based on the famous play by Edmond Rostand which Ciné-Journal referred to as one of the playwrights “two masterpieces” (the other, of course, being Cyrano de Bergerac). Rostand had died at 50, in the flu epidemic of 1918. His widow, Rosemonde Gérard, herself a playwright and poet, had sold the theatrical rights to L’Aiglon to Maurice Lehmann, the director of the Porte-Saint-Martin theatre in Paris. Gérard, however, had maintained the film rights to the play. When the movie appeared, Lehmann complained that this all-talking L’Aiglon was simply a mechanical recording of the play rather than something separate from a theatrical presentation, violating his sole rights to the work. Lehmann’s lawyer further complained that the “talking cinema causes heavy losses to the theatre and threatens to kill the goose that laid the golden egg! It invades everything, substitutes for everything.” He demanded a million francs in damages for his client, and that the film be removed from circulation under penalty of another ten thousand francs a day.

Rostand wrote L’Aiglon for Sarah Bernhardt, who first appeared in the play in 1900, in her own Théàtre Sarah Bernhardt at the Place du Châtelet in Paris’ fourth arrondissement. The play tells the story of Emperor Napoleon’s son, Napoleon II, “the young eagle,” or L’Aiglon. At least early on, the title role was performed by some of the most famous actresses of the era, the great Bernhardt, of course, and also, in the play’s New York debut, Maude Adams.


A postcard of Sarah Bernhardt as she appeared as the young Napoleon II in a stage production of L’Aiglon

By 1931, the play had fully entered into France’s cultural patrimony, and so the film was considered a very big deal, much more so, it seems, than a 1913 silent version. There was excitement about the film for months before it came out. In January 1931, for instance, Cinéa announced that there would be French and German versions of the film, both of them overseen by Victor Tourjanksy, a respected director who had studied with Stanislavski in Russia and then, after moving to France, worked as Abel Gance’s assistant on Napoleon (1927). A month before the premiere, L’Afrique du Nord Illustrée reported that the opening would be marked by a great gala for charity at the Olympia cinema on the boulevard des Capucines in the ninth arrondissement.

The Olympia had been converted from a music hall just a few years before, and would become a music venue once again in 1944, after which it was the location of some of Edith Piaf’s most important concerts of the 1950s and ‘60s. But in 1931 it was one of the great film exhibition sites in Paris, and with 2000 seats it was among the largest. Even with all that room for viewers, lines for L’Aiglon went far down the block. Just after the film opened, Les Spectacles called L’Aiglon a “masterwork,” and marveled that viewers waiting for each show spilled out of the Olympia’s lobby and almost fifty meters down the street.


The Olympia cinema, where L’Aiglon first appeared in 1931, as it looked around 1942

Most reviews echoed Les Spectacles. The film journal Hebdo ran a three-page review, which was extraordinary enough, and the critic, who had seen Bernhardt in the role, was deeply impressed. His review, however, is the first I can find that raised some questions about the relationship of the film to Rostand’s play. In this case, the filmed version of L’Aiglon seemed both too close to the play and too distant from it. The Hebdo reviewer suggested that the movie was really “a magnificent series of illustrations” of the play, and he wondered “if anyone who does not know the drama of Rostand would not have some difficulty understanding the plot of the film” and particularly the motivations of the main characters.

A few months later, Cinéa raised the issue of the relationship of talking cinema to theatre, and used L’Aiglon as a test case. This time, the critic, Pierre Henry, lamented that the cinema of just a few years before had been an “original art,” and that the highest achievements of the form might be considered “pure cinema.” But “in its lowest form,” Henry went on, “the cinema was only a sub-theatre.” Now, though, with the advent of recorded sound, almost all cinema simply had been “absorbed” by theatre, “for the subjects of the talking cinema are for the most part theater subjects.” There were exceptions—the films of René Clair and Jean Gremillon, for instance. Nevertheless, the success and quality of films like L’Aiglon had produced, in cinema, simply an adjunct of the theatre. For Henry, Tourjansky’s film, and others like it, had made “the word photogénie”—the cinematic meeting of the mechanical and the real that made movies different from anything else—“become meaningless.”

All the while, L’Aiglon kept playing in Paris. In January 1932, after leaving the Olympia, the film showed at a screening for the Cinéma Familial ciné-club at the Salle Pleyel, a concert hall in the eighth arrondissement that often doubled as a screening space for special events. Then, in early-February, the film had moved to the Bagnolet cinema in the twentieth arrondissement and the Kinérama in the third, and a month later was playing at the Américan-Cinéma in the ninth and the Bosquets in the thirteenth.


A poster for Tourjansky’s film, featuring French actor Jean Weber in the title role


As the film made its way through the city, the case kept going on in the Civil Court of the Seine. In January 1932 reporting on the issue moved from the film journals to the daily press when Le Matin covered the proceedings. The Parisian newspaper claimed that “The invention of the sound film raised a very important legal question” about the status of cinema, one that was being “posed for the first time in court.” Le Matin went on to give Lehmann’s claim, that the film “constituted a theatrical representation,” and also Gérard’s, that the film and the play were distinct one from the other. A month later, Le Matin returned to the case, and mostly discussed the arguments of the defense, which had just been presented. Gérard’s lawyer asserted that there was no similarity between a film and a play. In the former, he said, “the actor’s performance is frozen immutably,” while in the latter, “it renews itself incessantly.” Moreover, he argued that the substance of the film and play were secondary to the attitude of the spectator, and that the relationship between audience and play was fundamentally different from the one between film and viewer.

The court agreed. In March, Hebdo reported on the verdict, and said that the civil court had dismissed Lehmann’s claim, “and sentenced him to the expenses” incurred by Gérard. The ruling in the case recognized that “the production of a…talking film cannot be equated with a theatrical representation.” Hebdo was a film journal with obvious sympathies for the industry, and editorialized that this decision was “consistent with logic,” and that the film industry—and cinematic art—could only benefit.

Le Droit d’Auteur, the official “Review of the International Union for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works,” supplied the actual decision of the tribunal, which concerned itself less with art and more with mechanical reproduction. The judges on the tribunal asserted that a talking film was not the same as a theatrical presentation because movie actors “don’t address the audience directly, but rather speak in front of a microphone which, having registered their voice, transmits it, often after a long period of time, and to many audiences, mechanically and under the same invariable conditions.” In fact, then, echoing the argument of Gérard’s attorney, it was the cinematic apparatus itself, and then the relationship between the film and the audience, that gave the cinema its unique status. This may or may not have made aesthetic sense, but that was never the point. Instead, the court made a legal distinction between art forms, granting the talking cinema a particular and protected place in French culture.


Ciné-Journal reports on the case in the issue from January 22nd, 1932