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.
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 ) and Le Concours (The Competition , with Richard Dreyfus, Amy Irving, and Lee Remick).
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 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.
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 ), 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.
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.