In the 1930s, the journal Cinéma advertised itself immodestly as “the first luxury magazine of the French cinema” (la première revue de grand luxe du cinéma français). That sense of self-importance extended to the cover, which displayed the title in gold deco letters, and to the price, five francs (not an extraordinary amount but expensive nevertheless; Cinéa, for example, another prominent movie monthly, cost only three francs, fifty centimes). There was not only high style and high price, but also high mindedness, with Cinéma weighing in on many of the important film-related issues of the day; dubbing, for instance, or the impact of movies on children.
In June 1932, Cinéma editorialized about censorship in French cinema, in ways that tell us something about French practices during the early sound period. Maintaining an expected level of snobbism, the magazine began by explaining that, at the fairgrounds, one might expect to find attractions that were “prohibited to children,” as a means of attracting an adult audience that didn’t know any better. But recently, the fairgrounds had apparently come to the movies, with some films reserved only for adults, and in particular “forbidden to young girls.”
Cinéma mentioned here Jeunes filles en uniform (Madchen in Uniform ), and also another film that demonstrated the point: C’est le printemps, “a sexual education film with Ita Rina.” Of course, Jeunes filles en uniform was famously regulated at the time, throughout Europe and the United States. But I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years or so reading through French film journalism from the period, and I had never come across either C’est le printemps or its star. And I had also not seen anything written about French films from the period being off limits to children.
There is at least some available information about Ita Rina. She was born in 1907, in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire and would become Yugoslavia and then Slovenia. She was a beauty pageant winner who became an actress, and then had her breakthrough as the star of the Czech film Erotikon , which, as might be imagined from its title, was something of a succés du scandale throughout Europe. Gustave Machatý, who directed the film, would go on to make the even more notorious Ekstase (Ecstasy ), with Hedy Lamarr. After Erotikon, Rina had a successful career as a movie star throughout Europe, but she retired from films in 1939 to settle down with her husband.
C’est le printemps was a little more difficult to track down. The film seems to have been a 1929 German/Czechoslovakian coproduction, a silent version of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 play, Frühlings Erwachen [Spring Awakening], which critiques the sexual oppression of the era and details the “coming of age” of several teenagers. The film opened in Paris in February 1932, at the Studio 28 cinema in the eighteenth arrondissement, an exhibition site known for difficult or experimental films (Bunuel’s L’Age d’or, for instance, had its Paris premiere there in 1930, the occasion for French fascists to tear down the screen and wreck the lobby).
The tagline to the publicity for C’est le printemps was at least somewhat sensational: Parents, ne les tuez pas—“Parents, don’t kill them”—an apparent reference to the possible punishment for the teenagers’ sexual experimentation. That publicity also stressed the film’s success: “The most discussed film…of the season…every day spectators come to applaud this beautiful story, and the triumph of Ita Rina.” Those same advertisements also at least occasionally stressed, “For adults only” (Pour adultes seulement).
This was extraordinary, and especially for the Studio 28, which specialized in films that would attract an adult audience of sophisticated filmgoers. I have yet to see similar advertisements for any other film from the period, which included L’Ange bleu (The Blue Angel [1930), M (1931), and many others that, at first glance, might seem problematic for kids.
C’est le printemps was a great success at Studio 28 in spite of forbidding children, or perhaps in part because of it. When it finally left that cinema, after about three months, and went to other locations in the city, however, there were only uneven restrictions on viewers. The film went to the Bellevilloise in the twentieth arrondissement at the end of April, and apparently anyone who wanted to could see it there. In May, however, when it moved to the Palace (although it’s unclear which of the many Palace cinemas in the city), the advertisement in Le Matin for this production sur l’éducation sexuelle avec Ita Rina announced that the film could only be seen by adults. In July, though, at the Temple-Sélections cinema in the tenth, and then a month later at the Paris-Ciné close by, it seems as if no audiences were turned away.
There was, of course, ample film censorship in Paris and the rest of France at the time. The French film industry never developed anything similar to the Hollywood production code, so most regulations were mandated by the national government, and those rules could change frequently. Often this censorship dealt with depictions of the Catholic church and the military. Just after the beginning of World War Two, for example, all films that might be considered anti-militarist were banned from France. But I don’t believe that, in the 1930s, there were any restrictions about audience, banning certain viewers from certain films.
There was, however, also a network of local and apparently arbitrary regulatory activity, which itself might vary not only from city to city, but within a single city itself. In this case, different exhibition sites in Paris seemed able to determine their own policies about who might see the same movie. In addition, local officials often took on the role of film censors. We should keep in mind that, in the case of L’Age d’or at Studio 28, it was the Parisian Prefect of Police and fascist sympathizer, Jean Chiappe, who banned the film from further screenings. And in the same issue of Cinéma that complained about the restricted screenings of C’est le printemps, there was another story about erratic regulatory activity, this one from Ribeauvillé, a small town about 275 miles east of Paris.
The mayor there had taken offense at another 1929 German film, Anny de Montparnasse (Sündig und Suss), with an international star of greater importance than Ita Rina, Anny Ondra. In reading through the available literature about the film from when it played in Paris, Anny de Montparnasse seems to have been understood as more or less harmless, and in the news story from Ribeauvillé, Cinéma called the film “pretty innocuous” (bien anodin). There is evidence from the time of local officials, with memories of the war, simply objecting to anything from Germany, and that may have been the case here. With the varied reactions to the éducation sexuelle of C’est le printemps and to the much more mundane pleasures of Anny de Montparnasse, though, we can see evidence of the absolutely haphazard, ad hoc nature of French film censorship at the time.