The Paris Cinema Project

In August 1931, the Nalpas film studio ran an advertisement for exhibitors in Ciné-Journal, a French weekly magazine that covered the film business rather than film aesthetics. “Have you found enough silent films for your entire season?” If the answer was “yes,” then the ad assured you, “You’re an ace” (Vous êtes un as). But if it was “no,” then you had a decision to make. It was time to consider installing sound equipment in your cinema, and then ordering new talking films from Nalpas for an immediate guarantee of the highest possible receipts.

This might seem a little late in the transition to sound for exhibitors to be considering whether they should switch to the new technology. But while popular historiography emphasizes the speed of sound and the rapidity of the cinema’s transition following the production of The Jazz Singer in 1927, the actual pace of the adoption of sound was much more deliberate, and more so in France than in most other countries. In fact, according to another journal, the Livre d’or du cinéma from June 1932, by that time not quite 1,500 of the 3,300 cinemas in France had converted to sound equipment. Great Britain, on the other hand, already had wired more than 80% of its cinemas and Germany about half. Even in 1937, a government report on the state of French cinema could lament that, out of 4,000 cinemas in the country, there were still 500 that were unequipped to show sounds films

CineJournal 8-21-31

The Nalpas advertisement in the August 21st, 1931 issue of Ciné-Journal

Of course, most of those were in the provinces. I’ve written before, though, of the time it took for Parisian cinemas to convert (see my post from April 7th, 2017). In early-1931, of the 175 or so cinemas in Paris, around sixty had yet to be wired for sound. By the end of that year, that number had gone down to about forty. During this period, there continued to be some handwringing in the press about the decline of silent cinema and the rise of the “filmed theatre” of sound film, and even some discussion about the legal status of talking films in relation to the theatre (see my post from January 6th, 2019). For the most part, however, the discourse was positive and determinedly modernist; the new technology was the sign of the full evolution of cinema, and anyone who failed to acknowledge that would be left behind. The Nalpas advertisement in Ciné-Journal, which seemed to be asking recalcitrant exhibitors “what are you waiting for?” summed up the attitude, at least, of most of the film industry trade journals.

Nevertheless, in the very-early 1930s, cinemas in Paris, as well as throughout France, required silent films. To fill that demand, and in the same issue of Ciné-Journal, no less an industrial powerhouse that Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert, the fully integrated French film corporation, ran its own advertisement. “For those cinemas not yet equipped with sound,” Gaumont had put together almost sixty silent films, “a selection of the best.”  These were, of course, practically all Gaumont films, with the exception of some foreign movies that Gaumont must have had the rights to distribute. There were some older films on the list, for instance L’Atlantide (1921), which always seemed to be playing in Paris, anyway, probably because of the reputation of its director, Jacques Feyder. The most well-known of all of the films on the list was G.W. Pabst’s Loulou (1929), known in the United States as Pandora’s Box and starring Louise Brooks. Similarly, most of the other films were from the last years of silent film production, up to and including Le Collier de la reine (1929), the first French film to have a recorded soundtrack but one that didn’t have any dialogue. To give exhibitors options to put on full programs of silent films, features as well as other attractions, Gaumont offered silent shorts by both Lupino Lane and Lloyd Hamilton, two comic actors who often  produced their own movies in the United States and had probably sold French distribution rights to Gaumont.

CineJournal 8-21-31 GFFA

Gaumont announces its selection of silent films in Ciné-Journal, from August 21st, 1931

From the available Parisian materials, it’s difficult to get a sense of the success of Gaumont’s effort to supply silent films. They may have been targeting small towns, and, really, in Paris at the time there was never a shortage of silent films, most of them American. There is, though, some evidence of Parisian cinemas taking advantage of Gaumont’s selection of silents.

If we move to the very end of the silent era in the city, early-1932, when evidence is more fully available, the Américan cinema, on the boulevard de Clichy in the ninth arrondissement, showed Le Monocle vert the week of February 11th. This 1929 German film (originally called Das grüne Monokel), was one of the foreign ones on Gaumont’s list. The Américan was one of the last holdouts showing silent films in Paris. Yet another that week, the Templia in the eleventh arrondissement, showed a 1923 Italian film, Un coquin, while the Rambouillet in the twelfth showed a film that I have been unable to identify, L’Acrobate, which the weekly listing of cultural events in the city, La Semaine à Paris, refers to as muet, or silent.  Neither of those had been selected from Gaumont.

The complete movie listings for Paris are unavailable for this period, but so far Le Monocle vert has been the only film from the Gaumont list that I’ve found in the city; not even Loulou seems to have shown there. By July, 1932, the transition in Paris to sound equipment appears to have been complete. Early that month, the Américan cinema showed the French sound film Un soir, au front (1931), a movie about the Great War with an all-male cast, while the Rambouillet screened a 1932 sound short, Son plus belle exploit, along with the 1932 feature film Prisonier du mon Coeur, starring Marie Glory and Roland Toutain (best known to us today for his role as André in Jean Renoir’s La Règle du jeu, from 1939).

23 b. de Clichy American cinema

23 boulevard de Clichy in the ninth arrondissement, the site of one of the last silent  cinemas in Paris during the early-1930s, the Américan 

There were almost certainly other film companies, from France, the United States, and possibly Germany, providing exactly the same service as Gaumont to French cinemas. If we know anything about film history, it’s that the major film corporations carried out business in similar ways. We typically expect these corporations to extend their control of the industry by controlling new technologies, technologies that are, at the beginning at least, too expensive for smaller, more peripheral companies. This was precisely the case with sound, and also with color in the 1930s and ‘40s and the various wide-screen processes in the 1950s. With Gaumont and their extensive selection of silent films, though, we can see that these same companies, at least during transitional periods, also sought to maintain their positions by consolidating control over old technologies. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Gaumont produced some of the first French sound films, like Le Collier de la reine. But at the same time, they were determined to exploit a market for silent films until it no longer existed.


The 1930s logo for Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert

The Paris Cinema Project

The Cinéma Excelsior on rue Armand Rousseau. The Cinéma Colibri on boulevard Paul Bert. And still other cinemas on rue Maréchal Pétain and rue Carnot. These all sound like cinemas in Paris in the 1930s, or perhaps Marseille or Lyons. But instead, they were all in French Indochina.

French colonial cinemas from before World War Two can be difficult to trace. I’ve written a few posts about the film cultures of Algeria and other countries in North Africa, but compared to Far Eastern French colonies, those histories seem easy to write (from 2016, see January 22nd, and from 2018, see posts from March 26th, August 24th, and October 28th). There are relatively few sources available from the Bibliothèque nationale de France about Indochina, mostly just a couple of newspapers. The French colonial authority, however, was nothing if not administratively thorough, and so we also have access to the aptly named Annuaire complet about the region, in this case from 1933-34. In fact, the full name of the thousand-page directory provides a sense of its mission and scope: Annuaire complet (européen et indigène) de toute l’Indochine, commerce, industrie, plantations, mines, addresses pariculières.

If the Annuaire was indeed complet, then there weren’t many cinemas in Indochina at the time, and most of them were run by French businessmen, although it’s hard to tell if they were connected to exhibition firms in France. For every province, the Annuaire noted the population européenne and the population indigène, or native, and typically there were far more of the latter than the former. In Haiphong, for instance, there were 2,300 européennes and around 127,000 indigènes. Listed under gros commerce, or “big business,” there is one cinema listed, the Colobri, and I’m guessing that this was the cinema for that small group of expatriates and colonial officials in the city as well as for the more affluent Indochinese. Elsewhere in Haiphong, and listed in the category petit commerce indigène, or “small native business,” there is the Tchiou-Tchan cinema on rue Maréchal Pétain, apparently the only one in the city for the much larger and probably less well-off “indigenous” audience.

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The Chantecler Revue, published by the Chantecler cinema in Hanoi, from May 12th, 1934

This seems to have been the pattern throughout Indochina. French men ran the gros commerce cinemas. Ernest Rétif was in charge of the Chantecler cinema in Hanoi, while Justin Rigal oversaw the Universel in the same city. In the province of Bac Liêu, René Blot ran the cinema, while a Monsieur de Pommeraye and Georges Motte controlled the cinemas in Cantho and Phan Thiet, respectively.  Those petit commerce indigène cinemas, however, were most typically headed by Indochinese entrepreneurs.   There was no gros commerce cinema in My Tho, for example, where there were only around 265 européennes as opposed to 370,000 indigènes, and for the latter group, Nguyen-van-Lau ran the business at the Cinéma Palace and Nguyen-van-Ngoc led the Cinéma Moderne. In only one instance did an Indochinese businessman seem to have an operating interest in a gros commerce cinema. In Hanoi, in addition to the Chantecler, Rétif also controlled the Cinéma Théâtre, and he did so with Nguyen-van-Doung.

In big cities, those gros commerce cinemas typically were surrounded by similar establishments in major downtown shopping and business districts. In Saigon, for instance, the Eden cinema stood at 183 rue Catinat. Within a block or two on the same street, there were two hairstylists, a Galleries Lafayette department store, the offices for two newspapers, a furrier, an haute-couture fashion house, and many other commercial spaces. But there were also less fixed cinemas, less situated in a particular spot for a particular clientele. In fact, in the early 1930s, there were still those entrepreneurs who brought the movies to people rather than having them gather at a single exhibition site. For the city of Dap-Cau, the Annuaire listed one cinéma ambulant, a “mobile cinema,” operated by Nguyen-thi-Ca.


In this view of the rue Catinat in Saigon, probably from around 1940, the Photo Nadal studio on the right is at 120 and the Hotel Continental, in the background, is at 134; the Eden cinema, at 183 rue Catinat, is out of view and on the other side of the street

The Annuaire provides the names and addresses, but little of the daily activity of any of the cinemas. For at least some of that, though, and particularly for major cities, we can use the available Indochinese journalism of the period. Le Nouvelliste d’Indochine covered the major cinemas in Saigon, the city where it was published, and also, occasionally, some of the cinemas in Hanoi. The edition from August 29th, 1936, shows that the Eden featured the 1935 Josephine Baker film Princesse Tam-Tam, while the A-Sam played Robert Siodmak’s La Crise est finie (1934), the Rex Le Triangle de feu (1932), the Casino La Mascotte (1935), and the Casino de Dakao Simone est comme ça (1933). The cinema in Hanoi listed by the Le Nouvelliste, the Majestic, was screening Abel Gance’s 1935 film, Lucrèce Borgia.

These were all French films, and they seem to have made up the greatest number of movies showing in in the region. But, of course, there were American films as well. The Chantecler in Hanoi produced its own weekly newspaper, the Chantecler Revue, and typically listed an exhibition schedule split between films from France and those from Hollywood. As just one example, the issue from May 12th, 1934, has three films coming soon to the Chantecler. There was La Pouponnière (1933), with Julien Carette and Françoise Rosay; then Je suis un evadé (I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang [1932]), and also Grand Hotel, MGM’s 1932 multi-star version of Vicki Baum’s novel.

Nouvelliste 8-29-36 Vertical

The movie listings in the Noulvelliste d’Indochine from August 29th, 1936

If we assume that these all marked the opening engagements of these films in Hanoi, then we can get a sense of how long it might take for a film to move from Paris to Indochina. Je suis un evadé first showed in the French capital in February, 1933, and La Pouponnière about a month later. There certainly might be other examples with different release schedules, and they may have played in Saigon first, but these two movies taking more than a year to move to a colonial setting seems about right, and probably indicates the general lack of importance, for both French and American film studios, of the Indochinese market.

The evidence, from large cities like Saigon and, of course, from less urban areas, remains just so scanty that it’s hard to know much about the cinema in Indochina during the 1930s. The Annuaire makes several mentions of the Societé Indochine Films et Cinémas, in Saigon, but gives no significant information. As a result, it’s impossible to tell if it was the Societé that ran the cinemas in Indochina, and what, if any, its relationship may have been to French exhibition chains. We know what little we do mostly because the French colonial authority kept obsessive track of such things, providing names, addresses, phone numbers, and all manner of similar data every year in the Annuaire. From gros commerce to petit commerce indigène, the cinema figured as prominently as most other Indochinese businesses as worthy of French oversight, categorization, and control.

Eden 1971

The Eden cinema in Saigon is still in business in this photo from around 1970