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.
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.
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 ), and also Grand Hotel, MGM’s 1932 multi-star version of Vicki Baum’s novel.
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.