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
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.
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).
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.