“It’s an enchantment.” That’s what a reader from Paris wrote to the film weekly Pour Vous in November 1936, about the new Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Swing Time. Another insisted that the film “rises to the level of a masterpiece,” and yet another, who signed the letter “a fanatic admirer of Ginger Rogers”(Le Fanatique admirateur de Ginger Rogers), said that the star herself was “exquisite,” while the couple was “dazzling.” Those were just a few of the comments about the film in Pour Vous, which in the mid-1930s began running the column, “The Viewers Have the Floor” (La Parole est aux spectateurs), inviting fans to write in about the new films opening in Paris.
Pour Vous covered the movie scene in the capital and the rest of France, beginning with its first issue in 1928. The tabloid was the sister publication of the rightwing newspaper L’Intransigeant, but in spite of this Pour Vous tended not to show much in the way of ideological bias. Instead, it ran a broad range of serious articles about film, reviews of new movies, and the usual fan magazine material about stars, celebrity lifestyles, and fashion. Pour Vous ceased publication in 1940, at the beginning of the Nazi Occupation of Paris, but for more than a decade it was one of the most important film publications in a city that had dozens of them (for more information about Pour Vous, see my post from October 5th, 2015).
With La Parole est aux spectateurs, Pour Vous usually ran a letter or two about a new film, and typically highlighted new movies each week. A few films seemed to have unusual staying power. Viewers wrote in about the great Carole Lombard comedy My Man Godfrey (1936) for several weeks when the film opened around the same time as Swing Time, as well as the Marcel Pagnol film César (1936), and also about The Texas Rangers (1936), the director of which, King Vidor, had always been popular in Paris. But there was nothing at the time quite like the response to the new Astaire-Rogers film.
Not all of those responses to the film, however, were completely enthusiastic. One letter writer, while acknowledging that Astaire and Rogers were “ravishing dancers” and that they were both “charming” and “modern” actors, called the film “completely silly” (complétement idiot) and a waste of time and money. Another wrote that, while previous Astaire-Rogers films, like The Gay Divorcée, Roberta, and Top Hat, were “glorious,” this one was hardly their equal, and lamented that it was nothing “new and becomes monotonous.” Every letter, however, acknowledged that a new Astaire-Rogers movie was a major cultural event, adding to a cycle of films that really hadn’t been equaled in the first decade of the sound era. The letters, moreover, commented on just about everything in the film, on the acting, the comedy, the music by Jerome Kern (“less rhythmic than that of Irving Berlin, but sweeter”), the performance by supporting actress Betty Furness (“very graceful”), and, approvingly, of Astaire’s dance number in blackface (en nègre).
The exhibition history of Swing Time, at least in Paris, would seem to indicate the special status and popularity of the film. It opened at the Ambassadeurs cinema in the very swanky eighth arrondissement in October 1936, replacing another prestige hit there, Show Boat (1936). In fact, the Ambassadeurs only showed highly anticipated, acclaimed films; when there was none available, the cinema would become a theatre, with this back and forth movement from filmed to live entertainment lasting at least through the 1930’s (and with only one or two other sites in Paris operating like this). As was typical of major Hollywood films in their opening, exclusive runs in Paris, Swing Time was presented in English at the Ambassadeurs, with French subtitles.
Swing Time lasted ten weeks at that cinema, an extraordinarily long time for the mid-to-late-1930’s. In fact, when the press reported on the Records d’exclusivité for the 1936-37 season, the most extended first runs of that year, only a few films had had more impressive openings, and they were some of the most important of the decade. Frank Capra’s L’Extravagant M. Deeds (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ), had lasted twenty-two weeks at the Cinéma des Champs-Élysées, and, among a half-dozen others at various cinemas, César had played for twenty-one weeks, Deanna Durbin’s Three Smart Girls (1937) had shown for fourteen, while another Capra movie, Horizons perdus (Lost Horizon ), and the great Jean Gabin film, Pépé Le Moko (1937), had played for eleven weeks.
In the middle of December, after a week out of circulation in Paris, Swing Time moved to yet another exclusive engagement, at the Ciné Vivienne in the second arrondissement, an exhibition strategy reserved for only the most popular films. Typically, after an opening exclusive engagement, a film would disappear for at least a week or two, and then open in a number of cinemas throughout the city. Just as typically for an American film, those subsequent showings would be dubbed prints rather than subtitled. But Swing Time seems only to have been shown to Parisian audiences in a subtitled version as it went through its engagement at the Vivienne through the end of 1936, and then moved to other cinemas.
By the beginning of 1937, Swing Time played at two cinemas, the Clichy-Palace in the seventeenth arrondissement and the Palais-Rochechouart in the eighteenth. Two weeks later it moved to two others, still subtitled but now, in part marking the differences between neighborhood cinemas and the more elegant exhibition sites, showing on double-bills. At the Victor Hugo cinema in the sixteenth arrondissement, audiences could see Swing Time with the French comedy Le Mioche (1936), while at the Lutétia-Pathé in the seventeenth, they could watch Fred and Ginger and also the rural French melodrama La Guerre des gosses (1936). In the last listing I’ve found—but certainly not the end of the film’s run in Paris—Swing Time was paired at the Studio Bertrand in the seventh arrondissement with Daniel Boone (1936), a low budget Hollywood historical drama starring George O’Brien, whose career had declined but who had had a significant celebrity ten years before as the star of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and John Ford’s The Iron Horse (1924).
The trajectory of Swing Time in Paris followed that of the previous Astaire-Rogers film, Suivons la flotte (Follow the Fleet), also from 1936. That film had opened exclusively at the Paris cinema on the Champs-Élysées in the eighth arrondissement in May 1936, then moved to another exclusive run at the Helder cinema in the ninth until September, just a month or so before the opening of Swing Time, and then slowly fanned out throughout the city.
The extended run of Swing Time at the Ambassadeurs and other cinemas provides the empirical data of the film’s popularity. The most evocative evidence, though, comes from Pour Vous and La Parole est aux spectateurs, which week after week provided fans’ responses to Fred and Ginger. As one of them wrote, a viewer who had seen the film during that first, ten-week appearance at the Ambassadeurs cinema, there were times during the dance sequences “when everyone in the cinema seemed to be holding their breath.”