The Paris Cinema Project

Last January I posted something about the photographs I had taken as a student in Paris almost forty years ago. Of all those hundreds of pictures, only three seemed to show cinemas. There was one of the Moulin Rouge, another of the Impérial on the boulevard St. Germain, and, finally, the two-screen St.  André des Arts on the street of the same name in the sixth arrondissement. I recently had a reason to look at some of those pictures once again, though, and I found another that showed a cinema, sort of tucked away and easy to miss. I dated all of my photos, and so I know that on January 8th, 1981, I took an embarrassingly conventional tourist photo of the Madeleine church in the eighth arrondissement, one of the more beautiful religious sites in a city full of them. I was standing on the rue Royale looking towards the church, and just to the left of the Madeleine, next to the Lufthansa office, there’s a cinema, La Royale Walt Disney.

At first I wasn’t sure what this was. I thought it might have been an early Disney store, at a time when there were already complaints about the Disneyfication of Paris. But after looking a little more carefully and checking a few old film listings, it became clear that this was the latest iteration of the Royale cinema, which had been on that site since 1939. Now, though, along with the change in name, there was also what looked like an image of Mickey Mouse on the façade of the cinema. It seemed clear that, in 1981, the Royale showed Disney films all the time.

Royal Medium

My photo of the Madeleine, taken on January 8th, 1981. La Royale Walt Disney is barely visible on the left, next to the Lufthansa office.

But how, exactly, had the Royale come to be an exhibition site for the movies of just one filmmaker? The eighth arrondissement is a ritzy one, and it has always been an important area for movies. The eighth takes in the avenue des Champs-Elysées, and includes such important cinémas d’exclusivité as the Cinéma des Champs-Elysées, the Marignan, the Ermitage, the Lord Byron, and the Madeleine cinema (in a previous post, from October 20th, 2017, I wrote about the Balzac cinema, which is also in the eighth). These were typically the exhibition sites for the most important French and American films, and in the case of the latter, always shown with subtitles rather than dubbed.

Detail Medium

A detail of the photo above, showing La Royale Walt Disney somewhat more clearly.

Parisian filmgoers saw a significant expansion of the possibilities for seeing movies throughout the 1930s. At the beginning of the decade, there were about 175 cinemas in the city, but by the end there were around 240. As early as 1933, even the New York Times took notice, remarking on the “almost feverish activity in getting cinema theatres built” in Paris. Some of those cinemas would take their place among the most important in Paris, for instance Jacques Haïk’s Rex cinema, which seated almost three thousand, and opened in the second arrondissement in 1932 (the Rex is still there, still showing movies). Others were artsier, like the Raspail 216, named for its address in the fourteenth arrondissement and which opened in the same year with the Parisian premiere of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s dreamlike horror film, Vampyr (1932).

The Royale was somewhere in between. While the Rex had been built from scratch, the Royale had to fit into a preexisting space, and so could never aspire to the palatial dimensions of Haïk’s cinema. And while it tended not to show films in their first appearances in Paris, it showed important commercial films. It opened in 1939 with a reprise of Légions d’honneur, from 1938, and which featured Pierre Renoir, and then moved quickly to a multi-week showing of one of the most important films of the decade, this one by Pierre’s brother Jean, La Grande Illusion (1937).


The shaded area shows the eighth arrondissement in Paris, the location of the Royale cinema.

Well before it became a cinema, the location itself, 25 rue Royale, had had an interesting history. At least from the end of the nineteenth century until the early-1920s, it was the site of the Taverne Royale, an extremely popular French restaurant. By the mid-1930s, the Taverne seems to have moved to a different address, and the site became a particularly favored space for businesses specializing in travel. In 1935, Hillman’s Airways, which advertised round-trip flights from Paris to London for 475 francs, did business there, and then by 1937 Agence Française de voyages, which arranged cruises around the Adriatic, had moved in. A year later, the airline Aerienne Française had an office at 25 rue Royale, but the property seems to have been vacant by early-1939.  That’s when the Royale cinema came in, in April of that year, and it was big enough news that Le Matin, which didn’t always report on such things, ran a small story, and added that the new cinema was “comfortable, and built in the most modern style,” and would be showing movies from 11:00 in the morning until 12:30 at night. My sense is that the opening of the Royale ended that “frenzy” of cinema construction that the Times had mentioned; the war began just a few months later, so the Royale may have been the last new cinema in Paris until well after the Liberation in 1944.

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At the 1923 Fête de Jeanne d’Arc parade on the rue Royale, the Taverne Royale is visible on the left.

From the end of 1939 until early-1940, all of the cinemas in Paris closed as the Nazis advanced on the city. The Royale showed its last program in January, 1940, when it screened Les Aveux d’un espion mari (Confessions of a Nazi Spy [1939]. The Germans reopened many of the cinemas in Paris, including the Royale and the other exhibition sites in the eighth arrondissement. My first listing for the Royale from the Occupation—although the cinema may have started up again well before this—comes from January 1944, when L’Ange de la nuit (1944), starring Jean-Lous Barrault, began its first run there, as well as at a few other cinemas in the Paris.  After the Liberation, of course, the Royale settled into business as usual, and could show the Hollywood films that had been banned during the war. My single listing from the immediate postwar period, from January 1947, has the great Rouben Mamoulian film Le Signe de Zorro (The Mark of Zorro [1940]), with Tyrone Power, playing there, in a subtitled rather than a dubbed print. The film was showing nowhere else in Paris at the time, so this may have been the film’s first appearance in the city.

I lose all track of the Royale after that, until 1977. In an issue from late-July of Pariscope, the weekly magazine that listed all of the cultural events in the city, there is a small advertisement: “At the Royale (25 rue Royale), all year, the films of Walt Disney.” Indeed, all that week, the Royale showed Les Aventures de Peter Pan (The Adventures of Peter Pan [1953]).

1977 Ad

From the July 27th, 1977 issue of Pariscope, the advertisement for La Royale Walt Disney

That answers something of the mystery of the Royale. By the time I got to Paris and took that picture, the cinema had been devoted to Walt Disney for at least a few years. And rather than part of any encroaching Disneyfication, this seems more like a reference to the past in Paris, where Disney’s films, the shorts as well as the features, had always been so popular. It may also have been an effort to keep the cinema open. There were about the same number of cinemas in Paris in 1977 as there had been forty years before, but this was down considerably from around 1950, when there were over 300 exhibition sites there, and the French film market had been in a general slump since the late-1950s or early-1960s. By the end of the 1980s, the Royale had disappeared. I still can’t pin down its exact connection to Disney, whether it was part of the entertainment company’s holdings, or had simply licensed the name, or had made some other arrangement. There’s a restaurant on the site now, Le Village Royal, and it’s doubtful that many in Paris know that another restaurant, La Taverne, was at that address 100 years ago, or that La Royale Cinéma showed movies there for six decades.

Village Restaurant

The Village Restaurant at the old site of the Taverne Royale and the Royale cinema, 25 rue Royale in the eighth arrondissement