On March 14th, 2020, the French government announced the closing of all restaurants, museums, theatres, and cinemas, a response to the novel coronavirus, possibly the worst global public health crisis since the flu epidemic of 1918-19. But as a comparison, what exactly was the government’s response just over 100 years ago to la grippe espagnole, which killed as many as a quarter of a million people in France? More to the point of my interests here, how did the flu affect the cinema in France, and especially in Paris?
Information can be difficult to come by, largely because the press in France covered the disease only very slowly, perhaps because the government insisted so as not to cause any alarm, or perhaps because journalists simply didn’t understand the severity of the outbreak. Françoise Bouron has provided the most exhaustive analysis of the general attitudes of the press at the time. While the flu seems to have come to France in April, 1918, most newspapers and journals at first avoided it altogether, then reported that France, unlike other European countries, seemed to have been spared, and then only began to cover the national outbreak in the late-summer and early-fall.
In any case, and far different from the response of 2020, the governmental actions in 1918-19 seem to have been regional rather than national, and might vary significantly from place to place, with Paris, apparently, always doing less rather than more. In mid-October, 1918, Le Figaro reported that 700 Parisians had died from the flu during the past week, an increase of 300 from the week before. The newspaper indicated that more hospital beds were coming to the city and that schools would be disinfected but would not close. Hinting at the dense Parisian bureaucracy that may have made any decisive action difficult, Le Figaro continued that, anyway, schools could only be closed in Paris by the local government, at the suggestion of the Seine Prefect and in consultation with the Hygiene Council.
That same report in Figaro, however, let readers know that Édouard Herriot, the mayor of Lyon, had acted more decisively. Herriot, of course, was the radical socialist who would later be in and out of office as Prime Minister during multiple revolving-door governments in France during the 1920’s and ‘30’s. In Lyon, Herriot insisted that all corpses be buried immediately, demanded the daily disinfection of post offices, banks, cafés, restaurants, and train stations, and completely closed all theatres and cinemas.
Other locations did the same thing. In Périgueux, in southwestern France, schools were closed and so too were all theatres and cinemas. The Communist newspaper L’Humanité reported on those closings, and added that the ongoing Parisian response involved, yet again, more hospital beds and, in addition, thirteen thousand gallons of rum to be distributed to the city’s pharmacies and sold as a partial cure for flu.
Assertions of official Parisian inactivity went across ideological lines. In late-October 1918, the far-rightwing newspaper L’Intransigeant wrote, “One thinks…of closing the cinemas, the theatres and even churches, as has been done in Switzerland and some French cities.” Then L’Intransigeant added that, “rather than facing anything that extreme, Parisians have been told to refrain from going anywhere they might be exposed to influenza.”
At least according to the press, aggressive actions by Herriot and others worked. In early-November, Le Journal reported that closing theatres—and it’s unclear whether this included cinemas—in Limoges, Dijon, Cherbourg, Orléans, and elsewhere had stopped the spread of flu. Le Temps wrote that “the efforts in Lyon had had their effect,” and theatres and cinemas would now reopen.
But Paris still did nothing comparable, and there was even some debate in the city about the usefulness of closures and the severity of the epidemic. On November 11th, 1918, the day that World War One ended, La Presse, a Parisian daily, devoted its front page to the Armistice. On page two, however, La Presse ran two stories about the flu. One of them insisted that the illness had declined considerably in the Parisian population (La Grippe décroit). In the other, a reporter for the paper, Lucile Laurence, wrote that city officials had given some thought to closing all cinemas and other public places, including schools. She went on, though, that even if they did, “public health would still be menaced” because of all the men who spit on streets, their germs then going into the air and onto the food that Parisians ate. On the same page, La Presse announced the opening of one of the most anticipated films of the season, Bouclette, at the very fashionable Palace-Aubert cinema in the ninth arrondissement. Bouclette featured one of the great French stars of the era, Gaby Deslys, who would die of influenza in February, 1920.
Deslys’ film, which had a scenario by Marcel L’Herbier, was one of the great cultural events in the city just after the war. But there were also many, many others, in cinemas and in the city’s theatres. Reporting on the flu on February 23rd, 1919, Le Matin put the grim numbers next to the masthead at the top of the front page. La grippe à Paris had claimed 900 lives in the last week, an increase of 350 from the week before. Le Matin never listed the movies in Paris, but it did offer information for plays, music halls, and café-concerts, and the list is astonishing, both in terms of how much was going on and how little the city’s entertainment industry seemed to have been touched by the epidemic. Had they wanted to, Parisians could have seen Les Noces de Figaro at the Opéra-Comique, where it alternated with Carmen, or Cyrano de Begerac at the Porte-St. Martin, or Sacha Guitry’s Pasteur at the Vaudeville. The Folies-Bergère featured a lion tamer for its family matinee and then more adult entertainment in the evening. The great music hall stars Mistinguett and Max Dearly appeared at the Casino de Paris, along with 200 Jolies Femmes, and Raimu, the stage actor soon to become a great movie star, performed in Le Cochon qui sommeille at the Théâtre Michel. There was also much, much more.
Parisian entertainment continued as usual for the duration of the epidemic, as the death toll mounted and city leaders kept all venues open while supplying pharmacies with more and more rum for the afflicted. A century later, French officials were slow to react to the coronavirus, as were governments in Italy, Spain, the United States, and elsewhere. They had, however, apparently learned something from the earlier public health crisis. Spitting on streets may still be a difficult problem and still a means of spreading disease. But Mayor Herriot’s example in Lyon, closing theatres, restaurants, and other public spaces, including cinemas, has now become the French model for containing the epidemic, even in Paris.