The Paris Cinema Project

Olivia de Havilland died last month in Paris, where she had lived since the 1950s, and where she had been a star since at least the late-1930s. Her Warner Bros. films with Errol Flynn made her famous, although at first she was eclipsed by her co-star, who for a few years was as big an attraction in the city, and indeed the rest of the country, as even the greatest French performers. But by the time of her role as Maid Marian in Les Aventures de Robin des Bois (The Adventures of Robin Hood [1938]), de Havilland had become practically as well-known as Flynn, with the French film press detailing not just her movie performances, but reporting on her ambitions, her biography, and her private life as well.

There was a slow build to de Havilland’s Parisian celebrity. When her first significant film, Le Songe d’une nuit d’été (Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream [1935]) opened in the city at the Marbeuf cinema in the eighth arrondissement, the press referred to it typically as a James Cagney film, even though, as Bottom, he probably had less screen time that Ian Hunter, who played Theseus, or Verree Teasdale, as Hippolyta. De Havilland, performing the role of Hermia, received far lesser billing in reports on the film, if she was mentioned at all.

Capitaine Blood (Captain Blood [1935]), released in Paris a few months later, in March 1936, started to change that. Opening at the Apollo cinema in the ninth arrondissement, Capitaine Blood introduced Paris to Errol Flynn, who received instant and massive attention in the film press, while de Havilland also drew notice. The film played for about a month en exclusivité at the Apollo and then left Parisian cinemas for several weeks, but would show in reprises throughout the 1930s.

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As this February 22, 1936 advertisement in the newspaper L’Intransigeant shows, most of the publicity for Capitaine Blood concentrated on Errol Flynn rather than Olivia de Havilland

De Havilland’s initial, significant breakthrough came with her next film with Flynn, La Charge de la brigade légère (The Charge of the Light Brigade [1936]), which also opened exclusively at the Apollo, Christmas week in 1936. La Charge played there for almost two months, a very healthy first-run for the period, and within two weeks of ending that engagement it opened again at two cinemas in the seventeenth and eighteenth arrondissements, and two weeks after that moved to an exclusive engagement at the Studio Universel on the rue de l’Opéra in the first. Moving slowly through the city, rather than opening in a number of cinemas, probably was a sign of the film’s popularity, and film journalism began paying more attention to the woman who played Flynn’s love interest.

After La Charge and another star turn in Anthony Adverse (1936, with Fredric March rather than Flynn), the press started covering de Havilland’s private life, a sure sign of stardom. In July 1937, for instance, the daily Le Courrier headlined on its movie page, “Olivia de Havilland Dreams of Abandoning the Screen,” and then detailed the struggle of the young actress to balance career and intimacy, and the melodrama of life as a star. “I love my work,” de Havilland allegedly said, “and I have completely sacrificed myself to it.” She went on that she would always be willing to do so, “unless I fall in love” with her “Prince Charming.”

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From Le Courrier, July 8, 1937, “Olivia de Havilland Dreams of Abandoning the Screen”

Things continued to change for de Havilland, and her ascension to the ranks of the greatest stars came a year later, with her next film with Flynn, the Technicolor Les Aventures de Robin des Bois. That movie, of course, is still well known, but we probably haven’t realized what a spectacular international hit it really was. Robin opened at the Rex in the second arrondissement, one of the largest and most opulent cinemas in the city. But unlike a lot of the cinémas d’exclusivité in Paris, the Rex often showed films for just one week. Robin des Bois began at the Rex the week of November 23, 1938, replacing a double bill of a reprise of Coqueluche de Paris (The Rage of Paris [1937]), with perhaps the greatest of all French stars, Danielle Darrieux, in her first American film, and Le Prince de mon coeur (1938). The week before that, La Maison du Maltais, with Louis Jouvet and Viviane Romance, had shown there.

Unlike those films, Robin des Bois stayed at the Rex week after week, for two months through December and January, 1939. As soon as it left the Rex, the film opened exclusively once again, at the Colisée cinema in the eighth arrondissement. Successive showings en exclusivité, with no time in between, was rare enough in Paris. But then, just a few weeks after it left the Colisée and disappeared from Parisian cinemas, Robin des Bois opened for yet another exclusive run, back in the second arrondissement at the Gaumont-Théâtre, where it played for more than two months until it was replaced by an even greater international hit, Walt Disney’s Blanche Neige et les sept nains (Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs [1937]). Only then did Robin des Bois begin to fan out to other Parisian cinemas, two or three at a time.


Fans line up to see Les Aventures de Robin des Bois at the Rex, in 1938 or ‘39

During the 1930s, Parisian exhibition reserved this strategy of three consecutive exclusive runs for only the most important, most popular films. As a sign of the status of Robin des Bois, newspapers and film journals lavished attention on the two stars, and a quick look at one of those sources, Pour Vous, perhaps the most important film periodical of the era, shows that de Havilland had virtually reached the same level of fame as Flynn.

I’ve written about Pour Vous before (see my post from August 16, 2019, at Just to revisit that history quickly, this was a film weekly that began in 1928, and that covered an international film scene but always concentrated on the cinema culture of Paris, on the movies there and on the stars. In its Easter double issue from April 6, 1938, Pour Vous ran a full-page profile of de Havilland, with three glamor photos, two of them as Maid Marian from the upcoming Robin des Bois.  The article began, “She’s so pretty, don’t you think?” Then, asking readers to examine the three pictures, the article explained, “She’s pretty in three ways…like a child, like a young lady, like a mature woman.”

When Robin des Bois opened in Paris seven months later, Pour Vous ran a special short story version of the film, and then a few weeks later, in its 1938 Christmas issue, printed a back-cover photo of Flynn and de Havilland, giving them equal billing as “the heroes of Les Aventures de Robin des Bois, the great film now showing at the Rex.” Then, after the spectacular success of Robin des Bois, Pour Vous dedicated more and more energy to revealing de Havilland’s thoughts and experiences to French movie fans.

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“She’s so pretty, don’t you think?” Pour Vous, April 6, 1938

In May, 1940, as part of a page of articles from Hollywood, “the land of stars,” about the new and much anticipated American film Autant en emporte le vent (Gone With the Wind [1939]), an article speculated that de Havilland, Melanie in the film, would marry her new beau, Jimmy Stewart. A few weeks later, in coverage of “Small love problems” (Les petits problèmes de l’amour), Pour Vous featured de Havilland, along with Claudette Colbert, Rosalind Russell, and Phyllis Brooks, and detailed the recent end of an affair that had left the actress heartbroken. Pour Vous wondered, does Olivia still “dream of James Stewart?”

That kind of coverage would soon end. Autant en emporte le vent, of course,          wouldn’t open in Paris until after World War Two, and Pour Vous ceased          publication with the  1940 Nazi occupation of Paris. The collaborationist journalism in Paris as well as the film magazines rarely mentioned American stars anymore, except perhaps when they  died, and the Germans banned all Hollywood films from Paris and the rest of the Occupied Zone (see my post from September 19, 2017, at There would be nothing further about Olivia de Havilland, her films, or her love life, for almost five years. She was almost certainly, though, perhaps along with Deanna Durbin, the last American actress to achieve truly great stardom in France in the years just before the war. Of course, she was helped initially by her partnership with Errol Flynn, but she would become the equal of most of the era’s French movie divas–Odette Joyeux, Josette Day, Edwige Feuillère, perhaps even Michèle Morgan and Danielle Darrieux—in the hierarchy of Parisian celebrity.

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De Havilland and Flynn in Les Aventures de Robin des Bois, Pour Vous, December 7, 1938


The Paris Cinema Project

Joseph Losey’s Accident (1967), Luis Bunuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), Michalengelo Antonioni’s Blow Up (1966), and Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967). Those were the first four films, listed alphabetically in the weekly Pariscope, of all the movies playing in their first run, en exclusivité, in Paris for the week of September 6, 1967.  Other films among the 27 on that list included Bergman’s Persona and Rivette’s La Religieuse. A grouping of new films like this is unthinkable today, and gives a good indication of the depth of the film culture in Paris at the time. That film culture was also incredibly wide; the film listed just after La Chinoise was Les Détraqués (The Happening [1967]), directed by Elliot Silverstein, hardly an auteur, then or now, and with a cast that hints at some of the confusion of films from the period, so dependent on traditional stars on the one hand, and younger performers to attract a more youthful audience on the other. The film featured old-timers Anthony Quinn and Martha Hyer, and also George Maharis, whose breakthrough had come in the early-sixties television series Route 66, and Michael Parks, who enjoyed a brief vogue as a sort of James Dean-style anti-hero.

French cinema from this period has always been of great interest to film scholars, in large part because of its connection to the uprisings in France in May 1968, with an epicenter in Paris. We know that French culture minister André Malraux’ attempts to fire Henri Langlois, the director of the Cinémathèque française, in the spring of 1968 mobilized the students and intellectuals who began the protests a few months later (for some notes on the Cinémathèque in the late-sixties, see my post from June 5, 2020, at The links between cinema and the uprisings have been chronicled, most fully, by Sylvia Harvey in her 1979 book, May ’68 and Film Culture. Harvey noted that Marxist and semiotic approaches to film theory in France during the period established practices that could be brought to analyses of power in general, and she also thoroughly examined the impact of the “Langlois Affair.” The book is extraordinarily important, but perhaps because of its emphasis on using theory for the production of historiographic approaches to cinema, it may have been seen as something of an outlier when it first appeared. Now we understand it as an early example of the move towards historiography in film studies.

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Pariscope, from September 6, 1967

What was it like, though, to go to the movies in Paris around the time of the May revolt, to be a filmgoer who may or may not have been more broadly involved in the political issues of the period?   Information can be hard to come by. In fact, it’s easier to do research on the films playing in Paris in the 1930’s than the 1960’s, and the closest I can come to May ’68 is that Pariscope from the late-summer of ’67.

At the time, there were 286 cinemas in the city, a number that had held fairly steady for many years. In 1955, there were 290 exhibition locations, and there were 277 in 1961. The geographic distribution of cinemas also remained relatively constant. In 1967, the first arrondissement, in the center of the city and spatially dominated by the Louvre, had three sites, for instance, while the eighteenth arrondissement, on the northern periphery, had eighteen, and those numbers would have made sense to Parisian filmgoers even forty years earlier. The prestigious cinemas were still primarily along the Champs-Élysées in the eighth arrondissement and the boulevard des Italiens, which borders the second and ninth. They tended to show the most important new films, with the Biarritz, as just one example among many, at 22 avenue des Champs-Élysées, screening Blow-up that week in September. But these cinemas would also feature reprises, and some old ones at that. The Cinéma des Champs-Élysées, just a few blocks away from the Biarritz, showed a film that always seemed to find an audience in Paris, Frank Capra’s Arsenic et vielles dentelles (Arsenic and Old Lace [1944]).

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The schedule for the John Ford festival at the Studio Action cinema in the ninth arrondissement, from Pariscope, September 6, 1967

In fact, there were reprises all over the city. As just a few, very notable, examples, in the seventeenth arrondissement, Eisenstein’s Alexandre Nevsky (1938) showed at the Studio de L’Étoile while Howard Hawks’ Le Grand sommeil (The Big Sleep [1946]) appeared at the MacMahon, on a rotating program with Budd Boetticher’s La Chute d’un caid (The Rise and Fall of Legs Diamond [1960]) and a few other films. Citizen Kane (1941) played at the Studio Logos in the fourth, and Boulevard de crepuscule (Sunset Boulevard [1950]) played at two cinemas, the Studio Git-le-Coeur in the sixth and the Jean Renoir in the ninth. The Studio-Action, also in the ninth, launched an hommage à John Ford for the entire week, with a new film each day, and all of them subtitled rather than dubbed: Les Raisins de la colère (The Grapes of Wrath [1940]), Mogambo (1953), La Taverne de l’Irlandais (Donovan’s Reef [1962]), La Prisonnière du désert (The Searchers [1956]), L’Homme qui tua Liberty Valance (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance [1963]), Les Deux Cavaliers (Two Rode Together [1961]), and Le Convoi des braves (Wagonmaster [1950]). Perhaps because of the premiere of La Chinoise, or possibly because his films were always popular in the city, there were Godard movies throughout Paris: Alphaville (1965) at the Turin in the seventeenth arrondissement, Deux ou trois chose que je sais d’elle (1967) at the Casino St. Martin in the tenth, and Pierrot le fou (1965), À bout de souffle (1960), and Made in USA (1966) all at the Studio Saint-Germain in the fifth.

Pariscope devoted most of its attention, however, to new films. Of the more than two-dozen films en exclusivité, seven were opening that week, and these ranged from Otto Preminger’s Que vienne la nuit (Hurry Sundown [1967]) to Leslie Martinson’s Batman (1966). The cover featured a photo from “the scandalous film of the week” (le film scandale de la semaine), the British movie La Nuit des alligators (The Penthouse [1967]), about three young people who break into an apartment and terrorize the couple that lives there. Pariscope ran a long review of Les Detraqués, and also a list of new films with a dozen critics assigning them anything from a blank box (“the critic didn’t like it at all), to one star (“the critic liked it a little”) to three (“passionately”).  Included here were the critics from important newspapers like Le Monde and L’Express, and also those who were already established as significant film theorists and historians: Jean-Louis Comolli from Cahiers du Cinéma (he gave Accident only two stars, while Belle de jour and Blow-up got three) and Georges Sadoul from Les Lettres Françaises (three stars for Persona). In another section of Pariscope, five other critics weighed in on Le Forum en folie (A Funny thing Happened on the Way to the Forum [1967]). Each of them provided a brief evaluation, and then assigned the film either a man’s smiling face or a frowning one (the film received three frowns and two smiles).

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The critics weigh in, “For and Against” Le Forum en folie, in Pariscope

Parisians didn’t have to leave their homes to see movies; they could, of course, watch them on television. There were only two channels in France at the time, both operated by the government, and one of them, really, was hardly ever on. Programming started at 12:30 in the afternoon on weekdays and Saturdays, but began on Sundays at 9:30 in the morning with religious programming, and there were a lot of movies. For that week in September, Pariscope highlighted Alfred Hitchock’s Soupçons (Suspicion [1941]), but others included Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) on Monday at 8:30, Kon Ichikawa’s Enjo (1958), showing Tuesday at 10:10 in the evening, and Henri Diamant-Berger’s Le Chasseur de chez Maxim’s (1953), on Wednesday at 2:30.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Soupçons, the featured film of the week in Pariscope

Movies on TV marked the shift in French film culture from the period. The widespread diffusion of the medium came relatively late to France, with another weekly listing of events in Paris, Une semaine de Paris, this one from July, 1961, not even bothering to mention television. The most apparent sign of the differences between the city’s night life of the late-1960s and earlier in the decade, though, has nothing to do with cinema.

There were hundreds of theatres, music halls, and restaurants in Paris, and that had typically been the case. In 1967, however, Pariscope listed something relatively new: eighteen discotheques. Most of these were bars as well, and some were restaurants, and one of them, the Jardin de Montmartre in the eighteenth arrondissement, had its dance floor outdoors (une piste en plein air). That was also the only one that wasn’t in the center of the city, with most of the others concentrated in the fourth and sixth arrondissements. In fact, the discotheque scene remained constant in Paris for at least a decade. A Pariscope from 1977 lists sixteen in the city, some of them in the same places as those ten years before (Jacky’s Far West Saloon, at the site of the old Studio-Parnasse cinema in the sixth arrondissement, had apparently remained thematically consistent but had changed its name to the Barbary Coast Saloon). Most of them were also still in the same neighborhoods. By 1980, however, at least according to the Pariscope listings, all of the Parisian discotheques had closed.

This was the range of Parisian cultural life in the late-1960s, from Les Detraqués to La Chinoise, from Jacky’s Saloon to the uprisings of May ’68. Many of the young people in those protests may have gone to the discotheques, and they certainly went to the movies and followed the cinema closely. It is in no way a trivialization of their discontent to say that it was informed not just by the Marxist critique provided by the film theory of the period, but also by the three-star rating system of Comolli and Sadoul, and by the frowning or smiling man so carefully assigned by the Pariscope critics.


The Parisian discotheques listed in Pariscope for the week of September 6, 1967