In March, 2020, all of the cinemas in Paris closed because of the coronavirus. Three months later, in June, those cinemas reopened, and the management of the Rex in particular planned to make a big splash when they started showing films once again. Still one of the most opulent cinemas in Paris, the Rex, in the fashionable second arrondissement, had opened originally in 1932 with a film from an appropriately French classic, Les Trois Mousquetaires (1932), directed by Henri-Diamant Berger. Ninety years later, as a sign that Parisian film culture was back up and running, the people in charge of the Rex chose a Hollywood blockbuster, Autant en emporte le vent (Gone With the Wind ), David O. Selznick’s homage to the plantation slavery of the Old South. Just before the opening, however, the film’s current distributor, Warner Bros., cancelled the screening, citing the poor timing of showing—and celebrating—a film of such obvious racism just months after the murder of George Floyd led to international protests. There was, really, nothing the Rex could do, but French culture minister Frank Riester, one of the country’s center-right political leaders, expressed outrage, calling the decision by Warners “incomprehensible and inadmissible,” and insisting that France “will always defend artistic liberty and the diffusion of all works of art.” Invoking the principles of the French Revolution, Riester added that, “along with equality, this is at the heart of our values.”
Riester’s rhetoric may have been a little overheated, especially because, even before the Rex affair, Autant en emporte le vent had had something of a vexed history in Paris. As I mentioned in my recent post on Olivia de Havilland, who had starred as Melanie in the movie, French film journalism from early in World War Two eagerly looked forward to the arrival of Autant en emporte le vent (see https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/2857034519). In January, 1940, for instance, the film tabloid Pour Vous ran a story “Announcing Two Great Premieres in Hollywood,” Autant en emporte le vent and Notre-Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame ). Then, in April 1940, the French press treated the London premiere of Autant en emporte le vent as a major news story, and the implication was clear; after the successful opening there, the film would be arriving soon in Paris.
The surrender to Germany in June, 1940, changed those plans. The Nazis banned Hollywood films in the Occupied Zone, including Paris, almost immediately. There would be no ban in Vichy, in the unoccupied Southern zone of France, until late in 1942. Notre-Dame de Paris would be one of the last new Hollywood films to open there (I’ll be writing about that in a future post), but Autant en emporte le vent never quite made it.
While the Germans banned American media—magazines, for instance, in addition to movies—they didn’t completely prevent all cultural contact from the United States, perhaps in an attempt to make it seem as if French life continued as usual, despite the surrender. As a result, Autant en emporte le vent had a significant presence in France during the war, both as entertainment and as a symbol of fascist principles. In August, 1941, the Parisian newspaper Le Figaro announced a radio adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel, by French screenwriter Pierre Laroche (he wrote the script for Marcel Carné’s Les Visiteurs du soir , among many other films), starring such significant performers as Yvette Guilbert and Pierre Brasseur. In the same radio column, providing some sense of where both Mitchell and Autant en emporte le vent stood in the context of French culture during the Occupation, Figaro also announced adaptations of Hugo’s Les Misérables, Cervantes’ Don Quichotte, and Sophocles’ Oedipe Roi.
Just a few months before the war began in September, 1939, Éditions Gallimard seems to have published a French translation of the novel. Although it’s unclear how many copies made it into France, at least some critics and intellectuals were able to read it. In October 1941, the French newspaper Je suis partout, which had been reliably rightwing even before the war, published an extended essay by Pierre-Antoine Cousteau (the brother of scientist, explorer, and member of the French Resistance Jacques-Yves Cousteau), “A Humanitarian Hoax: The Civil War.” Cousteau wrote that reading Autant en emporte le vent had finally allowed him to understand the full meaning of the Civil War, “the American tragedy.” The conflict had marked “the victory of barbarism over civilization,” and had made it impossible for the South to spread the “aristocratic graces” to the rest of the country.
In June 1942, Je suis partout ran another article on the novel, again by Cousteau. The writer provided a chronology of his experience reading Autant en emporte le vent, saying that “it was just after the war in Spain, just before the Jewish war,” that he was introduced to Mitchell’s novel. Typically, Cousteau said, he detested fiction, but it was Robert Brasillach, editor of Je suis partout as well as frequent film critic, who convinced him to give the book a try, because “it’s not fiction, it’s something that you see.” After the war, of course, Brasillach would be the only man convicted in France, and executed, for what would be termed “intellectual collaboration,” for avidly supporting the Nazis through his newspaper work (Alice Kaplan has written a terrific book about the case, The Collaborator: The Trial and Execution of Robert Brasillach). Early in the fighting, though, he was the man who brought Autant en emporte le vent to Cousteau, who introduced him to this textbook “for the fascists that we have never ceased to be.” The novel taught Cousteau that the South’s defeat had led directly to the current global crisis: “Without Lincoln, without Grant,” Cousteau wrote, “Roosevelt would not be possible.”
Once Paris had been liberated, and despite Brasillach and Cousteau’s endorsement of the novel, the film version seemed to point to the democratic future of France rather than to its recent, fascist past. In June 1945, the newspaper France-soir announced a one-night, gala screening of the film at the Palais Garnier, the Paris opera in the ninth arrondissement. The gala would benefit those who had been interned in concentration camps and other prisons during the Occupation, with France-soir alerting readers that this would be their only chance to see the film in Paris until 1946.
The newspaper was only off by four years. As if in slow anticipation, France-soir began a months-long serialization of the novel in May, 1948, claiming that this would be the first publication of Autant en emporte le vent in France, despite the evidence of the Galimard edition read by Brasillach and Cousteau. Then, finally, in May, 1950, the film premiered in Paris at the elegant Biarritz cinema in the eighth arrondissement. There would be an opening night gala then, too, this one for artists and writers and the major fashion designers of the city, les grands couturiers parisiens. At the intermission, all of those in attendance received a bottle of Autant en emporte le vent perfume.
It remains unclear why it took so long for the film to come to Paris and the rest of France. Towards the end of the war, Paris experienced crushing shortages of electricity, and this continued well after the Liberation. As a result, cinemas might only be open two or three days a week, and there were limits as to how long any film program might be. It’s possible that, even in the late-1940s, the problem remained, making it difficult for any cinema to show a film as long as Autant en emporte le vent even once a day, let alone two or three times.
Whatever the restrictions had been, when the film finally arrived the critics were enthusiastic, although sometimes cautiously so. Writing in Combat, for instance, Guy Marester admitted to some concern about being subjected to a four-hour film, and he wondered how the director, Victor Fleming, might hold the audiences’ attention. He was, however, surprised at how thoroughly absorbed he had been, particularly by the first half.
Movie fans kept showing up to see Autant en emporte le vent. In advertisements, the Biarritz urged viewers to come as soon as they could, even for the 500-franc admission price (about a $1.25), and cautioned that the film “won’t be shown any cheaper for at least a year.” The film continued to play at the Biarritz until the end of 1950, with the cinema changing the emphasis in its advertising from the price of admission to the number of repeat viewers. By December, the tagline in newspaper ads had become, “How many times have you seen Gone With the Wind?” (Combien de fois avez-vous vu ‘Autant en emporte le vent’?).
After it left the Biarritz, the film began another extended, exclusive engagement at the Rex, the cinema that began this narrative. Autant en emporte le vent would keep returning to Paris for long engagements, at least every ten years or so, in 1959, for instance, and again in 1970, and the film seems to have played without incident until the recent controversy.
Just a few months after the June cancellation of Autant en emporte le vent at the Rex, however, that controversy, and the culture minister’s outrage, now seem like ancient history. After Disney postponed the distribution of Mulan because of the rise in coronavirus cases and other studios withheld their films as well, there just weren’t enough new movies to bring audiences to the Rex, or to any of the cinemas in Paris. There were also fewer viewers who wanted to risk going to the movies at all, regardless of what might have been showing. All of the city’s exhibition sites, including the Rex, closed once again on August 3, without any clear prospect of showing movies anytime soon.