The Paris Cinema Project

While filming his nearly five-hour version of Les Misérables in 1933, director Raymond Bernard moved his cast and crew from Paris to Antibes. That city on the southern coast of France would play the part of Paris 100 years earlier, with Bernard meticulously recreating the French capital’s Saint-Antoine district there. That was the site of the June 5, 1832 anti-monarchist uprising in Paris, the rebellion that’s central to Victor Hugo’s novel. The effect of Bernard’s reconstruction was so effective, that Le Petit Marseillais, the newspaper serving the city less than 200 kilometers from Antibes, exclaimed that “the illusion is perfect.” Bernard seemingly had managed every detail. But he didn’t expect that, while staging the insurrection, an actual insurrection would break out.

I should back up just slightly. Even before the filming in Antibes, there had been a great deal of anticipation about Les Misérables. Bernard had been making films since World War One, and his movie just before the Hugo adaptation had been Les Croix de bois (1932), a serious melodrama about the war, something along the lines of a French version of the international sensation from 1930 and ’31, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). To portray Jean Valjean, the hero of Les Misérables, Bernard had hired Harry Baur, one of the greatest and most respected of all French actors at the time. The French press began covering the film at least by December 1932, a full fourteen months before the movie would open. That’s when Comoedia reported that Bernard had started filming some of the most important scenes, with Baur embodying a Valjean who was “shaggy, ragged, sorrowful” (hirsute, déguenillé, lamentable).

Excelsior ran a photo of the set in Antibes in its edition of April 16, 1933

With this buildup, it was very big news when Bernard decamped to Antibes. The trouble seems to have taken awhile, with La Dépeche noting that the company had been filming in Antibes for a few weeks without anything unusual taking place, until April 12, 1933. That was when Bernard began work on what all of the newspapers, of all political persuasions, referred to as the “riot” (émeute) of 1832. More than 1,200 extras showed up for work as anti-monarchical insurrectionists, apparently because Bernard had called for that many. When shooting actually began, however, Bernard changed his mind, and felt that 500 rioters was more than enough and dismissed the rest. Rather than leave, they began to chant, “We’ve been hired! We want to work!” They claimed the 35 francs they had been promised for the day’s filming, but Bernard refused to pay them. Reports vary after this, some saying that around 200 of those told to go home remained, some indicating as many as 700. All of them, however, agreed on the anger of the extras and the violence that took place.

The suddenly-unemployed extras stormed the set. It was Bernard’s idea, apparently, to encourage the 500 he had hired, some of them on horseback for the filming, to defend the set, and all of the extras now fought each other. Local police, as well as forces from Cannes and Nice, soon arrived. An extra was injured by one of the horses, and another was pushed to the ground and hurt her leg. Both were taken to the hospital. A policeman fired a gun and wounded another extra in the arm, and thirty more extras were arrested. Finally, as Le Populaire put it, “order was forcibly reestablished” and the riot ended.    

Harry Baur as Jean Valjean, “shaggy, ragged, sorrowful”

Many of the press reports really didn’t take the event very seriously. The far-rightwing L’Intransigeant joked about the extras on horseback who defended the set, saying that, “fortunately,” they had not yet been killed during the filming. The paper also referred to the injured rioters as “overzealous.” La Dépeche, a daily published in Toulouse, gave something of a journalistic sigh over the fighting, the writer summoning Hugo’s own favorite interjection to describe the riot: Hélas (alas). 

The leftwing press, though, understood the extras’ actions differently. The Communist newspaper L’Humanité ended its story on the extras by asserting that “their disenchantment remains, and their enthusiasm persists.” Le Populaire, representing France’s Socialist party, was the only source to provide the names of some of those extras who had been arrested, and then went on to link the unrest to actions taken a few days before, in Nice, at a meeting of the group L’Amicale des Artistes de Cinéma.

From the socialist newspaper Le Populaire, April 14, 1933 coverage of the extras

This seems to have been an offshoot of a larger group, L’Amicale des Artistes, which included French painters, sculptors, and others working in the arts. The actual status of the organization is unclear, but it apparently functioned as sort of an unofficial union, working to defend the rights of artists throughout the country. By making the connection to L’Amicale, however, and by insisting that the extras’ determination remained unchanged, both Le Populaire and L’Humanité connected the discontent at Antibes with a broader labor reform movement by employees throughout the film industry.

After the fighting in Antibes, and after returning to Paris, Bernard and his crew seem to have completed filming without further incident, and the finished sequence of the insurrection is astonishing, equal parts Abel Gance and Sergei Eisentein. Les Misérables opened on February 3, 1934 with a gala premiere on the avenue des Champs-Élysées at the Marignan, one of the more important cinémas d’exclusivité in the city. The on-set insurrection appears to have been forgotten, and the most notable aspect of the film was the post-gala strategy for its initial appearances in the city. Bernard and the production company, Pathé, broke the film into three parts, all of them playing simultaneously at very posh exhibition sites: Part One at the Paramount on the boulevard des Capucines in the ninth arrondissement, Part Two at Pathé’s Marivaux cinema on the boulevard des Italiens in the second, and Part Three at the Marignan.

A shot from the riot in Part Three of Les Misérables

That’s how the film played throughout the city for several months. By the middle of March, for instance, Part One had moved to several cinemas, including, appropriately enough, the Victor Hugo in the sixteenth, while Part Two remained at the Marivaux, and Part Three played exclusively at the Moulin Rouge in the eighteenth. Given the events surrounding the filming in Antibes, however, the February premiere, rather than subsequent playdates, seems particularly important, coming at a critical instant in Parisian, and French, history.

If we accept the report in Le Populaire, the extras’ insurrection in April 1933 had links to a broad network of worker-led movements, which themselves helped lead to the left-wing, and short-lived, Popular Front French government of 1936. The film’s opening on February 3, 1934, though, came just three days before a fascist uprising began in Paris. On February 6, a coalition of far-rightwing groups rioted at the Place de la Concorde, and stormed the Ministry of the Interior and the presidential residence at the Elysée Palace. They were, ultimately, forced to withdraw after battling the French police (themselves often sympathetic to rightwing movements) and French military authority. The goals of the uprising remain unclear; the riot may have been a genuine attempt at a coup-d’état, or perhaps it was motivated simply because the many fascist groups in France at the time joined forces so that none might be deemed weaker than any of the others. The actions of the fascists served as a clear signal, though, of what we now call “Vichy before Vichy,” the significant presence and power of the extreme right in France before World War Two.

The riot was covered in Algiers, in L’Echo d’Alger from April 13, 1933

In fact, Bernard’s film shows the complexity of French political culture at the time. This adaptation of Hugo’s gigantic, meandering novel–about the horrors of a legal system that kept Valjean in prison for nineteen years because he stole a loaf of bread, about working-class unrest and so much else–opened in three of the most elegant cinemas in Paris in some of the best neighborhoods in the city. The production of the film itself was thrown off-track by the discontent of the workers employed by Bernard. Theopening of the film, which seemed to celebrate a major moment in French cinema’s engagement with politics and the country’s own history of injustice, now looks insignificant compared to the fascist terror of just a few days later.

After Les Misérables, Raymond Bernard continued to make prestigious films. There was Tartarin de Tarascon (1934), starring Raimu, for instance, and Amants et voleurs (1935) with Arletty and Michel Simon. He made no films at all during the war, and then returned in 1946 with Un ami viendra ce soir (1946), with Simon once again and also Madeleine Sologne. He continued like this, directing important films with major stars, until 1958. Harry Baur, the “ragged, sorrowful” Valjean, remained a very important star in Paris throughout the 1930s. Baur was not Jewish, but his wife was, and when the war started the Germans suspected her of anti-Nazi activity. When Baur went to Germany to make a movie, the Gestapo arrested him, put him in prison, and tortured him. He would be released, but shortly after, in 1943, he died under circumstances that still remain mysterious.