In its issue of May 17, 1934, the French film tabloid Pour Vous advertised what must be the oddest double-bill imaginable, or perhaps the most perfect. In Paris, the W.C. Fields comedy Dollars et Whisky (You’re Telling Me ) would premiere that week at the Studio 28 cinema in the eighteenth arrondissement, paired with Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929).
Double-bills were not uncommon in the city at the time, especially after the Pathé cinema chain’s 1933 commitment to programs of multiple films. And, of course, it’s a bit of a cheat on my part to refer to these two films as a double-bill. Un Chien Andalou is just a little more than twenty minutes long, so would be much more like one of those short films that typically accompanied features at the time. Still, those films, unless they were Disney cartoons, were almost never mentioned in advertisements or newspaper listings of cinemas. The practically-equal billing of Buñuel’s film and Fields’ indicates that they were seen as equal attractions, and that they made sense together. But how, exactly, had this combination of films happened, the first from Paramount, a major Hollywood studio, and the second already a certified surrealist classic? To begin to determine the answer, we need to know more about the histories of the Studio 28, of Buñuel’s film in Paris, and also of the celebrity in the city of Fields, the great American comic actor.
The Parisian reception of Un Chien Andalou has been obscured by the controversy around Buñuel’s next film. When L’Age d’or (1930) opened, also at the Studio 28, fascist youth groups—of which there were many in Paris—angered at what they perceived to be the film’s anti-Catholicism and decadent surrealist aesthetic, tore the cinema apart, and shouted “Death to Jews” as they did so. In comparison, the premiere of Un Chien Andalou in June, 1929 had been quiet, polite, and respectful, with even far-right sources greeting Buñuel as a new, important filmmaker. The fascist newspaper L’Intransigeant, for instance, remarked on the screening of two new French films, “the first by Man Ray, called Les Mystères du Chateau de Dé, and the second the debut film of a new filmmaker, Louis [sic] Buñuel.” The reviewer went on to discuss Ray’s 1929 film, with all of its images of masked men playing with oversized dice, and then, about Buñuel and Un Chien Andalou, stated that “we witnessed a technique, a direction, and a conception so original, that we hope this young director will keep giving to us.”
This combination of movies by directors who would become giants of avant-garde art and cinema makes perfect sense ninety years later. The private screening was held at the Ursulines, a 300-seat cinema in the fifth arrondissement, which had established itself as a site for experimental films and for commercial movies with high-art and avant-gardist pretensions. Just a few months after Un Chien Andalou and Les Mystères du Chateau de Dé played there, for example, L’Ange Bleu (1930), Josef von Sternberg’s first collaboration with Marlene Dietrich, began its sensational year-long run at the Ursulines.
After this first engagement, however, Un Chien Andalou came to be most closely associated with the Studio 28. The cinema’s name commemorated the year of its opening, 1928, as a site for avant-garde films, although it also showed commercial movies and those that might hover between the two categories, just as the Ursulines did. Buñuel’s film played there at least as early as October, 1929, when it showed along with a Harold Lloyd silent comedy as well as a very early short by Georges Méliès. In fact, films by Méliès would be common on avant-garde film programs of the 1930s, and we also begin to get a sense here that American comedies, in this case with Lloyd rather than Fields, might also be seen as perfect counterparts to European experimental cinema.
Less than a year later, Un Chien Andalou was at Studio 28 again, to celebrate the cinema’s second anniversary, this time on a program with a film by Russian avant-gardist Eugène Deslaw, another Méliès film, and Russian director Abram Room’s 3 Dans un sous-sol (known in English as Bed and Sofa ). Buñuel and Méliès were paired again in March, 1938, when Studio 28 hosted an avant-garde et surrealisme festival, with a list of films still in the experimental canon today: René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), an unidentified short by Oskar Fishinger, Jean Cocteau’s Le Sang d’un poète (1932), Deslaw’s La Marche des machines (1928), Méliès’ La Voyage dans la lune (1902), and, of course, Un Chien Andalou.
All the while Buñuel’s film played elsewhere in Paris and throughout France. At a weeklong ciné-club special event, la semaine de gala du Ciné-Club, the film screened in Bordeaux in 1930, and then at another club, Le Cercle du Cinéma, in Paris, in April 1937. It was featured there with two silent movies that were certainly understood at the time to engage aesthetically with both the commercial and the experimental, Erich von Stroheim’s final—and unfinished—film, Queen Kelly (1928/29, 1932), and Jean Renoir’s 1926 version of Nana.
Less than ten years later, the film had become a symbol of French resilience and national spirit. In December 1944, Combat, which had been founded in 1941 as the newspaper of the French Resistance, announced that Le Cercle du Cinéma had reopened, after having shut down during the German occupation. Perhaps the most important of all the ciné-clubs, Le Cercle had been founded by Georges Franju and Henri Langlois, and served as the forerunner of—and inspiration for—the Cinémathèque Française. At a time when, just after the liberation of Paris, so many events seemed planned to indicate the rebirth of the city as well as the rest of France after four years of Nazi control, the choice that Le Cercle du Cinéma made for its first post-liberation screening could not have been accidental: Un Chien Andalou, with Buñuel’s film now entering the ranks of the country’s artistic patrimony, and serving as a sign that Paris would return to its prewar position as the cultural capital of Europe.
But what about W.C. Fields? His movies seem to have been popular in Paris during the 1930s, although they certainly didn’t become ciné-club staples in the manner of Buñuel’s films. Nevertheless, at least during the early 1930s, they were a steady presence at the Studio 28, which might well attest to their status as films worthy of serious consideration and appealing to a crowd that sought out the experimental and the avant-garde. In fact, over the fall of 1933 through the summer of 1934, the Studio 28 scheduled an extraordinary season not only of Fields’ films, but of American comedy generally.
In October 1933, Si j’avais un million (If I Had a Million ), starring Fields as well as Gary Cooper and Charles Laughton, opened there. Just a few months later, in February 1933, another new Fields film had its first Parisian showing at the Studio 28, International folies (International House ). In May, of course, Dollars et Whisky opened there with Un Chien Andalou, and after playing until August they were replaced by one more Fields film, Poker Party (Six of a Kind ), also in its first Paris engagement. One of the only films to break up this almost-continuous run of Fields movies was yet another great Paramount comedy, the Marx Brothers in La Soupe aux canards (Duck Soup ), which opened at the Studio 28 in March 1934 and played for two months.
We might not expect Parisians to get the aggressive verbal humor of either Groucho or Fields, but nevertheless they seemed to have a significant appreciation for their films. The Marx Brothers, of course, have entered the canon of American performers who can be considered at least irreverent and quite possibly subversive, and so might make sense in the same exhibition context as some avant-garde filmmakers. While we still admire Fields, it’s not clear that we have placed him in quite the same pantheon. But at least in Paris, in the thirties, that was apparently the case, with Fields the equal not just of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, but also of Buñuel.
Un Chien Andalou played in Paris throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, but I’ve only found one occasion when it was part of another double-bill at a major cinema, with both films getting more or less equal billing. On August 3, 1954, twenty years after Buñuel and Fields shared the Studio 28, L’Intransigeant announced that Un Chien Andalou would be playing at the Studio de l’Étoile cinema in the seventeenth arrondissement, along with Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), to celebrate the quarter-century since both films first appeared. Of course, by then, the greatness of the two films had been long acknowledged, so this double-bill seems absolutely appropriate. It’s also far different from Un Chien Andalou showing with a W.C. Fields movie. Parisians still sought out art films in the 1950s, but perhaps the distinctions between art cinema and commercial movies had become more pronounced, and so Un Chien Andalou would necessarily be paired with a film like Dreyer’s, an undeniable milestone in motion picture history. In any event, Buñuel would be well-represented in Paris that week. The Studio 28 cinema, which had made Un Chien Andalou such a recurring part of its repertory, and which was celebrating its own twenty-fifth anniversary, presented audiences with the director’s great film from 1950, Los Olvidados.