The Paris Cinema Project

The Paris film press considered it very big news when Walter Ruttmann’s La Mélodie du monde (1929) opened in the city in February 1930, and when Germaine Dulac’s La Souriante Madame Beudet (1923) reprised there two months later. These were film events of a high order, and received the same attention as new French films, or movies from Hollywood. But film critics from the period, and very likely many “average” audiences, understood both of these films as distinct from the mainstream product, as avant-garde, and significant because of the ways they tested standard cinematic conventions. Their place in the everyday film culture of Paris, however, seems to indicate that experimental films were in no way marginalized during the twenties and thirties, and not just the province of elite viewing spaces and elite viewers. 

The film tabloid Pour Vous featured La Souriante Madame Beudet in its issue from April 17, 1930, as one of three grandes reprises in the city that week, along with Maurice Tourneur’s L’Equipage (1928) and Clarence Brown’s La Femme de quarante ans (Smouldering Fires [1925]), which starred Pauline Frederick and Laura LaPlante. Before that, in late-February 1930, Pour Vous ran its usual complete listing of all the movies playing in the city, and at which cinemas. Pour Vous typically would foreground a few important films, divided into categories. That week, there were noteworthy dramas like Josef von Sternberg’s Les Damnés de l’Océan (The Docks of New York [1928]), and such comedies as the great Ernst Lubitsch film Parade d’amour (The Love Parade [1930]).  Then, in the category “Curiosities” (curiosités), Pour Vous urged viewers to see La Mélodie du monde (the other film in that group that week was Jean Renoir’s La Petite marchande d’allumettes [1928]). Ruttmann’s film played at four cinemas throughout the city, including one of the largest, the opulent, faux-Egyptian Louxor in the tenth arrondissement. At all of those cinemas, La Mélodie du monde, which Pour Vous described as “a sequence of images, harmonized and contrasted, perfectly scored with original music,” played with a Walt Disney Mickey Mouse cartoon, either Mickey virtuouse or Mickey mèlomane, perhaps indicating that the double-bill was part of a distribution package.

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La Souriante Madame Beudet listed as a notable reprise in Pour Vous, April 17, 1930

Pour Vous had various ways of categorizing films like Ruttmann’s and Dulac’s. If not “Curiosities,” then it would be “Diverse” (divers), or “Variety” (variété). In fact, as it moved through cinemas in Paris, La Mélodie du monde would find itself advertised in all of those groups. But sometimes, Pour Vous simply listed these films as avant-garde, as it did in the issue of November 29, 1928, with Man Ray’s L’Etoile de mer (1928), or on September 26, 1929, when it alerted viewers to Vingt-quatre heures en trente minutes (1929), a film by Jean Lods and Mikhail Kauffman. The tabloid also covered the news of the avant-garde just as it would the more commercial cinema. In one example among many, the issue of November 6, 1930, along with articles about Josephine Baker, the future of television, and women’s movie fashion, ran an extended piece by the Belgian musician and composer Paul Gilson on Jean Cocteau’s first film, the decidedly opaque and experimental Le Sang d’un poète. So it would have come as no surprise to Pour Vous readers just a few months before, in the November 14, 1929 issue, to see an article about La Mélodie du monde alongside one describing another new release, Le Roi du rodeo (King of the Rodeo [1928]), from Universal Pictures and featuring cowboy star Hoot Gibson. 

This provides additional evidence for something I wrote about recently (see https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/3109483276), when I discussed an extraordinary 1934 double-bill at the Ursulines cinema of Luis Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1930) and the W.C. Fields film, Dollars et Whisky (You’re Telling Me [1934]). In Paris at the time, the experimental and the commercial might coexist without any seeming problem or contradiction, spatially at the same cinema or even on the same page, as was the case with the adjacent articles about Ruttman’s film and Gibson’s. This was certainly true with the 1930 reissue of La Souriante Madame Beudet, which would be advertised in a range of Parisian newspapers, including the far-rightwing L’Intransigeant and L’Action Française, with the former running a prominent advertisement for Dulac’s film on April 9th, on a double-bill with Jean Epstein’s Finis Terrae (1929), at the L’Oeil de Paris cinema in the seventeenth arrondissement.

In fact, it wasn’t just the everyday film culture of Paris that would be hospitable to such a wide range of movies. La Mélodie du monde seems to have opened throughout France at about the same time, in February 1930. That’s when Le Petit Marseillais ran a quarter-page ad announcing the arrival of the Maurice Chevalier film, La Chanson de Paris (Innocents of Paris [1929]), playing at the Capitole cinema in Marseille, and just below that let readers know that Ruttmann’s film was showing at the Pathé-Palace, on a bill with the Walt Disney cartoon Mickey mécano (Mickey’s Choo-Choo [1929]) and Le Mensonge de Nina Petrowna, a 1929 German film starring Brigitte Helm, who had a large following in Paris ever since her appearance in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). In fact, the whole show at the Palace looks to have been impressive, with a variety of different kinds of entertainment, from the melodrama of Helm’s film and “the marvelous voyage around the world” of Ruttmann’s, to the animation of the Mickey Mouse cartoon, to the cinema’s in-house thirty-piece orchestra, and the dancers Zoiga and Rachel, “performing their acrobatic dance.”

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The movie page from Le Petit Marseillais, February 6, 1930, with an advertisement for Maurice Chevalier in La Chanson de Paris at the top, and below left, a listing for La Mélodie du monde at the Pathé-Palace

Pour Vous only listed films like Ruttmann’s in a special category—avant-garde, or divers, or curiosités—until the fall of 1930. Well after that, however, the tabloid covered experimental films alongside commercial movies. In the issue of December 6, 1928, Pour Vous placed a reprise of Dimitri Kirsanoff’s great 1925 film Ménilmontant as the singular avant-garde film in Paris for enthusiasts to see that week. Four years later, in June 1932, the paper no longer called special attention to experimental movies, but in an article about the most important films since the world war, listed Ménilmontant for 1925 along with such standards as Pabst’s La rue sans joie Die freudlose Gasse), Lang’s Les Nibelungen (Die Nibelungen), and Chaplin’s La Rueé vers l’or (The Gold Rush). Pour Vous also continued to champion Ruttman’s work, for instance in a 1937 article on “The German Avant-Garde Cinema” that also mentioned films by Hans Richter, Lotte Reiniger, and Oskar Fischinger, and on the same page as caricatures of Hollywood stars Jane Withers, Shirley Temple, Sonja Henie, and others.

Of course, the various terms Pour Vous used for films like La Mélodie du monde show how difficult categorizations are, and perhaps how blurred the differences might be between the avant-garde and the commercial. Both La Souriante Madame Beudet and Ménilmontant, for example, have fully discernible narratives, although they also don’t seem like the typical product from French studios, or American or German for that matter. Ruttmann’s film, while perhaps much more identifiable as experimental, also seems similar enough to other films of his, for instance Berlin, symphonie d’une grande ville (Berlin—Die Sinfonie der Großstadt [1927]), or Jean Vigo’s 1930 À propos de Nice (Vigo would be a frequent subject of articles in Pour Vous), and so might have seemed both challenging and familiar to French audiences. To the extent that funding matters in identifying film style and meaning, La Mélodie du monde had been made as an extended advertisement for the Hamburg-Amerika shipping line, so while its style might be avant-garde, its provenance was mostly corporate.

    PV 12-6-28Ménilmontant in the avant-garde listings for the week, Pour Vous, December 6, 1928

Ruttmann’s films, Vigo’s, and especially Dulac’s were staples of the ciné-clubs of the period, along with other experimental movies. They were also understood, however, as vital to the overall film culture of Paris and the rest of France, and central to the history and future of cinema. Writing about La Mélodie du monde in the July 24, 1930 issue, Pour Vous asserted the importance of Ruttmann’s film for all filmmakers and its status as the link between the universal language and visual perfection of silent cinema and the possibilities presented by the development of sound film.  La Mélodie du monde provided discerning viewers with “the hope that,” with more films like this one, “we will return to our cinema of yesteryear, but enriched and more wonderful than ever.”

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A two-person pass for the Pathé-Palace cinema in Marseille, from the early-1930s, around the time La Mélodie du monde played there