The Paris Cinema Project

“Don’t say ‘director’ anymore, say ‘author’” (Ne dites plus ‘metteur en scène,’ dites ‘auteur’). That was the extraordinary assertion in a lead article in Pour Vous on December 6, 1928, in only the third issue of what would become one of the leading French film periodicals for the next dozen years. This might seem interesting enough to a modern reader, perhaps prone to believe that the director-as-author can only be a function of the auteur theory as it was formulated in France in the 1950s before making its way to English-language film studies. Instead, during the 1920s and ‘30s, critics, filmmakers, and cinephiles engaged in a significant discussion about who might be most responsible for a film, and whether or not a director exercised the same control as a novelist or a playwright. And in the film press of the period, it was in Pour Vous where they debated most frequently.

“Don’t say ‘director’ anymore, say ‘author,’” Pour Vous, December 6, 1928

I’ve written about Pour Vous before (see 38257950/posts/2381117842 and posts/497). It had been created in 1928 by newspaper entrepreneur Léon Bailby, who years earlier had taken over one of the leading rightwing dailies in France, L’Intransigeant. Despite this connection to reactionary politics, however, Pour Vous typically concerned itself more with aesthetic issues than ideological ones. The weekly ran a range of articles about the art of cinema and the significance of film to appeal to serious cinephiles on the one hand, and “average” fans on the other, who might be interested in updates about fashion, beauty tips, and celebrity marriages. Throughout the decade, Pour Vous ran serious essays about the avant-garde, about film music, and by the end of the 1930s, about German cinema under fascism. But perhaps more than anything else, when it devoted itself to pressing issues related to cinema, Pour Vous presented the ongoing arguments about authorship.

In 1931, the film critic Lucien Wahl wrote “In Search of the Author” (À la recherche de l’auteur) for Pour Vous, and admitted to the difficulty of the project, especially now when “the cinema speaks and sings.” In the theatre, he said, the issue is an easy one, because “a play is written, built,” and the director and actors are only auxiliaries. In the cinema, however, the author might be the screenwriter, or the director, or even the editor. Wahl asked, “Who is right?” And then answered his own question: “Nobody and everyone, because in the cinema there are only special cases.”

Wahl weighed in again on the subject in 1932, with “Authors Who Complain” (Les Auteurs qui récriminent), about a range of filmmakers upset because their work, somehow, had been tampered with. Wahl reminded readers that “especially since the advent of the spoken word on screen,” many directors have risen only to the level of “managers” rather than authors, and so have no reason to complain. There are some, however, with more power of invention, with more control and responsibility, who need to be thought of as the equivalent of those who write novels or plays, and who have a certain moral claim to the integrity of their work.

Lucien Wahl”s “Authors Who Complain,” from the August 11, 1932 issue of Pour Vous, and directly under an autographed photograph of Joan Crawford

Over the next few years, Pour Vous ran a multi-issue series, “Who is the ‘Author’ of a Film?” (Qui est ‘l’auteur’ d’un film?) with various directors and screenwriters providing their opinions. In the September 12, 1935 issue, for instance, Jacques Feyder provided some nuance and complexity to the issue. If the “plastic” elements of film dominated—what we might now refer to as the mise en scène—then the director must be the author. If the “psychological” aspects of the film overshadowed all others, then it would be the screenwriter. Feyder was sure, though, that the producer could never be considered the author. Abel Gance gave a more decisive response, perhaps fitting for the director of the epic Napoléon (1927). The author, always, was the director, Gance insisted, providing he had the requisite “courage.”

In other issues, screenwriter Jean Giraudoux insisted that the author of a film, the “source of true paternity,” was the one responsible for the “initial shock” of an idea. “If we film The Odyssey,” Giraudoux explained, “the author will be Homer, and no one other than Homer.” Another scenarist, Charles Spaak, developed authorship as a mathematical science. He attributed 40% of the success of a film to the screenwriter, 35% to the actors, and a mere 25% to the director.

Other journals were not quite so concerned about authorship, and certainly didn’t accept Giradoux’s scientific parsing of the issue, perhaps an indication that Pour Vous may have been something of an outlier. In 1930, for example, the film weekly Hebdo published a very cranky, front-page letter from screenwriter Henri Kistemaeckers, who was outraged that the Parisian daily of cultural events, Comoedia, had referred to the director, Henry Roussell, as the author of La Nuit est à nous (1930). The letter writer wanted to remind readers that it was he, Kistemaeckers, “your devoted colleague,” who was the sole author of the work, having written the original play as well as the adaptation.   

Henri Kistemaeckers’ angry letter
to the editor, Hebdo, May 17, 1930

In 1937, the weekly film journal Ciné-France reviewed the new Marc Allégret film La Dame de Malacca. Ciné-France always listed the director, and no one else, just under the title of the film in the headlines of their reviews, but typically didn’t go so far as to call the filmmakers “authors.” In the case of Allégret’s film, the critic Pierre Autre was unimpressed, and referred to Allégret’s previous work, calling the director “the author of Gribouille” (1937), but then immediately correcting himself and letting readers know that Allégret had simply been the “cinematic author,” because the “real author” could only be Marcel Achard, who had written the story on which the film was based as well as the screenplay. Just a few weeks later, Ciné-France ran a review of Le Coeur en fête (When You’re in Love [1937]) by no less than Pierre Leprohon, already one of France’s leading film historians. Le Coeur en fête, which starred Grace Moore and Cary Grant, marked the directorial debut of Robert Riskin, and Leprohon was quick to mention Riskin’s celebrated work as Frank Capra’s screenwriter on such films as New York-Miami (It Happened One Night [1934]) and L’Extravagant M. Deeds (Mister Deeds Goes to Town [1936]). Then Leprohon emphasized Riskin’s dual role on this newest film, calling Capra’s old collaborator the “director” (metteur en scène) as well as the “author” (auteur) for having written the screenplay, making a clear distinction between the roles and responsibilities of the two jobs as well as the two terms.  

René Clair makes his case for the director
as author in Pour Vous, July 3, 1930

There also were occasions when a film might be characterized as much more of a literary event than a cinematic one, with authorship clearly a function of the writer rather than the director. One of the significant cultural high points in Paris in 1931, for example, was the release of the German film Mädchen in Uniform (1931), which would have a sensational run throughout Europe. The French media generally, and not just film journalism, tended to ignore the director, Leontine Sagan, and hardly mentioned anyone responsible for the screenplay. But they established a national pride in the film, and urged readers to see it, because the French subtitles had been written by none other than Colette, who emerged, in France at least, as the film’s most significant authorial voice.  

This makes the discussion in Pour Vous even more remarkable. No sources in film journalism questioned the significance of the director, but it would be primarily in Pour Vous that critics and filmmakers argued over terminology—metteur en scène or auteur—and pressed for the equality of directors with creators—“authors”—in the other arts. The director René Clair, understood throughout the 1920s and ‘30s as one of the most important filmmakers in Europe, served on the editorial board of Pour Vous for years, and he perhaps more than anyone else set the tone for the journal on the authorship debate. In a 1930 issue of Pour Vous, Clair mocked Kistemaeckers’ claim to the authorship of La Nuit est à nous, and then demanded that a director should be referred to as an auteur rather than metteur en scène, “a title taken from theatre, like everything else that has been harmful to cinema.” For Clair, that shift in terminology and understanding would help lead to a cinema that “didn’t show the trace of either literature or theatre,” a cinema where the author could only be the director.