The Paris Cinema Project

For the first thirty years of the twentieth century, Léon Bailby controlled one of the the leading far-right newspapers in France, L’Intransigeant. Anti-socialist, anti-communist, anti-Dreyfusard, and enamored of both Mussolini in Italy and Franco in Spain, Bailby helped give pre-World War Two French fascism its intellectual imprimatur, and established some of the common ground between the countless, often quarrelling groups on the country’s political right.  Still a significant force after the war, Bailby called his 1951 memoir What I Fought For (Pour quoi je me suis battu), and from the title one might expect an account of the rough and tumble of French politics from an insider who had been so central to so much of France’s recent history. There’s certainly plenty of that in the book, but Bailby began his autobiography with something else, something that might, at first glance, seem tangential to a life spent defending the far right. Bailby started his story in 1930 with the opening of his new cinema, Les Miracles, and his effort to hold the premiere there of Marlene Dietrich and Josef von Sternberg’s sensational L’Ange bleu [Der Blaue Engel [1930]).

Léon Bailby in the early-1920s

Film historians have known for a long time about the various occasions of fascist violence at Parisian cinemas in the 1930s. The best-known incident is the destruction of the Studio 28 cinema in December, 1930, at a screening of Luis Bünuel’s L’Age d’or (1930), by the far-rightwing Jeunesse patriotes who shouted “Death to Jews” as they tore the place apart. But there were others throughout the decade, in seeming anticipation of the wartime Occupation when the Nazis used cinemas as convenient spaces of surveillance as well as for the rounding up of “dissidents” (for posts on fascist violence at cinemas, see https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/912 and https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/403). Parisian film culture of the period, however, also had significant links to what we might call non-confrontational fascism, with a career like Bailby’s showing the connections between the French right and a broad range of film industry activities.

Bailby expanded his journalism empire in the 1920s when he established two sister publications of L’Intransigeant, L’Intran Match, devoted to sports, and then Pour Vous, a weekly film tabloid that first appeared in 1928, perhaps the most successful of a myriad of French movie journals during a twelve-year run that ended with the 1940 surrender to Germany (see my earlier post at https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/3264316528). Pour Vous never espoused much of a party line one way or the other, and with the establishment of Les Miracles just a couple of years later, the connection to French fascism was architectural rather than directly ideological; Bailby built his cinema next door to the offices of L’Intransigeant, at 100 rue de Réamur in the very fashionable second arrondissement.

The Hollywood trade journal Variety speculated that Bailby intended the progression from Pour Vous to Les Miracles to lead, eventually, to film production, which never quite worked out. As late as 1935, however, several years after he had gotten out of the film exhibition business and now running a new right-wing newspaper, Le Jour, Bailby headed a campaign against the beleaguered chairman of the Pathé film studio, Bernard Natan, who would soon be forced out of the company and then, within a few years, imprisoned on fraud charges. Natan’s business practices may have been suspect, but his Jewishness also almost certainly provoked the anti-Semitic Bailby to call for his ouster from Pathé.

Pour Vous runs an article on the new cinema, December 25, 1930

All of this would seem to indicate that Bailby took the cinema seriously. Indeed, it was a very big deal in the Parisian film scene when Les Miracles opened, on a site that, long before, had been the Cour des miracles, or “Court of Miracles,” an old Parisian slum that had transformed into one of the most fashionable locations in the city. Bailby’s L’Intransigeant, of course, covered the opening closely, and so too, in particular, did his film tabloid, Pour Vous. But other newspapers also took notice. In its issue of December 19th, 1930, La République referred to the “beautiful realization” of the 750-seat Les Miracles, calling it a “masterpiece of elegance and taste,” and Le Journal marvelled at the air conditioning, rare in Parisian cinemas, that made the silk curtain covering the screen “shimmer.” Le Journal then added that Les Miracle would of course become “the place for tout-Paris,” for everyone who was anybody in the city. As proof, Le Journal reported that opening night brought together the greatest personalities of Paris from the world of letters, politics, arts, and science.”

Those first-nighters, however, were unable to see L’Ange bleu at Les Miracles. As Bailby reported in his memoir, he had been scooped on that film by the Ursulines cinema, where the film had an astonishing, year-long run. But he replaced it with another of the most anticipated films of the year, King Vidor’s Hallelujah, in which an all-black cast romanticized the lives of Southern sharecroppers. Pour Vous put the movie on the cover of the December 18th, 1930 issue, to coincide with the opening, and then for several weeks ran a series, “Memories of Nina Mae McKinney,” about the female star of the film. Parisian critics uniformly lauded Hallelujah as a great and important work, both aesthetically and as a social document. L’Oeuvre reported that those first patrons at Les Miracles saw “a great film…which indicates that the cinema founded by Léon Bailby will show only the best motion pictures.”

Hallelujah, the first film to play at Les Miracles, on the cover of Pour Vous, December 18, 1930

Cosmopolitan intellectual that he was, and despite his extremely far-right politics, Bailby had no problem opening his cinema with Hallelujah, understood at the time as a progressive, anti-racist film. In his memoir, Bailby patted himself on the back for refusing to book a typical love story, choosing instead this “vast and admirable fresco of the lives of Blacks in Virginia.” His next choice, however, at least as he remembered it twenty years later, indicated an ideological decision on his part. He wrote that he could have booked G.W. Pabst’s version of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera (L’Opéra de Quat-Sous [1931]). But he felt that the film’s “whiff of anarchy” (relent d’anarchie) would bring him only “public reproach,” something he hoped to avoid with Les Miracles, which was, after all, a project “uniquely consecrated to art.” Instead, he booked Howard Hawks’ World War One epic, La Patrouille de l’aube (The Dawn Patrol [1930]). L’Opéra de Quat-Sous, public reproach or not, would go on to have a great success in Paris, replacing L’Ange bleu at the Ursulines cinema.

Soon enough, Bailby would get his Dietrich film, booking Coeurs brulés (Morocco [1930]) in September 1931 for its opening run in Paris. When a journalist for Le Figaro reviewed the film, which would, like L’Ange bleu, have a terrific success in Paris, he concentrated mostly on Les Miracles itself, because this was the first time he had been there. He told readers that Bailby’s cinema had adopted the “American formula,” in which the decor invoked the film. Walking to the screening space, audiences moved through a lobby decorated with “palm trees, sand, camels, and even Arabs,” made even more appealing by “clever Saharan lighting.” He then chastised the Gaumont-Palace, the largest and probably most extravagant exhibition site in Paris, and asked of that cinema’s management, “why haven’t you chosen this method?”

Even while a single film might play there for months, Les Miracles also held special, morning screenings, often for particular audiences. Over the first ten days in June, 1932, for instance, while Les Miracles had evening showings of Charles Boyer and Florelle in Tumultes (1932), there were 10:00 am screenings first of Mon curé chez les riches (1932) and then Chair ardente (1932), along with two days of Pabst’s L’Atlantide (1932), first for critics and then for directeurs, referring, I think, to the city’s cinema managers. In this way, then, Les Miracles functioned like a ciné-club in the morning and a first-run, cinéma d’exclusivité every night.

A crowd gathers around the offices of L’Intransigeant (on the right) during the 1932 run of Tumultes at Les Miracles (left)

Perhaps Bailby had overextended himself, with the growth of his journalistic empire and his entrance into film exhibition. Or perhaps tout-Paris just didn’t respond to Les Miracles the way he had hoped. By December, 1932, he had sold everything, including L’Intransigeant, Pour Vous, and Les Miracles, to the prominent Jewish businessman and politician Louis Louis-Dreyfus. Discussing the transaction in his memoir, Bailby claimed that “I had no special bias against the Israelites,” and that many “well-born Jews” had a “passionate desire to integrate themselves and their descendants into the French homeland and serve it to the fullest.” Nevertheless, Bailby claimed that Louis-Dreyfus had reneged on their initial agreement, which would have allowed Bailby to maintain editorial control over his journals, and so he had to make a clean break. Les Miracles barely lasted four years, until January, 1935, when the final films to play there were a double bill of Shirley aviatrice (Bright Eyes [1934]), starring Shirley Temple, and Charlie Chan à Londres (Charlie Chan in London [1934]). The owner then seemed to acquire an interest in a cinema in the eighth arrondissement, the Lord Byron, which became Les Miracles-Lord Byron. In What I Fought For, asserting no firsthand knowledge of the fate of his modern, elegant cinema designed to bring the best films to Parisian audiences, Bailby wrote only that “he was told that his successor,” Louis-Dreyfus, “tore down Les Miracles,” and used the space to install a printing press for L’Intransigeant.

One comment

  1. dlashommcom · May 1, 2021

    Fascinating stuff!! Great stories.

    D

    Liked by 1 person

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