The Paris Cinema Project

The geometric brilliance of Hollywood’s production code had nothing to do with the imposition of a strict moral universe on movies. Rather, the code’s elegance came from its consolidation of censorship regulations from around the world, and its demand that all Hollywood movies have access to cinemas in Kansas City, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, Berlin, and anyplace else that practiced motion picture regulation. Sometimes, however, in an unavoidable mix of metaphors, the mathematical precision of the code proved no match for the regulatory hurricane of foreign censorship, and this could be particularly true in France. 

At least in the 1930s, French film censorship was nothing if not incredibly complicated, ranging over a series of laws dating back well before the development of cinema, including local, regional, and national mandates, often depending on particular tastes and subjective judgments rather than clearly explained restrictions, and sometimes extending to decisions made by police departments and even individual exhibitors (see my post from February 25, 2019, at https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/977). All of this made it difficult, to say the least, for the Hollywood studios to export their films to France. Two of these films from Hollywood, both from 1934, foreground the particular problems of mid-thirties French film censorship, from two companies that would merge within a year, Twentieth Century’s biopic La Maison des Rothschild (The House of Rothschild) and Fox Film Corporation’s Le Monde en marche (The World Moves On).

George Arliss, on the right, with Boris Karloff in La Maison des Rothschild

Neither film would seem all that controversial. The first told the story of the great European banking house, the kind of film designed to give Hollywood a high gloss of quality and class, and featuring George Arliss, who had already starred as Disraeli (Disraeli [1929]), for which he won an Academy Award), and had played Alexander Hamilton in the film of the same name in 1931. The second had been directed by John Ford, perhaps still a few years away from the long list of movies for which he is best remembered, but nevertheless one of the most respected filmmakers in the world by the early-1930s. These were both films that French movie enthusiasts, especially those in Paris, had been reading about and anticipating for a while.

The bureaucracy of French censorship from the period resists any easy description, and few of the standard histories devote much space to trying to figure it out, a sign, perhaps, of the density of regulatory practices (for two very helpful examples, though, see Paul Léglise, Histoire de la politique du cinéma français, from 1970, and Colin Crisp, The Classic French Cinema, 1930-1960, from 1997). French journalists during the thirties occasionally provided coverage, both broadly and regarding individual cases, and it’s through their work that we can start to piece together the bureaucracy of censorship. In his “Legal Column” (Chronique Juridique) in the cultural daily Comoedia, the lawyer Marcel Cauvy wrote in March, 1934, that an 1884 law gave mayors significant control over various forms of representation in their cities and towns, and that by the 1890s that law applied to cinema, such that they might shut down any film “deemed dangerous to public morals.” A 1919 law replaced at least some of that local authority by establishing a national commission du contrôle des films cinématographique. In the early-1930s, the commission came under the authority of the Ministry of Education, which appointed around thirty members who might meet together or in smaller groups, providing exhibition visas to films deemed safe for public viewing.

Le Jour discusses the case of La Maison des Rothschild, June 5, 1934

The precise makeup of the commission, as reported in various issues of the Journal Officiel de la république française as well as La Loi, seemed to change over the course of the decade, but their power remained. With all of the rules governing membership, however, there seemed to be no precise regulations concerning what content might be censorable and what might be allowed. Individual members ruled with absolute subjectivity, and this was especially true of the head of the commission, Edmond Sée, a playwright and theatre critic with no apparent expertise in cinema.  

Perhaps because the film told the story of a family with a significant presence in France, the country’s press took notice when Rothschild was banned, and did some digging to try to find the reasons after the commission failed to offer any serious explanation. In May 1934, the literary weekly Marianne reported on all of the rumors surrounding the commission’s decision, telling readers that the Rothschild family may have intervened, or that Germany might have applied diplomatic pressure (because of the Rothschild’s importance in German banking). These seemed unsatisfactory, and the reporter, who had seen the film in Belgium, guessed that the “real reason” for the ban on this film about one of Europe’s most prominent Jewish families mostly had to do with “the fear of anti-Semitic…demonstrations.” Indeed, left unsaid is the possibility that the commission members themselves felt uneasy with a film that offered a significant critique of European anti-Semitism, with an emphasis on Germany, the United Kingdom, and France.

As if trying to calm any controversy, a month later Sée himself explained the commission’s reasoning for refusing to issue an exhibition visa to Rothschild. La France reported on Sée asserting that “the film tells the story of a family, many of whose members live in Paris, and out of a courtesy to them, we prohibited the film.” The reporter for La France remained dubious, telling readers that Sée perhaps should have known that, “in the United States, the Rothschild family declared that they were delighted by the film that features them.” Sée clearly hadn’t helped matters any, although finally the press’ interest subsided. As far as I’m able to tell, and with the commission never providing a rationale, the film did not play in France for many years, perhaps not until well after World War Two.

Comoedia, from January 27, 1935, reports on the censorship of Le Monde en marche

The commission was at least somewhat more specific with Le Monde en marche about a year later, and rather than banning the film altogether instead insisted on specific cuts. Ford’s film tells the story of a multi-generational family in the United States, France, and Germany, bound by business concerns as they build an industrial empire but also separated by various wars, beginning in 1812 and culminating with World War One. The family loses its fortune in the Depression that follows, but the romantic couple, played by Franchot Tone and Madeleine Carroll, driven apart by his obsession with wealth and power, reconcile in poverty and a new, shared religious commitment.

That narrative seems conventional enough. In fact, when the film opened at the Marignan cinema on the Champs-Élysées in the eighth arrondissement, one of the newest and most important cinémas d’exclusivité in the city, most reviewers commented on the similarity to a previous, extraordinarily successful film that spanned generations, Cavalcade, from 1933. Nevertheless, it was the pacifism of Le Monde en marche as well as its apparent progressivism that made it a problem for the commission.

The press provided a reel-by-reel assessment of the concerns raised by the film. The commission objected to characters saying, in the first reel, that “war is a source of profit,” and “war makes us a lot of money,” and in the sixth reel to a reference to shareholders profiting from war. These deletions were easy enough. The commission, counting on few viewers understanding English, suggested that the lines might stay in, but there could be no subtitles translating them. There was no such solution to the eleventh reel, which included the end of the film. That needed to be “suppressed entirely,” or, at least, until the reconciliation of the married couple in the last shots.

The commission provided no reason for such a drastic cut, and while it was mentioned in some reviews of the film, reviewers themselves seemed not to have lost the sense of the narrative even without the last reel. Most news sources covered the commission’s actions against La Monde en marche perfunctorily, if at all. One of them, though, paid particular attention, the country’s most prominent women’s magazine, La Femme de France. A reporter for the weekly, Georges Charensol (who had just published his own history of film, 40 ans de cinéma), guessed that, as the last reel dealt with the effects of the Depression, it needed to be eliminated because it “no doubt supported the methods of economic recovery that President Roosevelt is currently applying so boldly” in the United States. According to Charensol, the commission deemed any endorsement of progressive solutions to economic catastrophe as harmful to the public, and a serious enough offense that went far beyond a stray line of dialogue here or there.

The American press took note of French film censorship, with the February 5, 1935 issue of Variety detailing the case of Le Monde en marche

In fact, the commission’s problem with the film seemed to be less about the domestic economy and more concerned with geopolitics. A complete version of the film, as it showed at the time in the United States and, apparently, most other countries, is still available to us (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jn8029yWKdQ). Towards the end, one of the ruined industrialists complains that there can be no solution. “What is there to believe in,” he shouts to his associates. “Look at the situation in Europe, in the East, everywhere. There’s hardly a country in the world that isn’t drunk with nationalism, all building armaments, all attacking each other’s trade and destroying it.” Franchot Tone’s bankrupt businessman agrees: “It’s nationalism that’s smashed us.” Yet another colleague has the only answer when he says, “Fact is, there’s no way out except another war.” The film then shifts to newsreel footage of the German, Italian, and Japanese armies on the march, their ships in the ocean and their planes in the air. The film’s final image, of Christ on the cross, hardly offers much solace.

Hollywood’s production code cautioned broadly that “the history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly,” rather than demanding that filmmakers resist any urge to depict current political movements. As a result, code administrators apparently saw no problem with the anti-war, anti-fascist sentiments of Le Monde en marche. For the French commission, however, it would appear that the critique of nationalism and the caution against the rise of fascism made the final reel of the film suspect and censorable. In this, Sée and his colleagues, protecting the French from any honest assessment of the far right, served as something of a last stand against the Popular Front, the leftist coalition elected to power in France, however briefly, in 1936. Ford’s film seems prescient now, a statement of things to come very soon in Europe, dangerous to the commission du contrôle des films cinématographique precisely because of that.