The Paris Cinema Project

On April 5, 1932, for the entire day, all of the cinemas in Paris were closed. Parisians looking for something to do that afternoon or evening instead of going to the movies couldn’t just take in a play or go dancing or see a show at a music hall. They couldn’t attend a boxing match, or try to win money at a casino or even go to a circus. Every type of in-person, public entertainment shut their doors, and this was true not just in Paris but throughout France, and even extended to North Africa. This was the day of la grève des spectacles, the entertainment strike, the general closing of all forms of theatre, or as the press typically and succinctly called it, le lock-out.

Parisian theatre owners had initiated the action in late-March 1932, “suddenly,” according to newspaper reports, after having had enough of the multitude of taxes demanded by the city and the country on every ticket sold. The men who ran the city’s cinemas, all of them in the syndicale française de la cinématographie and subject to the same taxes, soon joined the movement, which then spread throughout France and to other forms of entertainment, all of them feeling the same economic burden. The press began coverage at around the same time, detailing le front unique du spectacle, the extraordinary coalition of practically all forms of entertainment, and the significance of the cinema joining in, the most heavily taxed of all and certainly the most popular.

Comœdia reports on the growing anti-tax movement, and the agreement of cinemas to join the strike, March 22, 1932. Le lockout originally had been scheduled for March 29 before it was postponed to April 5

The taxes do seem onerous. On the cinema alone, the taxe d’état, the state tax, came to five percent of ticket sales; a tax designed to support the poor amounted to ten percent; there were, as well, different municipal and city taxes, and a war tax dating to the Great War which everyone in the entertainment business seemed to object to. In fact, all of the spectacles in France gave up about thirty-five percent of their receipts to taxes. French cinemas generated more tax revenue than any other entertainment, almost 45-million francs a year, equal to around 8.5 million American dollars at the time, with two-thirds of that amount coming just from the cinemas in Paris.  Theatres and concerts, by comparison, generated less than 15 million francs a year in taxes.  

The French government took the complaints seriously. On March 24, just after the cinema joined the action begun by theatres, Prime Minister André Tardieu met with Charles Delac and Max Maurey, the first the president of the chambre syndicale française de la cinématographie, the latter the president of the directeurs de théâtres de Paris, to try to come to some agreement. He seems to have convinced them to delay le lock-out, originally planned for March 29, but he also tried, unsuccessfully, to separate them; he offered theatres a five percent reduction in taxes, but granted nothing to cinemas. The government went on something of an offensive against the entertainment industry, alerting the press that yielding to anti-tax demands would cost the state 170 million francs, of which 75 million went directly to fund various projects and organizations in Paris.

Le Journal des Débats announces the pre-strike solidarity of cinemas, music-halls, casinos, and circuses, as well as theatres, March 24, 1932

We tend to think of France as being movie-mad during this period, but in defending his position, Delac, the chambre syndicale president, claimed that only ten percent of the people in the country went to the movies at all, as opposed to 20-30% in most other countries in Europe and 80% in the US. With taxes what they were and attendance so limited, the film industry could hardly hope to make any money, at least according to Delac’s math. Delac claimed, as well, that most other countries, unlike France, respected the cinema. He cited the United States as one example, and especially Germany, where the medium was “considered the basic method of modern propaganda.” As a result, the Americans and the Germans and most other governments, fully aware of the benefits of film, chose not to levy much in the way of taxes.

The day of the strike, to say the least, seemed strange. The newspaper of cultural affairs, Comœdia, headlined, “Paris Without Entertainments is Paris Without Oxygen,” and noted that, on average, each day around 600,000 Parisians either went to the cinema, the theatre, a concert, or attended some other event. At the entrance of each location, a large poster explained the reason for the closure: “Your entertainments don’t ask for any special favor, but they reject odious and senseless taxation, which is not applied in any other country in the world.” La Dépeche claimed that, despite the coverage of the strike in most newspapers, there were still Parisians who showed up for a movie or stage performance or went to a dance hall, and were stunned that nothing was open. “What’s this?” they would ask, according to the newspaper. “A strike? Why?” A more knowledgeable passerby would then urge them to read the poster. Le Journal, very much centered on events in Paris, reported that while the closures might not be a very big deal in the provinces, in the nation’s capital they were unimaginable. “Paris without spectacles? Paris, in the evening, without the blazing lights on so many [theatres and cinemas]? Paris was alive, of course, but in slow motion. There was a light malaise over everything.”  

Most of the coverage of le lock-out presented arguments in favor of the theatres and cinemas. Even the far-right L’intransigeant supported the strike, but of course that newspaper’s owner and editor, Léon Bailby, also owned one of Paris’ newer and more significant cinémas d’exclusivité, the elegant Les Miracles in the second arrondissement (see my post, In fact, the day after the closure, Bailby editorialized on the front page of L’Intransigeant that “The French…deprived of dessert, that is to say of entertainment, know who is to blame for this annoyance.” In case anyone still might not be sure, he added, “the responsibility is with…public authorities.” Bailby doubted whether much would come of the action and he also predictably criticized those “socialist newspapers” that “seized” on the action to criticize wealth in general. Then the journalism and cinema magnate made common cause in the “struggle” with all of the workers in the entertainment industry, those who, like Bailby, are “interested in the prosperity of the industry on which they live.”

In Le Populaire, a photo of Parisians unable to go to the movies because of le lockout, April 6, 1932

At least some of those workers earned a wage during the strike, and there was some refuge for Parisians in need of a night out. The Comédie-Française, the Opéra-Comique, and the Odéon theatre opened for business despite le lock-out, because of their special status in the economy of French culture. All of them received subventions from the state, and so were beneficiaries of the tax system father than subject to it. The Comédie-Française staged a new piece that night, Robert et Marianne, even though the play’s author, Paul Géraldy, protested, hoping that this “House of Molière” would join the strike. Elsewhere in France, a theatre here and there also ignored the nationwide action, perhaps as well because of government subventions. In Lyon, the Grand Théâtre planned on going ahead with a gala de danse, but the featured performers, the Sakharoff dance troupe, in sympathy with the strike, refused to go on, and the theatre, reluctantly, reimbursed everyone in attendance.

The French press seems to have lost interest in theatrical taxation after the one-day drama of the strike. There would be a few articles through the rest of April and May, 1932, along the lines of “Memories of the Lockout” (Souvenirs d’un lock-out), which appeared in L’Homme Libre one month after the daylong action. But there were practically no articles about the issues that caused theatres and cinemas to call for the strike in the first place. This makes it difficult to determine the actual results of April 5. There are just a few brief mentions of a reduction of taxes on theatres and cinemas, and there is a story, as well, of one Parisian theatre, the Gaité-Lyrique, passing a savings onto the public, lowering ticket prices because the taxe d’état had been lessened. Certainly, over the rest of the decade, leaders of the French film exhibition industry continued to complain about their tax rates, so it’s not clear if the adjustment of the taxe d’état applied to theatres and cinemas equally, let alone circuses, casinos, or music halls. Nevertheless, for one day at least, all branches of French entertainment showed remarkable solidarity, organizing a crise du spectacle to call attention to the precariousness of the French culture industry.

A month after the strike, on May 6, 1932, L’Homme Libre ran an article on “Memories of the Lock-out”