“Market for Foreign Films in United States Triples in Three Years.” With that headline in the issue from April 16, 1938, the American trade journal Motion Picture Herald announced to industry insiders, and especially exhibitors, that they now might realize significant profits from importing movies from Germany, or Italy, or France. We tend to think of the United States as a historically poor home for foreign films, because of Hollywood’s determination to dominate domestic screens and also because US audiences just aren’t imagined to have been sophisticated enough, or interested enough, for films from other countries. For years, American film historiography had it that foreign movies only came to the US in any numbers after World War Two, with an influx of Italian Neo-Realist movies or, a few years later, French New Wave films. But in fact, throughout the 1930s, there were a number of important American venues for foreign movies that did well at the box office, and many of the most significant of those films came from France.
That same article in Motion Picture Herald claimed that foreign film imports had gone up from fewer than fifty films in 1935 to more than 180 in 1938. Sixty-five of those films had come from Germany, but France had the second-most of any country, with 23 (perhaps surprisingly, Hungary and Spain were next, with eighteen and seventeen films). That number of French movies made perfect sense to the Herald, which had headlined just a month before that the “Quality of French Production Seen at Peak,” with such films from 1937 as Julien Duvivier’s Un Carnet de Bal, Sasha Guitry’s Les Perles de la Couronne, and Jean Renoir’s great international hit, La Grande Illusion.
In New York alone, there were some 30 cinemas that “show foreign product almost exclusively,” with the Herald adding that some small cinemas and “neighborhood houses” operated by large exhibition circuits also occasionally booked foreign films. The Schubert Belasco cinema in New York, which just a few years before had been “dedicated to sex pictures,” had made a transition to showing more and more foreign films, and recently had hits with two French movies, Anatole Litvak’s Mayerling (1936), starring Charles Boyer and Danielle Darrieux, and The Life and Loves of Beethoven (1936), which featured a star with a great French following at the time but who was not well known in the United States, Harry Baur, who tended to specialize in tormented, imposing men. The Little Carnegie cinema, a 350-seat house on West 57th, had played “French, German, and Russian films with some success,” convincing the Herald that foreign films could attract viewers willing to travel to areas in the city they might typically avoid. “Although the theatre is located in an otherwise unimpressive downtown neighborhood,” the surprised writer for the Herald claimed, the Little Carnegie, with its program of foreign movies, “has commanded a so-called class audience.”
But we might expect New York to have been a significant market for these films. Chicago had ten cinemas specializing in foreign product, with the Sonotone and the World, both in The Loop, the two sites showing the most French films. Philadelphia had six such cinemas, and the Herald reported that “Mayerling,” repeating its success in New York, “played at the Europa for 14 weeks and then was booked into 35 Warner Bros. neighborhood houses” in the city. Francophiles in Los Angeles could depend on the Esquire cinema on Fairfax Avenue for movies (in fact, this would be true until the early-1950s, when the cinema closed and Canter’s Delicatessen, which is still there, moved into the site). Other major cities had one or two cinemas showing French films, for instance the Clay in San Francisco and the Little cinema in Washington, DC.
There were other, far less urban spaces that had cinemas specializing in foreign films generally, and a few that concentrated on French movies. In Syracuse, New York, for instance, the Civic University cinema showed French as well as German and Russian films, while in Greenwich, Connecticut, the Pickwick played French films exclusively, and in Ames, Iowa, so did the Campus cinema, which probably was near or even on the Iowa State University campus.
As a result of these successes, more and more French films would come to the US in 1938. American cinemas that year showed Club de femmes (1936), which also starred Darrieux, or Renoir’s Les Bas fonds (1936), with Jean Gabin, or Mademoiselle Docteur (1937), with Dita Parlo, the latter two actors having acquired an American audience from their roles in La Grande Illusion. There would also be another Harry Baur film in 1938, Christine (1937), directed by Julien Duvivier, and one more starring Charles Boyer, Marc Allégret’s Orage (1938), along with many others.
In 1938, there were around 17,000 cinemas in the United States, and the Herald counted about 180 that emphasized foreign films. Of those, roughly two-dozen showed French films exclusively or along with films from other countries; but there were just over 30 cinemas that primarily showed Spanish-language films, and still more—37 cinemas—that typically ran German films. For the leaders of the American film industry, these numbers were more than generous, and a sign that the US welcomed foreign films but without any reciprocal hospitality. They complained throughout the period, and often in the Motion Picture Herald, about the difficulties of getting their own films into foreign markets. In March 1938, for instance, the Herald headlined, “U.S. Warns of Threats to Hollywood Abroad,” and there was a series of reports about the “Pact of Four,” a coalition of Italy, Germany, France, and England to “freeze American films out of the foreign market.” That pact, of course, never materialized, because of the war that would begin 18-months later and that would turn anti-Hollywood colleagues into geopolitical enemies.
Even with these efforts to undermine the American cinema’s dominance, the Herald stressed in 1938 that “Hollywood is Stronger Abroad Despite Attempts to Weaken it.” Argentina at the time was the best customer for American movies, importing about 17-million feet of film, while France ranked seventh, at around eight million feet. At the same time, France introduced new censorship restrictions, designed to regulate national production but also vague enough to keep at least some American films out of the country. The Herald reported that the “new censorship regulations…provide for the banning of films that might affect the prestige of the French army or other governmental agencies, or provoke diplomatic incidents with foreign countries, or which show crime or criminals in such a way as to have an injurious influence on the minds of youth.”
It’s unclear that anything France tried actually worked. At around the same time, the Herald reported that, in 1937, of the 424 new feature films shown in France, 230 came from Hollywood, twice the number that had been produced in France, and, in fact, more than France, Germany, the UK, Soviet Union, and Italy combined. Clearly, then, and despite American film industry complaints, there was no possibility for French films to have anywhere near the presence in the US that Hollywood films had in France. But a fairly wide American audience for French films nevertheless existed in the period just before World War Two. The availability of French films almost certainly diminished during the war, and new French films made during the fighting, many of them produced by the German studio Continental Films, probably did not open anywhere in the United States. This may have led to the sense of a sudden, significant presence of foreign films, many of them French, after 1945. In fact, the postwar period seems mostly to have restored a system that had been very much in place by the late-1930s, and that provides the evidence for a fully international American film culture that now, more than 80 years later, we might not have expected to find.