The Paris Cinema Project

French journalism sounded the alarm as early as April, 1951. The very staid, conservative financial daily, L’Information, claimed that month that “The crisis in French cinema…advances rapidly,” and added that “six important production companies have just announced their decision to suspend all new production.” By the end of the year, things continued to unravel. Rivarol reported that, just twelve months earlier, 23 French films had been in production. Now, there were only thirteen, and of those, one was hardly proceeding at all and two had just stopped. All three of those films are now acclaimed as masterpieces: Max Ophüls’ Le Plasir (1952) was the film barely limping along, and the two that had stopped altogether, at least for the time being, were Jacques Tati’s Les Vacances de M.  Hulot (1953) and Henri-Georges Clouzot’s La Salaire de la peur (1953). But what, exactly, was this crise du cinéma that threatened the entire industry, including its most acclaimed directors working on some of their most important films?

L’Information announces the crisis, April 12, 1951

It’s worth noting that a film industry marked by almost constant chaos—ranging from financial scandal and bankruptcy on the one hand to the German control of French filmmaking during most of World War Two on the other—might be able to identify a singular “crisis” at all. At least according to the press, this one had multiple causes. L’Intransigeant complained that out of a 100-franc ticket (about 25 cents at the time), close to 90% went back to the state and various agencies in taxes. The newspaper complained, as well, that box-office fraud didn’t help matters any, and that film costs were too high. The artisanal nature of so much French production was no way to economize, unions demanded too much, and stars made far too much money; in fact, another source informed readers that the greatest French performers made twenty million francs per film.

Most of the reports on the crise du cinéma suggested that the state needed to support the cinema much more actively.  France already had a system of fonds d’aide, state funds that went towards financing film production, but it didn’t do enough, at least given ever-increasing costs. François Brigneau, in the piece in Rivarol, estimated that Clouzot had already spent 100-million francs on La Salaire de la peur, but that was only good for one hour of a planned three-hour film. He compared that to Luis Bünuel’s Los Olvidados (1950), which cost only the equivalent of 18-million francs to make, was subject to practically no taxation in Mexico, where it was filmed, and played for twelve weeks in Paris.  In fact, Los Olvidados turns up in several of the reports on la crise as the kind of film France should make, rather than the bloated, overly-expensive film that it seems always to be compared to, Jean Aurenche’s L’Auberge Rouge (1951), a 100-million franc “turnip” in the opinion of the reporter for Force Ouvrière.

Martine Monod, writing in Ce Soir, posed the issue much more bluntly than did the reporter in Force Ouvrière who invoked the vegetable metaphor. “French cinema is in danger of dying,” she wrote, in an issue from December 11, 1951, using as proof that not a single new French film had been released in Paris that week. Monod went on that 95 films had been made that year, as opposed to 106 the year before. Four huge studios had closed, putting thousands of technicians out of work. Just in the last week, six more studios responsible for 60% of French movies had shut down, at least temporarily. Then she amended her first claim. There was no further danger of dying; French cinema was “already dead.”

Martine Monod proclaims the bad news in Ce Soir, December 11, 1951: “The French cinema is in danger of dying”

That death hardly was a “natural” one. Instead, an invasion of American films brought it on, as well as an American refusal to import many French films. Monod insisted that the American “interdiction” against dubbing and an insistence on subtitles meant that even those few French films would never find a wide audience in the US.

The most important French filmmakers seemed hardly to work at all, at least according to Monod. Since 1945, she wrote, Marcel Carné had made only three films, and Claude Autant-Lara and René Clair had directed only two apiece. Even when they could make films, there was always the danger of the work coming to a halt. At around the same time, L’Intransigeant reported that productions of Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, with Maurice Chevalier, as well as Carné’s La Reine Margot and Anatole Litvak’s Via Termina had all shut down (in fact, none of these films would ever be completed). Those films that continued in production were themselves part of the problem. In L’Intransigeant in December, 1951, Jean-François Devay and Robert Chazal complained that “the two films begun this month are called Wedding Night Surprise (Les Surprises d’une nuit de noces [1952]) and Three Crazy Old Ladies (Trois vielles filles en folie [1952]). Sounding despondent, Devay and Chazal concluded that, “These two titles perhaps sum up the future of French film.”

There were all sorts of suggestions for digging out of the crisis, some far more rational than others. In his article in Rivarol, Brigneau fell back on an old French standard in identifying one of the central problems facing the cinema: too many Jews. Brigneau seemed level-headed at first, arguing that French productions were too expensive, markets for the films too limited, and taxes too high. But he also alerted readers that for one of the director’s films, Ophüls, an “Austrian Jew,” had built an entire fort that cost far too much to make any sense, and then he broadened his critique to stress the necessity to “rid the cinema of its schemers and its biggest scoundrels…Jews,” as well as “stateless emigrés.” Monod in Ce Soir had ideas that were much more reasonable. She asked for augmented funds—an increased aide au cinéma—from the state, a lower tax rate, suppression of the censorship that “sterilizes the content of films,” and also that the French film industry forget its obsession with trying to get films into the American market and concentrate instead on Eastern Europe.  Finally, she emphasized outreach to the French audience, to let them know what was going on and to gain their active support.

A graph showing the decline in Parisian movie attendance since 1947, in L’Information, November 3, 1951

The press consulted some filmmakers, to get their opinions. In October, 1951, L’Intransigeant ran an extended interview with Henri Jeanson, who had already written a number of films, including Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord (1938). Like Monod, Jeanson complained about censorship, insisting that French film regulation was far more onerous than American, which runs counter to the typical arguments about such things. Jeanson said that French filmmakers were completely hamstrung when it came to representing the government, the educational system, national elections, religion, the police, and the army. But then, switching to more practical concerns, he also claimed that movie tickets were just too expensive, and so people had stopped going to the cinema. His interviewer seemed surprised, and reminded him that it still cost less to go to the moves than to the theatre. Jeanson agreed, but said that “the theatre is a ceremony…going to the theatre is an event,” something the cinema could never aspire to.

The discourse of crisis eased around 1952, at least for a few years. It’s possible that the government actually took some action.  By 1959, the Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, had established the avance sur recettes system of government assistance, with the state providing filmmakers just going into production with an advance on the expected boxoffice returns of a movie. Certainly, throughout the decade, production companies went in and out of business, and directors, producers, and just about everyone else in the industry complained about excessive taxation, something of a proud tradition for those connected to cinema, going back at least to the 1930s (see my post at https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/3424081132).  The crise du cinéma of the early-1950s, though, indicated the problems of an industry just six or seven years removed from the German control of World War Two and still rebuilding a domestic film infrastructure. The movies of the New Wave, beginning in the mid-to-late-1950s, certainly helped French cinema on the international market, but many of the same problems remained, and there would be no shortage of crises in the years to come, as well as periodic predictions in the press, echoing Monod, of the impending death of French cinema.

“Henri Jeanson talks about his troubles with censorship,” in L’Intransigeant, October 18, 1951