The Paris Cinema Project

On Saturday night, August 30, 1947, a full crowd and then some gathered at the Select cinema in Rueil, a Parisian suburb about five miles west of the French capital, with a population at the time of around 28,000. They were there to see Étoile sans lumière (1946), starring Edith Piaf. This was just Piaf’s third film (she made only eight), and her first since 1941; but the singer was already a legend of Paris music halls and concert venues. To accommodate the crowd, the man who had owned the Select for almost a decade, Antoine Mouillade, pulled down all of the strapontins, those small, extra chairs attached to each aisle seat, and even added some folding chairs, so that 800 fans filled a cinema that had a capacity of just less than 600. About five minutes into the film, some electrical wires short-circuited in the projection booth, starting a fire that spread almost instantaneously throughout the cinema. Patrons from the balcony had to jump to the orchestra section of the cinema, and everyone rushed for exits. After the fire, finally, had been put out, the initial numbers were staggering: 87 in the audience had died (and that number would mount slightly over the next few days) and 27 had been injured.

The headline in Ce Soir on September 2, 1947: “87 Dead, 27 Seriously Wounded in Rueil Catastrophe.”

The French press covered the disaster for weeks, and returned to it over a period of years as various cases connected to the fire at the Select made their way through the court system. The headlines were, frequently, sensational: “Mama, I want to live!” appeared on September 2 in France-Soir, which then added, by means of explanation, “Cried the Children in the Middle of the Flames, as People Fell from the Balcony with Howls of Fear and Pain.” The reporting, however, covered the events with investigative precision, and revealed a record of warnings that were dismissed, regulations ignored, and general neglect that led, finally, to the tragedy of August 30.

The Select had a long history in Rueil, first as a theatre and then, after some reconstruction, as a cinema beginning in 1932. There were a number of Select cinemas throughout France, so they were all almost certainly part of an exhibition chain, with Mouillade having purchased the one in Rueil in 1938. The film on the night of the fire, Étoile sans lumière, was a big deal because it featured Piaf. Étoile had opened in Paris in April, 1946, at the elegant Marbeuf cinema in the very chic eighth arrondissement, and for critics at the time this was the film that fully announced Piaf’s arrival as a movie star, and as the great icon of French popular music. As Jacqueline Lenoir wrote in Le Petit Gavroche when the film began its run in Paris, “the ‘Little Sparrow,’’—Piaf’s nickname, La môme—“the street singer, the performer in small cabarets and nightclubs, and then in music halls, has now become the great singing star, Edith Piaf.” If it took almost a year-and-a-half for Étoile sans lumière to move from Paris to nearby Rueil, that would have been a long time in the immediate postwar period, so it’s possible that the screening at the end of August, 1947, was a reprise of the Piaf vehicle.  In any case, there was no shortage of fans who wanted to see the film, which was playing either for the first time or in a return engagement.

“Mama, I Want to Live!” with a list of the dead and wounded on the left, from France-Soir, September 2, 1947

Newspapers understood the historical significance of the fire immediately. France-Soir ran a list of similar tragedies in its coverage of the Select, referring to the evening of August 30 as the worst cinema disaster since the famous fire at the Bazar de la Charité in 1897, which killed 126 when a reel of highly flammable movie film exploded.   Right after the fire in Rueil, the press catalogued the reasons it happened, and why it now perhaps seemed inevitable. That same issue of France-Soir ran a list of “causes of the catastrophe” on its front page, including old, dusty draperies, insufficient fire-proofing, inoperable fire extinguishers, exposed electrical wires, and no fire escapes in the balcony of the Select. Ce Soir included similar infrastructural issues—there was just one unlocked emergency exit at the Select that night, and that one opened out to a dead end–and also blamed Mouillade, for stuffing too many people into the cinema and for refusing to have a firefighter on site, a savings of a mere 70 francs per evening (about $20.00 a night at the time).

The projectionist at the screening had been an 18-year-old novice, a replacement for the regular man. He told a reporter for France-Soir that, when the fire started, he turned off the projector immediately, but when he ran out of the booth he failed to close the door behind him, letting the flames expand to the seating area. Mouillade, the owner, also spoke with the newspaper, and he seemed stunned, muttering over and over, “It’s horrible…It’s horrible…I never imagined such a catastrophe could happen.” The reporter felt that Mouillade “did not yet seem to understand the full extent of his own responsibility” for the fire, and instead thought only of the impact that he alone felt; “It’s terrible what has happened to me…I will never be able to recover from such a shock.”

According to the caption in Combat, from September 2, 1947, in the aftermath of the fire at the Select, “This young woman, who just learned of the death of a loved one, has fainted from grief.”

Mouillade may have been stunned not just by the event itself, but by his own negligence. In addition to installing the extra seating, he had also failed to act on any of the safety warnings that had been made about the cinema over the previous year by a Rueil “supervisory commission,” and hadn’t implemented any security measures against fire. There were also structural and legal issues that spoke to the differences between Paris and even the nearby suburbs. Combat claimed that “no similar catastrophe is imaginable in Parisian cinemas,” because, since the passage of a 1941 city ordinance (almost certainly put into place by the occupying Nazi authority) no performance hall of any kind could be built in the capital without the security authorization of the prefect of police. Those theatres, cinemas, and concert halls built before 1941 were required by the law to adhere to all of the safety measures as well, and to bring their establishments up to date.   

The papers announced that Mouillade had been arrested, and kept the story going for the next couple of weeks. On September 12, for instance, Les Dernières Dépêches ran the story of a “savior,” a man who had managed to get out of the cinema but rushed back in to carry out the wounded, and then died as a result of his heroism. France acknowledged his bravery, awarding him the Order of the Nation. In April, 1948, newspapers returned to the story, alerting readers that Le tribunal correctionnel de Versailles had fined Mouillade 6000 francs and sentenced him to a year in prison (although he seems to have been released after a few months). Various other cases related to the fire, from victims and their survivors seeking damages, were heard in French courts until the late-1950s.

After the tragedy, some firemen stand outside the Select cinema.

I’ve written two previous posts about fires in cinemas, one in Algiers and the other in Paris, both in the 1930s (see https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/942 and https://wordpress.com/read/blogs/100647815/posts/1034). Arson caused the first fire, planned by a rival of the city’s most successful exhibitor, and the other was the result of faulty electricity, as was the case at the Select. Those fires resulted primarily in property loss, and in the latter instance, a few minor injuries. The Select, on the other hand, stands out as one of the great tragedies of the immediate postwar period in France, the result of an exhibition site in decay, an inexperienced projectionist, and a cinema owner who cut corners wherever he could. For many of the moviegoers who made it out of the Select, the trauma remained. A reporter for France-Soir tracked down one of them at her house a few days after the incident. He wrote that, “the woman who opened the door burst into tears, her face still bruised by stitches, and she fled moaning, ‘Leave me…Leave me.’”  She made sure that the reporter couldn’t see into the house, and made it clear that she didn’t want any visitors. “The door closes,” the journalist wrote. “The shutters are drawn.”