The Paris Cinema Project

“Two stars will be born!” That was how the movie tabloid Pour Vous announced its new contest in December, 1932, inviting readers to vote for an absolutely unknown young man and woman to become the next great movie stars. Pour Vous had gathered photographs not only from France, but also “Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Italy,” and ran 15 in each issue for the rest of the year and the beginning of 1933. As a sign of the seriousness of the contest, Pour Vous solicited the help of some major celebrities, including Suzy Vernon, Albert Préjean, and Jean Gabin. These experts would choose the new stars, who were guaranteed an appearance in an upcoming Pathé film, and the fans who voted for the same newcomers were in line for some significant prizes: a camera, a purse, a record player, an elegant cigarette holder. In December 1933, Pour Vous announced the young woman who had won, Adrienne Trinckquel, who was introduced at an evening gala sponsored by the tabloid, but who seems to have had no subsequent movie career. I have yet to identify the man who won. Despite the uncertainty of the results, this yearlong contest was hardly extraordinary for the period. In fact, the film culture of France, from the 1920s at least through World War Two, seems marked by the constancy of contests like the one in Pour Vous, which involved movie fans throughout country.

Newspapers had solicited similar votes from readers well before this competition in Pour Vous, although not always specifically about film. In 1921, for instance, the playwright and novelist Clément Vautel wrote disapprovingly in Le Journal about a contest in which one of those “feminine reviews,” with the gender itself casting, perhaps, some doubt on the results, posed a question to its readers. “Which woman in history would you like to be,” the review asked, “in the past or currently?” To Vautel’s dismay, only one respondent chose Joan of Arc. Sarah Bernhardt fared slightly better, with 78 votes. Moving down the cultural ladder, from theatre to music hall, the great chanteuse Mistinguett was the choice of 364 voters. But then there was the winner, the American movie actress Pearl White, star of the sensational serial, Les Mystères de New York (The Exploits of Elaine [1914]), with almost 5,000 votes. For the dependably snobbish Vautel, this as much as anything marked the full decline of postwar French culture.

“Two stars will be born,” with photos of some of the contestants, Pour Vous, January 12, 1933

In the same year, the Parisian newspaper La Liberté ran a “Star Contest”—concours des vedettes, which became the standard term for such things—asking readers to vote on the greatest of all French theatrical stars, the most likely to follow in the tradition of Bernhardt and Gabrielle Réjane. The first such concours that I’ve found about movie stars in particular, although I don’t doubt there were earlier ones, dates from 1923, when the newspaper Le Petit Provençal, which covered southeastern France, announced a competition in partnership with the Grand Casino cinema in Marseille, which seems to have been owned by the American film company Paramount. Fans who bought tickets there were eligible to vote on a list of favorite male and female Paramount stars, American and French, some of whom are still well known today—John Barrymore, Fatty Arbuckle, William S. Hart, Dorothy Gish, and Gloria Swanson, for instance—and some who are more obscure, like James Kirkwood and Alma Rubens. A few months later, the results were announced; fans chose Agnes Ayres as the most popular actress and Wallace Reid as favorite actor.

Pour Vous ran contests like this one, at least occasionally, throughout the 1930s. In February, 1931, for instance, the tabloid asked readers, “Whom do you prefer? Greta Garbo or Marlene Dietrich?” This was about a month after the sensational opening of Dietrich’s L’Ange bleu (1930) in Paris, and Pour Vous gathered votes from average fans as well as celebrities. The writer Pierre Mac Orlan tended to prefer Garbo, while the great French tennis player Jean Borotra, ever the gentleman, refused to choose. Other fans gave fuller opinions than just their votes, with one perhaps getting to the fundamental difference between the two actresses, writing that, with Dietrich, it is “her sex appeal that speaks,” while with Garbo, it is “the look” (although celebrities and typical moviegoers agreed that the overall advantage went to Garbo).

Of course, both Dietrich and Garbo remained two of the biggest stars in France throughout the 1930s. Other contests, however, seemed to indicate some of the significant shifts in French film history. In July, 1930, the film tabloid Mon Film announced that fans had elected Maurice Chevalier the new “King of French Cinema” (Le roi du cinéma français), with almost 14,000 votes. The runner-up, Jean Dehelly, had been the previous year’s winner, but this time convinced only around 2,000 voters to select him. Dehelly had begun his career as a leading man in silent films, but with the coming of sound he would be out of movies altogether by 1932. Chevalier, the great music hall star, was only beginning to appear in films, and so his victory here, as inexact and unscientific as it might be, nevertheless marked the transition not just between kings of cinema, but between kinds of cinema, from silent to sound.

“Maurice Chevalier, who has just been elected King of French Cinema,” Mon Film, July 11, 1930

Most contests more or less followed this form, not so much to choose a king or queen of cinema (in the Mon Film competition, Marie Bell had been elected la reine du cinéma français), but rather just to determine fan favorites. In 1932, Le Radical de Vauclause, a general interest newspaper that covered the area around Avignon, held a several-weeks concours des vedettes du cinéma, with readers voting for favorite actors and actresses. Henri Garat won among the men, with Charlie Chaplin in fourth place and Chevalier in fifth, and with Marie Chantal just edging out Lillian Harvey among women.

Perhaps the most ambitious of all the concours des vedettes appeared in Le Petit Journal starting in November 1930. Every week for two months, the newspaper ran a full-page photo of a movie actress on the back page, and at the end of that period asked voters to rank the eight performers who had appeared there. But Le Petit Journal also published a photo of one of those stars as an infant, and challenged fans to determine which one she was. Along with all of those photos, Le Petit Journal also ran signatures of the stars, and asked readers, “which did you find the most original?”

Le Petit Journal announces the results of its grand concours des vedettes, February 15, 1931

This was a lot to sort through, and the newspaper didn’t announce results until February, 1931. The fans’ favorite actress turned out to be Huguette Duflos, who had appeared on both stage and in movies and had had a particularly impressive last year or two, starring in two Marcel L’Herbier films–La Mystère de la chambre jaune (1930) and Le Parfum de la dame en noir (1931)–as well as Le Procès de Mary Dugan (1931) with Charles Boyer as her co-star. Le Petit Journal revealed that the baby photo showed Suzanne Bianchetti as an infant, and fans agreed that the most “original” signature belonged to Emmy Lynn. Fans voted not just to register their opinions, however, but to win prizes that totaled 100,000 francs, with Le Petit Journal coming up with complicated formulas to determine winners in all of the categories.

Contests like these continued for the rest of the decade, and then, significantly, even into the World War Two German occupation of France. I’ve written before about German control of the French film industry during this period, and of course that extended to French film culture generally, with Nazi authorities determined to make it seem as if little had changed from the years just before the war (see, for example, The Germans established the film magazine Ciné-Mondial, which looked innocuously enough like those journals—Pour Vous, Hebdo, Cinéa—that had ceased publication after the occupation began.  Maintaining the continuity between a pre-and-postwar community of movie fans, Ciné-Mondial ran its own contests, at least one just like the concours in Pour Vous to find the next great movie stars.

The contest in Ciné-Mondial to discover “seven young unknown women,” September 5, 1941

In the summer of 1941, Ciné-Mondial decided to “offer an opportunity to seven young unknowns,” French women vying to become a new star, with a guarantee of appearing in an important new movie, un très grand film français. The magazine announced the winners over a period of months, and some of them had minor careers, for instance Simone Arys, who appeared in two films during the war. That earlier contest in Pour Vous seems to have been benign enough, building reader interest week to week in a tabloid that covered a wide range of issues relating to cinema, from lowbrow to very high. With Ciné-Mondial, however, this concours took on a specifically ideological function, as one more sign of German benevolence, of the occupying authority actively trying to enhance the lives of seven lucky French women.

For film scholars, this serves to underscore the importance of studying even the seemingly most banal aspects of film culture, like these contests that certainly weren’t unique to France. They indicate the range of ways that people interacted with movies during the period. As filmgoers, certainly, but also as active participants, making their opinions known in various concours des vedettes. Fans might also use movie contests to do what they could to break into the film business, when these competitions might be purely personal, as was the case with the new star search in Pour Vous, or when, as during the occupation, they served larger geopolitical ends.