The Paris Cinema Project

“Then they even managed to censor Topaze!” That was the complaint of French director Louis Daquin in the January 5, 1951 issue of La Nouvelle Critique, a Marxist journal of arts and politics. The title of Daquin’s article invoked Lenin’s famous assertion, “Le Cinéma: ‘Pour nous, de tous les arts, le plus important’” (“The cinema: ‘For us, the most important of all the arts’”), with the filmmaker lamenting the ongoing sad state of the French film industry. There was the disaster of the Blum-Byrnes agreements, the French-American trade contracts that so disadvantaged French cinema against the movies from Hollywood that dominated France’s exhibition sites. There was, as well, the sheer difficulty of getting films made, so that the country’s most important directors—and the same problem comes up again and again in the writing about cinema during this period—hardly worked at all: René Clair had made one film in four years, Marcel Carné two in five years, Claude Autant-Lara one film in three years. Then, on top of all that, when the people in charge of the movie business had so many more important things to worry about, the French film censorship commission had seen fit to insist that one of the country’s greatest directors, Marcel Pagnol, eliminate dialogue from his latest film, taken from his own celebrated play, Topaze (1951).

An advertisement for Topaze, in L’Intransigeant, February 3, 1951

My post last month looked at calls from the French left in 1950 for the commission de censure to rescind the exhibition visa for William Wellman’s virulently anti-Soviet postwar melodrama, Le Rideau de fer (Iron Curtain [1949]) [See Most prominently, Georges Sadoul demanded that the film be pulled from French screens. Typically, however, the commission ignored such complaints, and frequently angered French intellectuals, artists, and critics, who usually rejected film censorship, or, at least, the opacity of so many censorship decisions.

The French censorship bureaucracy was nothing if not dense. The commission de censure operated out of the Department of the Interior and ruled not only on film but on radio broadcasts as well. French film censorship resembled the American model in a few central ways, but also differed significantly from it. As with the Production Code Administration (PCA), which controlled Hollywood films starting in 1930, the commission de censure examined scripts from French film companies before production began, to make suggestions about scenes or eliminate them altogether. Just like the PCA, the commission then reviewed films after they were finished, and cleared them for exhibition, although perhaps much more than the PCA, the commission seemed willing to insist on significant post-production changes. As far as I’ve been able to determine, there was no written production code, as there was in Hollywood, that the members of the commission followed, but they tended to concentrate on depictions of the French government, the military, and the Catholic church. Finally, while Hollywood films certainly dealt with government edicts about film content, these were mostly local, from cities or states, or from foreign countries. The federal government itself did not usually get involved in matters of film content. Instead, the PCA came under the purview of the film industry, as opposed to the French system, which the national government administered.  

Topaze seems to have been cleared by the commission when Pagnol submitted the script. The problems began later, after the film had been finished and was ready for its premiere. The newspaper L’Intransigeant reported on the case at the end of January 1951, headlining “Censorship Declares War on Laughter” in the actions taken against Pagnol’s comedy, and several news sources included the dialogue that the commission found objectionable.  In one such instance, the great star Fernandel, as Topaze, tells his costar, Hélène Perdrière, that “Lying is the basis of any political regime,” and then he adds, about a sensitive situation in Morocco, “It’s not dishonest…but like all colonial affairs, it involves bribes.” For the commission, this apparent equation of Fourth Republic France with fascist or communist governments, and this critique of French colonial authority, was simply too much.

“Censorship Declares War on Laughter!” L’Intransigeant, January 20, 1951

More than anything else, it was the dialogue about France’s colonies that caused the greatest alarm to the commission, as members also objected to Fernandel-as-Topaze discussing, in another scene, corrupt land deals in Madagascar. In fact, just to be safe, the commission demanded that all of the film’s several references to Madagascar be removed. Officials on the commission apparently missed these perceived affronts to French imperial authorities when they first read Pagnol’s script, but the insults seemed excessive to them when they saw the finished film.

These sudden demands for cuts made for some difficult early screenings of Topaze. The film kept its scheduled premiere in Monte Carlo, at a benefit for the Red Cross, which left Pagnol no time to attend to the changes with any care. As a result, the audience at the benefit watched the scenes that had so concerned the commission, but with the sound removed, so that no one might hear the criticisms of French colonial policy. As L’Aurore reported it at the end of January 1951, “the image remains, the lips move, but nothing is heard.” After the premiere, Pagnol had the time to remove all references to Madagascar. He replaced them, instead, with the actors dubbing in “Tananarive.” The change satisfied the censors, who, according to reports in Ce Soir, apparently didn’t realize that this was, simply, the capital of Madagascar.

Ce Soir mocks the censorship of Pagno’s film, letting readeres know that “The censor prohibits Topaze from going to Madagascar but allows it to stay in Tananarive,” January 31, 1951

The press continued to report on this and other stupidities related to the case. In early-February, L’Intransigeant noted that this version of Topaze would be the third made in France, and even before that, Pagnol’s play had been a huge hit in Paris and elsewhere, including in the United States, where Frank Morgan and Myrna Loy had starred on Broadway in an English translation. In 1930, Russia declared Topaze “a useful play for the people,” and it had also been performed in such places as Japan and Egypt. Hollywood had even made a film version, with John Barrymore in the title role and Myrna Loy, once again, co-starring. Never, in France, Russia, Egypt, Japan, the United States, or anywhere else, had Topaze ever caused any concern before these current problems with the commission.

Le Carrefour found some humor in all of this and acknowledged that “the case could even have been much funnier.” The 1933 French film version of Topaze, directed by Louis Gasnier, had still been in circulation until its exhibition visa expired in September 1950. Such visas had to be renewed periodically by the commission for all films, but Pagnol, who had produced this earlier movie, decided not to try, probably not wanting the direct competition for his new Topaze. But had he done so, the commission would necessarily have had to approve the film, because it had done so several times without hesitation over the years. If the two films played in France at the same time, Le Carrefour pointed out that there would have been both an authorized version of Topaze and a censored one, both of them based on the same play and both overseen by Pagnol. The newspaper lamented that this was not the case, and that the commission would not be forced to explain its simultaneous approval and disapproval of virtually the same work.  

An apparently acceptable print of Topaze opened in Paris at the beginning of February 1951 at three of the more important cinemas in the city—the Biarritz and Colisée in the eighth arrondissement and the Gaumont-Palace in the eighteenth. The film made its way through the city over the next few months and scenes would also show up now and again on the radio. More than most other films, a new one by Pagnol was a very big deal and a significant cultural event.

“Under the Direction of Marcel Pagnol, Topaze Appears on the Screen for the Third Time,” L’Intransigeant, February 3, 1951

Once the film began its general run throughout France, however, the press seemed to lose interest in Topaze, at least in terms of the controversy over its censorship. They nevertheless maintained their contempt for the commission, writing about a new case in spring, 1951, and one that seemed even more egregious. That was when the commission announced that they would forbid director André Cayatte from even beginning production on his film about the Seznec Affair, a notorious French murder case from the 1920s. While Topaze didn’t come up in discussions of this film, Cayatte’s movie and Pagnol’s seemed to mark the broad reach of the commission, halting films before they even began on the one hand because the subject matter itself seemed too dangerous, and on the other micromanaging inconsequential lines of dialogue that poked even modest fun at French governmental authority. At least in the early-1950s, the control of the commission ranged all the way from murder to Madagascar.