The Paris Cinema Project

“Stavisky, that versatile crook, naturally was interested in the cinema.” That’s how French journalist and novelist Clément Vautel began his gossipy Ici Paris column in the weekly literary and political newspaper Gringoire, on May 11, 1934. Vautel went on to claim, without offering any evidence, that Stavisky had produced pornographic films, just one more aspect of a life full “of episodes, each one more astonishing than the last.” Clearly, for Vautel, nothing was beyond Alexandre Stavisky, the man who single-handedly almost destroyed the French government and economy, who had died under extremely suspicious circumstances five months earlier, and who remained an object of fascination for so many in France. That included the French film press, which invoked Stavisky steadily for a number of years, and extended to the always-cautious officials who enforced French film censorship.

Even by the standards of French scandals, the Stavisky Affair is marked by its extraordinary complexity. The best I can do is to provide a highly condensed version that hardly does justice to Stavisky’s efforts. Russian-born and Jewish, Stavisky had managed to rise in French banking and financial circles, selling worthless bonds while depending on his connections with some of France’s highest-ranking officials and most popular celebrities. Even an arrest on fraud charges in 1927 didn’t stop him; his trial would be postponed again and again while Stavisky continued with his various financial crimes. Finally, at the end of 1933, under increased suspicion, Stavisky fled Paris and was found dead a few weeks later in Chamonix, apparently of a self-inflicted gunshot wound but perhaps murdered by the police who had pursued him.

Alexandre Stavisky, in a photograph from 1926

A month after that, in February 1934, the always-anti-Semitic French far right mobilized in Paris. They had determined that Stavisky’s relationships with so many government officials indicated both the corruption of the state and the control that Jews had taken of the national economy, and they were further angered by the recent dismissal of Parisian Prefect of Police and fascist sympathizer Jean Chiappe. As a result, a collection of fascist and proto-fascist groups stormed the Ministry of the Interior and rioted at the Place de la Concorde and the Élysée Palace, the presidential residence, in what may have been an attempted coup. Police managed to stop them, but the damage had been done and the French government resigned.

In the months following Stavisky’s death, the film press reported on his alleged movie activities, and while none of the journalists mentioned pornography, as Vautel had, they all alluded to shady dealings. Just a few days after his body had been found, in January 1934, Le Petit Provençal reported that, in a criminal career so wide-ranging, from “the jewelry trade and construction companies to international banking, war reparations, and pawnbroking,” it was perfectly self-evident that you would find him “in the field of cinema.” In April, Excelsior told readers that Stavisky had hoped to set up a film company with a few colleagues, and in June, Le Petit Courrier wrote about the continuing investigation into Stavisky’s affairs, and about a “filmmaker,” Henri Migeon, who was found carrying bad checks somehow traceable to Stavisky.

“Stavisky,” of course, also became a synonym for any financial crime. In August 1934, Pour Vous hinted at “a movie scandal worse than the Stavisky Affair, a French producer who has swindled more than 100 million francs.” The report then added, ominously, “this is just about to hit France,” although it’s not at all clear that any scandal like this one took place over the rest of the decade.

The far-right riot at the Place de la Concorde, February 6, 1934

Mostly, though, the press anticipated a film about the affair. In May 1934, La Critique cinématographique excitedly wrote, “A film about Stavisky!” The report added that this would be an American movie, from 20th Century-Fox, with George Arliss, famous for playing great historical figures (Disraeli, Hamilton), scheduled to star. The film seems never to have been made, although in 1937 Warner Bros. released Stolen Holiday, starring Kay Francis with Claude Rains playing a character modeled after Stavisky. In July, Pour Vous interviewed the actor Charles Vanel, who had an extraordinarily long career in French films (he would co-star in Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Le Salaire de la peur in 1953, for example, and appeared in movies until 1988). When asked by an interviewer, “What film would you like to make?” the reporter answered his own question and said, “I already know…you would like to play Stavisky!” There would also be commentary on the various newsreels that covered the affair and its aftermath, with La Critique cinématographique alerting readers in March 1934 to a Paramount newsreel that “presents an exclusive report on the Stavisky Affair” and that also included footage of the far-right riot.

All of these reporters, as well as other film fans, would be kept waiting, mostly because Stavisky’s crimes, at least to important French officials, still seemed too raw, too recent, and too dangerous. In the spring of 1934, the French studio As-Film, in cooperation with the German company Tobis, prepared La Banque Nemo for release throughout France. Directed by Marguerite Viel, who had already made a few films and who began her career working with Jean Epstein, La Banque Nemo was based on a 1931 play by one of the era’s more popular playwright’s, Louis Verneuil. A seemingly uncontroversial comedy, La Banque Nemo concerns the improbable rise of a penniless vendor to the leadership of one of the country’s great banks, cheating anyone he could along the way. Nevertheless, just before the film’s scheduled April release, the censorship commission refused to grant it an exhibition visa unless the producers agreed to significant cuts amounting to about one-fifth of the movie’s running time.

The press followed the case closely, with open letters, in the daily newspaper L’Oeuvre, between the film critic Lucien Wahl, decrying the decision that the film needed to be cut, and Edmond Sée, the head of the censorship commission, who suggested that the cuts were not as significant as reported, and that the filmmakers had agreed to them almost immediately. Then the producers of La Banque Nemo got involved, in their own letter in La Critique cinématographique. They, too, insisted on the severity of the cuts, and claimed that the problematic scenes were those “on which the entire architecture of the film rests.” But then they acknowledged the actual source of the commission’s discomfort, that a movie about a dishonest banking official seemed just a little too close to the recent Stavisky affair, that the banker in the film might make viewers think of Stavisky himself.

One of the posters for La Banque Nemo, from 1934

In their defense, the producers quite reasonably claimed that they simply adapted a play that had never caused any problems into a movie that, just a few months earlier, would have had no difficulty acquiring an exhibition visa. But now the commission, wary of any film about embezzling funds and pyramid schemes, cited regulations that had never before existed, and tried to suppress a film that appeared, to them, dangerous only because it seemed to parallel recent French history.

The producers of La Banque Nemo and the commission seem to have come to an agreement, because the film did play in Paris and presumably throughout France, although it is unclear how much had to be eliminated. As I’ve written before, French film censorship at the time was extremely complex (see, for example, https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/38257950/posts/3370816520). While it’s hard to determine how many regulations had been written down, there were some things—mocking the military, or the government, or the Catholic church—that filmmakers knew to avoid. But that same commission might also have instant responses to film content, responses without precedent, that made it practically impossible for filmmakers to produce movies with any certainty that, from one day to the next, they would not violate newly discovered and implemented regulations, in this case regarding a banking scandal and the rioting that followed.

Once invoked, however, rules tended to stay in place, and this was certainly true of movie references to Stavisky.  In November 1939, Pour Vous reported on eighteen movies in production in France that had been interrupted by the beginning of World War Two a little more than two months earlier. These included Jean Grémillon’s Remorques, starring Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan, as well as Max Ophüls De Mayerling à Sarajevo, with Edwige Feuillère. Of those films, all but one had been cleared by the French censorship commission. The only movie not yet approved; Tempête sur Paris, starring Arletty and also Erich von Stroheim as a crooked businessman, because of the way it “implied a sort of sordid Stavisky affair.”  The commission finally gave Tempête an exhibition visa, although it is unclear if the filmmakers had to cut any scenes, and it premiered in Paris in April 1940, just two months before the Germans took over the city.

Jean-Paul Belmondo as the
title character in Alain Resnais’ 1974 film, Stavisky

After the war, even though French films were still subject to rigid censorship, the Stavisky restrictions seemed to ease. André Cayatte directed Le Dessous des cartes (1948), for instance, about a corrupt banker, and Pour Vous announced before the film was released, and in case anyone might have any doubts, that it was “based on the life of Stavisky.” And in 1974 there was the Alain Resnais film, Stavisky, with Jean-Paul Belmondo as the title character and Charles Boyer in one of his final roles (and also a score by Stephen Sondheim).  French censorship’s sensitivity to Stavisky may have been gone, but the banker himself still seemed to maintain his celebrity status in France. Clément Vautel, writing in Gringoire in the article that began this post, appeared prescient in 1934. Just after telling his readers of the interest Stavisky had in pornographic films, the journalist nevertheless spoke at least somewhat approvingly of the scale of the banker’s criminal accomplishments, and called him, justifiably, “the unforgettable Alexandre.”  

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