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Paris in the Dark: A Conversation with Eric Smoodin

Bruno Guaraná

From Film Quarterly, Summer 2020, Volume 73, Number 4

If you had happened to attend the December 8, 1929, screening of Fox Movietone Follies (David Butler and Marcel Silver, 1929) at the opening of the Moulin Rouge cinema in Paris, you would certainly remember the raucous audience that surrounded you. If reports are to be believed, you might have been among the patrons outraged by the poorly written French subtitles—“deplorable” French, really. You may have joined others that night or the following weekend in vandalizing chairs and throwing pieces of furniture at the screen, with shouts of “Shut up” or “In French!” But maybe you were there for a romantic rendezvous, in which case the film and the music and the subtitles mattered a lot less than having your evening marred by unhappy, snobbish viewers. Whatever the hypothetical situation, imagining yourself as a willing participant in Parisian film culture from the era of early sound cinema to around 1950 is nearly inevitable while reading Eric Smoodin’s Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950.

Painting a picture of cinemas in Paris—rather than a cinema of Paris—out of film listings, reviews, and tabloid articles, Smoodin presents intricate details and eccentricities of film reception that have implications for a contemporary understanding of French film. Expressed in first-run houses (the cinemas d’exclusivité), smaller neighborhood venues (the cinemas des quartiers), or even in ciné-clubs hosted at the Marignan cinema on the Champs-Élysées, exhibition patterns in Paris not only map out the social and geographic distribution of film entertainment, but also, claims the author, point to viewing practices and habits of Parisians within their city, revealing a tug-of-war between industry strategies and moviegoers’ viewing tactics. Paris in the Dark thus casts a wide net, examining films both popular and obscure along with their varied exhibition venues—from lavish theaters to small neighborhood spots. Smoodin also investigates how audiences participated in film culture—whether protesting during projections or taking part in film-related discussions promoted by ciné-clubs—as well as the role of film journalism at the time. The Paris of the book bears less resemblance to the model with which film aficionados are accustomed—a vibrant bastion of cinephilia and center of the European film industry—than to a tapestry of parochial and at times contradictory film cultures.

The result is an engaging portrait of Parisian cinemas and audiences during the turbulent 1930s and 1940s. Like a true Parisian flaneur, Smoodin allows his chapters to develop in an apparently erratic manner, undaunted by the unexpected and following wherever the story may lead. However, the book’s loose narrative structure serves as an effective and purposeful strategy that positions the reader in the shoes of an adventurer. In chapters that have autonomous standing while still intersecting in sometimes surprising ways, Smoodin guides the reader through topics including exhibition practices in France and beyond, the state of individual film theaters, the trajectory of a particular film, the extensive system of ciné-clubs, and the commodification of global stars at the dawn of sound film—in the process revealing a cosmopolitan center experiencing rapid but deep social, economic, and political changes.

Still, the book is neither a time machine nor travelogue, nor even a romanticized film history. Rather, its rigorous and inspired scholarship illuminates the minutiae of, in the author’s words, a “geography and sociology of film viewing in Paris” (40). Smoodin’s work seems to sprout at the intersection of Annette Kuhn’s ethnohistory and Michel de Certeau’s rhetoric of walking, both uncovering and discovering the spatial and social relations of everyday practices.1 Sketching a map of film exhibition in Paris, Smoodin translates his archival research into an empirical street-level narrative that foregrounds movie theaters as key sites of history. As such, in uncovering seemingly mundane practices, he upholds the values of a material history of film exhibition without dismissing moviegoers’ agency as tactical explorers of film and of Parisian culture in their own right.

With an archival methodology that relies heavily on film and general-interest periodicals as primary sources, Smoodin harvests a wealth of details, building a film culture from the ground up. In this way, Smoodin conceives of a national cinema culture from the point of reception—a rather groundbreaking approach precisely because it disrupts the very notion of the national. What may be otherwise deemed French film culture appears rather fragmented here—by decade or arrondissement, for example—while also including international films circulating in Paris, multinational coproductions, and films made for the French market within and beyond France.

The mapping of film exhibition in a city like Paris requires a rethinking of geographical boundaries and national influences. As Smoodin demonstrates, a cartography of French film can start from the microlevel of Parisian neighborhoods during the German occupation, or from as far away as Algiers, where the films of René Clair, Fritz Lang, and Charlie Chaplin enjoyed wide circulation. Every film, every theater, and every star become, in this narrative, key markers of Parisian culture. As an example, resisting the temptation to simply restate the chaotic nature of the French film industry in the 1930s, Smoodin highlights instead a “geometric precision” of film distribution that accounts for local demands on the neighborhood scale, uncovering the practices in different arrondissements. In other words, while these films may fail to evoke a coherent image of a French film culture or of an industry strategy, their distribution and resilience in specific markets cast light on the tastes, preferences, and interests of local, neighborhood communities.

For some readers, Smoodin’s book arrives as the capstone of a project they have been following for a while. Throughout his research process, the author maintained a blog in which he shared archival findings and analyses, much of which would not have been possible without the online availability of some of his key primary sources. It is ironic that a project about a film culture nearly a century removed from today should be so connected to digital practices of the present day. That it is, though, demonstrates the indispensability of access—to archival sources, to films themselves, and to fresh scholarship—remote or otherwise, for an expanding field: today’s film scholarship demands a more global engagement with these practices.

Bruno Guaraná: During the period you cover in your book [roughly 1930–50], the French film industry witnessed very distinct and dramatic changes both politically and technologically. How did you decide to study these particular decades?

Eric Smoodin: It made historiographic sense to me. Starting with the introduction of recorded sound, these years mark the development of a “classic” French cinema, in terms of narrative and film style. I was interested in seeing if there was the same kind of development of an industrial and journalistic style—with the way movies were distributed, exhibited, viewed, and discussed. But I have to admit there were other, less scholarly determinants. This is also the era with the greatest number of available primary materials. One of the best things about doing this project was that I didn’t have to go to Paris to do the research. (Of course, that was also one of the bad things about it.) Most of the primary materials that I used I found on Gallica, the website of the Bibliothèque nationale. Their online collection is amazing, but only up to around 1950 or so. I also have to admit that the French films I like the most—and, in fact, most of the films I like the most from any country, and that typically played in Paris—come from that era. So part of the reason for choosing that period also had to do with my own preferences in movies.

Guaraná: In broad terms, what can we learn from Parisian film circulation and exhibition in that period?

Smoodin: It’s always easy, and often correct, to assume that the French film industry from that era was, simply, in a constant state of chaos. Some of that turns up in the ways movies were shown in Paris. But just as in the United States at the time, there were significant systems of exhibition and circulation.

What I thought was really interesting were the micro- and macrolevels of what I found. Paris itself became not so much a single entity to study, but a bunch of different neighborhoods, often with different ways of seeing movies, different audience preferences, and different relations between movies and, for instance, transportation systems.

On a bigger scale, we might also need to rethink what we mean by national cinema, and how different locations are connected. My study of Parisian film culture necessarily moved out to the rest of France, and also to French colonies in North Africa and Indochina, and linked those places in interesting ways to other European countries as well as to the United States. This kind of research might also change the way we think about film history. Because of the systems of international distribution, and also because of audience preferences, the first feature film with recorded speech to play in Algiers, for instance, was Innocents of Paris [Richard Wallace, 1929] with Maurice Chevalier, rather than The Jazz Singer [Alan Crosland, 1927], which typically gets the credit in this category.

Guaraná: How autonomous were Parisian exhibitors during these two decades? Do the layout and distribution of film theaters across the different arrondissements change drastically from the prewar to the postwar period?

Smoodin: One of the more difficult things to chart was the relationships between exhibitors. Of course, there were the large film chains, like Gaumont and Pathé. But there were also a bunch of small chains in Paris that ran through the rest of France, and some combinations—for instance, chains that were connected to newspapers—that were active for a few years and then vanished. Paris, of course, is a fairly confined urban space, but throughout the 1930s more and more cinemas were built, sometimes from scratch and sometimes into the existing architectural landscape.

Throughout the period that I cover, the cinematic layout of the city stayed pretty much the same in terms of the numbers of cinema in the different neighborhoods, or arrondissements; very few, and sometimes none, in the first arrondissement, around the Louvre, and a whole lot towards the edges of the city—in the twentieth arrondissement, for instance. The major cinemas, the cinémas d’exclusivité, stayed mostly on the Champs-Elysées in the eighth arrondissement, or on and around the boulevard des Italiens in the second and ninth arrondissements. The real disruptions came during and after World War II. With the Germans advancing on the city, cinemas and other businesses started closing; there were no exhibition sites open when the Nazis took over the city. The Germans reopened most of them fairly rapidly, but then just before the Liberation, with the Resistance fighting in the streets and Americans advancing on Paris, all of the cinemas closed once again.

Guaraná: On this subject, perhaps no other moment in this period reveals the relationship between the film industry, nationalism, and governance better than the German Occupation and its co-option of the existing Parisian film culture at the time of the invasion. Does the distribution of films in Parisian theaters at the time display a clear strategy on the part of Nazi Germany?

Smoodin: There has been a lot of work on the cinema of the German Occupation from great scholars like Evelyn Ehrlich and Judith Mayne.2 Of course, the Germans created their own “French” film studio, with a name so innocuous—Continental Films—that it didn’t seem to have any national origin at all. Part of the Nazi project was designed to make it seem as if Parisian film culture hadn’t changed at all, and a large part of that was simply reopening most of the cinemas of Paris. So, by 1943, a casual glance at the film listings in the city wouldn’t look too different from the late 1930s.

During the Occupation, the Germans also tried to produce movie stars in Paris and throughout France who would stand for German and French cooperation under the sign of the “universal” language of cinema. Brigitte Horney was perhaps the best example. She was the daughter of psychoanalyst Karen Horney, which makes her case especially interesting. The Germans presented her as the ideal symbol of Nazi benevolence: she was beautiful, intelligent, cosmopolitan—everything the Germans thought Parisians would respond to. The Germans also, of course, took over Parisian journalism during the period, and that even included movie magazines. They published at least two of them, Ciné-Mondial and Vedettes, and used them to promote an idea of French cultural progress through German control. This extended to ciné-clubs as well, which the Nazis also controlled during the period.

So, if you were simply an “average” movie fan in Paris during the period, you would see new “French” films, many of which had been produced by Germany; German films with stars like Horney; and also French films from the 1930s that the Germans had cleared as appropriate for screenings. They banned all films with Jean Gabin and Michèle Morgan when it became clear that the two stars had no intention of returning from Hollywood to make films in France. And, of course, there was an absolute ban on American and British movies.

Guaraná: In your view, what were some of the best films that Parisians attended en masse in the period, and which did they appear to have missed out on?

Smoodin: Some of the most popular films early in the period were ones we still consider classics today. In the early sound era, there were no bigger hits in Paris than Der blaue Engel [The Blue Angel, Josef von Sternberg] and All Quiet on the Western Front [Lewis Milestone], both from 1930 and both of which played for months and months and months in their opening runs.

But there were also some surprises. [The comedy duo] Laurel and Hardy were always popular in Paris, and in the late 1940s, audiences that were polled at the Gaumont cinema, the largest in Paris, listed Bathing Beauty [George Sidney, 1944] with Red Skelton and Esther Williams as one of their favorites. Parisian audiences didn’t miss out on much. I was surprised by what a big deal every René Clair film was during the period, from Sous les toits de Paris [Under the Roofs of Paris] in 1930 through I Married a Witch in 1942, and others. The same was true of any film by Charlie Chaplin: the opening of City Lights in 1931 was one of the great cultural events in the city.

I’ve done some previous work on Frank Capra, and so I was pleased by how well his films seemed to do in Paris, and not just the later movies, but early ones like Dirigible [1931] and Platinum Blonde [1931]. It was also a nice surprise to see how well some other of my favorite films did in Paris. Bringing Up Baby [Howard Hawks] seems to have been a hit in 1938. Walter Benjamin saw it while he was in exile in Paris, and he loved it, and wrote to his friend Gretel Adorno that she reminded him exactly of Katharine Hepburn.

Guaraná: Another turbulent moment in this history is the industry’s transition to sound, which forced it to embrace new and unique exhibition practices. How would different versions of a single film circulate simultaneously in Paris, such as in the case with The Blue Angel?

Smoodin: That very early sound period is so interesting, and The Blue Angel really stands out as a terrific case study. When the film opened in Paris, it was an immediate sensation. (It had already been a hit in London and Berlin.) And there were actually two versions playing at the same cinema, the Ursulines. The Blue Angel showed four times a day, twice in German and twice in what the newspapers listed as a French version. For a while, I thought I had discovered a French-language version of the film that no one had known existed! But instead, this was a practically silent version with French intertitles. I say “practically silent” because audiences got to hear Dietrich sing all of her songs in German. There were debates in the press about which version was better, which provided the “truest” experience of a remarkable film. The other huge hit of the era was All Quiet on the Western Front, but Parisian audiences only partially “heard” that film. It played in only one version—silent, with French intertitles, although there were all of the remarkable sound effects, of bombs and bullets and planes, that were in the English-language version of the film.

A number of American films played in dubbed versions. A dubbed Frankenstein [James Whale, 1931] was a very big hit, although I’m guessing that Parisian audiences heard Boris Karloff’s growling, just as American audiences did. At the same time, subtitled films would often be seen as significant “literary” events.

One of the great hits in Paris from this period was Mädchen in Uniform [Girls in Uniform, Leontine Sagan, 1931], from Germany. In publicizing the film, though, the press tended to emphasize that the most striking thing about it was that the French subtitles had been written by Colette. The problems with the dialogue of foreign films were always an issue in Paris. In the late 1940s, in that poll of audiences at the Gaumont, viewers said that they far preferred dubbing to subtitles. And because my book is so much about the cinemas themselves, I should say, as well, that one of the most interesting aspects of the coming of sound had to do with the conversion of cinemas. In a European context, Paris and the rest of France were a little slow in doing this. It took until around the end of 1930 and beginning of 1931 to outfit almost all of the cinemas with sound technology. Until then, a lot of exhibition sites in Paris were still showing films from the 1920s, or silent versions of sound films.

Guaraná: You rely on a number of film periodicals of the time to uncover this history, but the level of detail with which you present it reveals many layers of historical and archival research. What were your main sources? And how did you find them?

Smoodin: I found some of my sources the old-fashioned way: in Paris, digging through the stores—and there used to be a lot of them—that carried old magazines. It was in one of those places—one that doesn’t exist anymore—that I found a cache of issues of Pour Vous, a major French film tabloid from the pre–World War II era that ran complete listings for the cinemas in the city every week. I found those issues about twenty years ago, and that was really the start of this project, because it led me to chart the movies in Paris, and their movement, week to week throughout the city. I moved from actual copies to microfilm when I found out that Pour Vous was available that way.

But the real discovery—and that’s not even the right word, because it had probably been there for years before I found it—was Gallica, the website for the Bibliothèque nationale. They’ve put amazing amounts of material online, and so I could finally access daily newspapers, broad-based cultural publications about a range of activity, and specialized movie magazines; and this was true not only for Paris, but for other areas in France, and places like Algiers and Casablanca. Probably 80 or 90 percent of my sources were online, which was really something new for me in terms of research. I’m not sure this project would have been possible without those sources.

Guaraná: I imagine that the idiosyncratic nature of film circulation in Paris—the irregular distribution of films across different neighborhoods, or the duration of a film’s commercial run, for instance—must have presented challenges both in your research and in your analysis for this project. What was your method for making sense of and organizing such seemingly random data?

Smoodin: When I first started thinking about this project and looking at the evidence, I did think that movie exhibition in Paris would be more chaotic than rational, because that seems to be true of so much of French film history. But very early on I started seeing that the opposite was true, and I really have my undergraduate students to thank for this. I first used my Parisian film listings as a teaching tool rather than a research one, in a class about local film cultures. Most of my students had never been to Paris, but when they looked at several weeks of listings, they started seeing patterns and systems, and that really helped me.

My own method for doing this kind of work may have been more labor-intensive than it should have been. I looked at playdates of films from week to week and year to year, at the cinemas being built and closing, ciné-clubs coming and going, and I just kept cross-referenced lists of everything. Really, I was only about one or two steps removed from doing everything on the Remington manual typewriter I used to work on!

Guaraná: I am struck by how the chapters in your book function so well on their own, each addressing distinct interests on the part of the reader while still forming a coherent narrative. Could you tell us about your strategy behind this structure?

Smoodin: I’m always trying to think in terms of narrative in my work, but I’m never satisfied that I can pull it off. My hope was that the chapters would make sense individually, but I also wanted them to be linked, and to make sure that it made sense, in the most basic way—that chapter 2 followed chapter 1, for instance.

I got to spend a year in Paris when I was a grad student, and much of my experience of the city then was walking through it; I always tried to move around that way because I was afraid of missing something, something I wouldn’t be aware of if I was on the metro. So because I imagined this book as being about movement, of films moving through the city, I also imagined it as being about walking through the city, and through its neighborhoods. I’m not sure that always comes through in the book, but in my head it was always about a movie fan’s moving through the city—mostly on foot, but also in other ways.

I’m also aware, though, now that the book is done, of how much I had to leave out, and how much more I could have done. I tried to cover as much as I could that seemed important: the commercial cinemas and the films; the ciné-clubs; the stars; the activities of audiences, including occasional acts of violence; the impact of the war; and the effects of the Liberation. There’s something of a natural linear progression there. But I was also trying to bring most of these topics back in and out of the story throughout the entire book.

Guaraná: You maintain a blog in which you have generously shared your research findings for this project. How did you use the blog during this process, and did that help shape the final version of the book?

Smoodin: My blog, The Paris Cinema Project, which I began at the end of 2015 while I was still writing the book, has really been fun for me.3 I’m in a very comfortable position to write a blog: I’m a senior faculty person now, so I don’t have the pressures of finding a job or keeping one. So I have time to do other kinds of writing.

This is a blog about the movies in Paris, very much like my book—about the cinemas in the city and the film journalism. Several of my early blogs, in some form or another, turn up in my book, and, really, the blog often functions as a way of sort of fooling myself that I’m writing. It’s not the same as serious scholarship, so it’s easier to just sit down and do the research and then do the blog. Then, if I like the writing, I can modify it to be fully “scholarly” and use some of it in my book. Most of the entries, though, are on material that didn’t make it into the book—either because of space, or trying to keep a certain narrative line going, or whatever—but that I still find interesting. I’ve found this to be an incredibly enjoyable and productive way of continuing a focused history of Parisian film culture. It’s also a wonderful exercise; I always limit myself to fifteen hundred words, and because of that, I also have to learn how to limit the amount and kind of research that I do. I hope that the tone of the blog informs the book, because I was trying to produce a kind of scholarly yet informal voice, and, as with the blog, to write about topics that were focused and yet broadened out to other issues.

Guaraná: What are you working on now that this book is published?

Smoodin: First, it just feels so great to have the book out and available. I worked in publishing for a few years, and that job made me think that it was a miracle that any book ever came out: it’s just so hard, and it’s not just the writing. My plan is to keep working on the same thing, but I hope in not the exact same way. Working on Paris not only required thinking about the rest of France, Europe, and the United States, because of the connections between different cinemas, but also about French colonial locations. Because of that, I’ve started working on some issues of exhibition and film journalism in Algiers and some other North African locations, which requires a lot of new reading on my part to learn as much as I can about these places. And there’s still so much work to do on Paris! I plan to keep working on that, too. My blog is still a good place for me to workshop this kind of thing, so my hope is to keep putting one out every month or so. And then we’ll see where all of this leads.

Notes

1. Annette Kuhn, Dreaming of Fred and Ginger: Cinema and Cultural Memory (New York: New York University Press, 2002); Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall, 3rd ed. (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011). 2. Evelyn Ehrlich, Cinema of Paradox: French Filmmaking under the German Occupation (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985); Judith Mayne, Le Corbeau (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007). 3. See the blog at https://pariscinemablog.wordpress.com/.


BOOK DATA Eric Smoodin, Paris in the Dark: Going to the Movies in the City of Light, 1930–1950. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2020. $99.95 cloth; $25.95 paperback. 224 pages.

Read the introduction to Paris in the Dark here.

© 2020 by The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.

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