Catch up with Cannes 1939, the festival that did not take place
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Le fil culture | The first Cannes Festival dates back to 1946. However, it should have taken place in September 1939, under the impetus of the Minister of National Education and Fine Arts at the time, Jean Zay. 80 years later, the city of Orléans brings this first edition of the festival to life.
End of August 1939 in Cannes. Norma Shearer, Cary Grant, Michèle Morgan… Most of the big movie stars have already arrived on the Croisette. Photos taken during the night of August 22 to 23 attest to this, as historian Olivier Loubes and director Julien Ouguergouz show, in their documentary Cannes 1939, the festival will not take place. We see in particular Fernandel and Barbara Stanwyck, who came to attend a charity event at the sumptuous Palm Beach Hotel in Cannes. But on this summer night, a violent storm breaks out and comes to stop the party ... As if the weather forecast were to predict the fatal fate of the non-event that will become Cannes 1939.
Everything was ready. The father of the Louis Lumière cinema was chosen as honorary president of the Festival. Jean Zay had been appointed to chair the event. A great figure of the Popular Front, the Minister of National Education and Fine Arts at the time was behind this celebration of international cinema, supposed to counter the Venice Film Festival, which had become overtly fascist a few months earlier. From this little-known adventure remain unpublished archives which allow the historian Olivier Loubes, specialist in Jean Zay, and author of Cannes 1939, the festival will not take place at Armand Colin editions, to tell us the story of this disappeared event . & nbsp;
In 1938, the Venice Film Festival, which is still the only international film festival in the world, fell under the control of Joseph Goebbels, minister of Nazi propaganda. The cultural event then becomes an instrument of propaganda. The prize list is closely controlled by the fascist and Nazi powers. Thus, one of the feature films presented, pilot Luciano Serra, relates the colonial conquest of Ethiopia, and has the distinction of being produced by the son of Mussolini, while the documentary Les Dieux du Stade, directed by Leni Riefenstahl, filmed at the Berlin Olympics in 1936, praises the attributes of the so-called "Aryan race" by celebrating the muscles of the athletes' bodies and the strict rules of sports competition. Under pressure from Goebbels, things are changing: we have to show the power of Germany and Italy. It becomes clear that we need to create another, more free festival. & Nbsp;
The idea of an international festival then arose from the pen of senior official Philippe Erlanger, director of the French Association for Artistic Action, who would have shaped it when he returned by train from the Venice Film Festival in 1938, as he will tell later:
Since the circumstances deprived the Mostra of an essential objectivity, why, if, miraculously, peace was saved, not to create in France, a Model Festival, the Festival du monde libre & nbsp ;? The idea matures until the Gare de Lyon. The next day I spoke to Yves Chataigneau, Secretary General of the Government, to Suzy Borel and to Georges Lourau. Both promised me their support. I could therefore draw up a report which would be submitted to the Director General of Fine Arts, to Jean Zay, Minister of National Education, as well as to Albert Sarraut, doubly interested as Minister of the Interior and as President of the French Artistic Association of which I had just been appointed director. My project was adopted. Philippe Erlanger quoted by Pierre Autré, “The Festival will not take place”, L’Avant scène cinema, n ° 174, October 15, 1976, p. 24
In March 1939, following the Nazis' final invasion of Czechoslovakia, the French government of Daladier, then President of the Council, took a turn of opposition. In May 1939, the decision was made to organize a "Venice counter festival", and to organize the first world cinema event in Cannes. Flagship figure of the Popular Front, Jean Zay wants to show a firm opposition to the dictatorship by the development of culture and the arts: "The Cannes festival was born in a political way to oppose the Nazis, by the weapons of culture Today, we would talk about "soft power". This Cannes festival is the invention of cultural diplomacy. (...) The project of Cannes is to show at the same time that cinema must not be controlled through politics, and at the same time cinema can be a political weapon, because it is a way of opposing politically. Besides, even today, there is a political matrix at the Cannes Film Festival. The jury often rewards politically committed films, we reward Ken Loach, we see Coppola pushing a rant on Vietnam, Truffaut and Godard engage in May 1968 ... "adds historian Olivier Loubes. & Nbsp;
The Americans are the first and most consistent supporters of a French counter-Mostra. The largest film-producing country, model country for the world of cinema, that of Chaplin, Ford and Cecil B. DeMille, the eldorado of European stars and directors, refuses to go to the only world cinema event that existed then. With the Cannes festival project, the United States finds not only political coherence, but also unprecedented financial support & nbsp;: & nbsp;
The two legs of liberalism were in Cannes in 1939: political liberalism on the one hand and markets had to be free to show films so that they could be bought by distributors. There is an agreement that is made between American producers and the French government, from there, the French market opens up to American cinema. You have to show films to buy them, and a festival is used for that. Olivier Loubes, historian
The principle of selection of feature films presented at Cannes is then radically different from that of today. Until 1972, it was the countries that sent their own selection. The number of films sent by each nation is proportional to the number of films produced in the year. Each government chooses its selection, except in the United States, where it is the producers who have the privilege of being able to decide on the American films presented at Cannes. In the late 1930s, the country experienced its Hollywood golden age: in 1939, John Ford made three films including the legendary The Grapes of Anger, a few months earlier, Walt Disney triumphed with Snow White and the seven dwarfs, at the Oscars, the first animated feature film that nobody believed in. Cinema is beginning to fulfill this function of mass culture. American studios therefore have priority and each send their two best films. "It is the triumph of the myth of the conquest of the American West with the film Pacific Express by Cecil B. DeMille, which stars one of the greatest actress of the time, Barbara Stanwyck. Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth and James Stewart also act in selected films. It is the pinnacle of American cinema and at the same time it is the defense and illustration of American democracy, but it is not propaganda. them, the best propaganda, is the best cinema ", specifies Olivier Loubes. & nbsp;
Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz remains the most famous film in Cannes 1939's selection. The French poster boasts a "dazzling fantasy in color", and it is indeed the film that will mark the transition from black and white to the colour. At the beginning, the images are in sepia, then they switch to kitsch colors, to immerse the spectator in the enchanted universe of the young Kansas farmer, Dorothy, camped by Judy Garland, then 17 years old. His career is launched. A pure product of Hollywood studios, this blockbuster by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) is a hymn to Technicolor.
The Soviet Union is also entitled to its privilege. The country should have presented only two films, but ultimately the presidency of the festival allows it to add two films to its selection, as much as France and England, so that these three powers are equal. "It was important not to offend the Soviet Union, it shows that we are in a cultural diplomacy," adds Olivier Loubes. & Nbsp;
Very quickly the choice of hosting the festival fell on the city of Cannes, because the Riviera is a place where the world of cinema already has its habits. & Nbsp;
On the Croisette, everything is ready and the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer has even chartered a transatlantic liner to bring American stars. Honorary President Louis Lumière is preparing to open the festivities which are to take place from September 1 to 20. But "on August 23, 1939, the German-Soviet pact was signed and it was a thunderclap. Everyone knows that the war will come and very quickly. Therefore, on August 29, the services of Jean Zay publish a press release to say that the Festival which was to be held is suspended ", explains Olivier Loubes. & nbsp;
On September 1, opening day, German troops entered Poland. The festival is definitively canceled. Government mobilizes young men on the front: festival technicians join regiments, while Hollywood stars leave for the United States. & Nbsp;
Shortly before the end of the war, in 1944, Jean Zay was imprisoned and then assassinated by a group of militiamen disguised as resistance fighters. The first edition of the Festival is held two years later. However, no tribute will be paid to the one who carried and developed the idea of this event which advocates free and independent cinema. "It may seem rather surprising, but the year 1939 was a deadly year, the presidency of the festival wanted to move forward, it was difficult to evoke the genesis of the festival in relation to the 1939 context, when we celebrated Liberation ", adds Olivier Loubes. & nbsp;
80 years later, the very first war festival is finally born. The Jean Zay Circle and the Jean Zay Cannes 39 Committee organized this event from 12 to 17 November 2019, in Orléans, the hometown of the Minister of the Popular Front. The opportunity to rediscover certain masterpieces selected at Cannes in 1939, including & nbsp; The Great Parade by Walt Disney, The Wizard of Oz by Victor Flemming, Mr Smith in the Senate by Frank Capra or, on the French side, The Law of the North by Jacques Feyder. An international jury by filmmaker Amos Gitai, and composed by big names in the 7th art, such as French director Pascale Ferran, Hungarian filmmaker László Nemes or American screenwriter Howard A. Rodman, will award the 1939 Festival Grand Prix, but also the Jury Prize, the Staging Prize, the Female Interpretation Prize and the Male Interpretation Prize.