The Oxford History of World Cinema

By Geoffrey Nowell-Smith | Go to book overview


The Popular Art of French Cinema


As in Hollywood, the period 1930 to 1960 constitutes the classical era of French cinema, a period of well-defined genres and industrial structures, and a time when the cinema was the main form of popular entertainment. During these years, many of the great classics of French cinema were produced, films like Le Million ( 1931), La Grande Illusion ( 1937), Les Enfants du paradis ( 1943-5), Casque d'or ( 1951), and Mon oncle ( 1958). At the same time, it was a period marked by recurrent crises in the film industry, serious political unrest, and a World War. If the era opened on the sound revolution, heralding a new film language and the increased popularity of the medium, it ended more ambiguously: the end of the 1950s saw both the exhilarating emergence of the New Wave and the beginning of a decline in cinema attendances.


The coming of sound took the French film industry by surprise. Though the French cinema was artistically rich in the 1920s, Hollywood was dominant and production had dropped to fifty-five films in 1926. Additionally, though French scientists had invented sound systems as early as 1900, none had been patented, so that American and German systems had to be imported. The first French sound films ( L'Eau du Nil ('The water of the Nile'), Le Collier de la Reine ('The Queen's necklace'), 1929) were little more than silent films with extra sound passages. It took René Clair 's Sous les toits de Paris ('Under the roofs of Paris', 1930), shot for the German firm Tobis at the Épinay studios, to put French sound film on the map. Initially a flop in France, this populist tale about a street singer ( Albert Préjean) became a huge world-wide success. Not only did it use sound and music imaginatively, but it popularized a nostalgic vision of old Paris and its 'little people', which subsequently characterized many French films.

French film-makers quickly adapted to the talkies, and the early 1930s saw a rapid increase in the number of features produced, shooting up to 157 in 1931, settling down eventually at around 130 films per year, a figure which, with the exception of the 1940s, has been kept up until the present day. Apart from two vertically integrated conglomerates, Gaumont-Franco-Film-Aubert (GFFA) and Pathé-Natan, both formed in the late 1920s, production was in the hands of a myriad of individual producers, with shaky finances. As in French society at large, scandals and bankruptcies, aggravated by the recession, were common. Both GFFA and Pathé-Natan had effectively collapsed by 1934. Government attempts at putting the French film industry in order came to little, despite repeated demands from the industry, worried also about competition from Hollywood (for every French film shown, there were two to three US ones throughout the 1930s, and distribution was largely in American hands). However, with a few exceptions, top box-office successes of the decade were French.

After their initial weakness, studios around Paris (Épinay, Boulogne-Billancourt, Joinville) and in the south of France ( Marseilles, Nice) strengthened their equipment and expertise. The booming film scene was cosmopolitan, occasionally provoking xenophobic attacks from the right, at a time when the political scene was sharply divided and anti-Semitism on the rise. Yet France was, in other ways, welcoming: to the strong Russian community of the 1920s were added layers of German and central European émigrés. From 1929 to 1932, many came to make multilanguage versions, a method in use before dubbing and subtitling, especially in the Paramount studios in Joinville, nicknamed 'Babel-on-Seine'. Many émigrés made lasting contributions to French cinema: Lazare Meerson (a Russian) and the Hungarian Alexandre Trauner dominated set design, creating the famous Parisian décors of the films of Clair, Carné, and others. Star French cameramen like Jules Küger or Claude Renoir learnt a lot from Ufa-trained Kurt Courant and Eugen Schüfftan, jointly establishing the look of Poetic Realism. Directors like Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Anatole Litvak, Max Ophuls, and Robert Siodmak all shot films in Paris on their way to Hollywood; some, like Ophuls, Siodmak, and Kurt Bernhardt, made a substantial number of French films until the war. Ophuls, who eventually took French nationality, came back to Paris in the 1950s.

The coming of sound put an end to the avant-garde, but silent film directors, like Clair, Jean Renoir, Jacques Feyder, Marie Epstein and Jean Benoît-Lévy, Julien Duvivier, Jean Grémillon, Abel Gance, and Marcel L'Herbier, smoothly made the transition and became prominent directors in


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The Oxford History of World Cinema
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgements vii
  • Contributors ix
  • Contents xi
  • Special Features xv
  • List of Colour Illustrations xvii
  • General Introduction xix
  • 1 - Silent Cinema 1895-1930 1
  • Origins and Survival 6
  • Early Cinema 13
  • Transitional Cinema 23
  • The Hollywood Studio System 43
  • The World-Wide Spread of Cinema 53
  • The First World War and the Crisis in Europe 62
  • Tricks and Animation 71
  • Comedy 78
  • Documentary 86
  • Cinema and the Avant-Garde 95
  • Serials 105
  • French Silent Cinema 112
  • Italy- Spectacle and Melodrama 123
  • British Cinema from Hepworth to Hitchcock 130
  • Germany- The Weimar Years 136
  • The Scandinavian Style 151
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russia 159
  • The Soviet Union and the Russian émigrés 162
  • Yiddish Cinema in Europe 174
  • Japan- Before the Great Kanto Earthquake 177
  • Music and the Silent Film 183
  • The Heyday of the Silents 192
  • 2 - Sound Cinema 1930-1960 205
  • The Introduction of Sound 211
  • Hollywood- The Triumph of the Studio System 220
  • Censorship and Self-Regulation 235
  • The Sound of Music 248
  • Technology and Innovation 259
  • Animation 267
  • Cinema and Genre 276
  • The Western 286
  • The Musical 294
  • Crime Movies 304
  • The Fantastic 312
  • Documentary 322
  • Socialism, Fascism, and Democracy 333
  • The Popular Art of French Cinema 344
  • Italy from Fascism to Neo-Realism 353
  • Britain at the End of Empire 361
  • Germany- Nazism and after 374
  • East Central Europe before the Second World War 383
  • Soviet Film under Stalin 389
  • Indian Cinema- Origins to Independence 398
  • China before 1949 409
  • The Classical Cinema in Japan 413
  • The Emergence of Australian Film 422
  • Cinema in Latin America 427
  • After the War 436
  • Transformation of the Hollywood System 443
  • Independents and Mavericks 451
  • 3 - The Modern Cinema 1960-1995 461
  • Television and the Film Industry 466
  • The New Hollywood 475
  • New Technologies 483
  • Sex and Sensation 490
  • The Black Presence in American Cinema 497
  • Exploitation and the Mainstream 509
  • Dreams and Nightmares in the Hollywood Blockbuster 516
  • Cinéma-Vérité and the New Documentary 527
  • Avant-Garde Film- The Second Wave 537
  • Animation in the Post-Industrial Era 551
  • Modern Film Music 558
  • Art Cinema 567
  • New Directions in French Cinema 576
  • Italy- Auteurs and after 586
  • Spain after Franco 596
  • British Cinema- The Search for Identity 604
  • The New German Cinema 614
  • East Germany- The Defa Story 627
  • Changing States in East Central Europe 632
  • Russia after the Thaw 640
  • Cinema in the Soviet Republics 651
  • Turkish Cinema 656
  • The Arab World 661
  • The Cinemas of Sub-Saharan Africa 667
  • Iranian Cinema 672
  • India- Filming the Nation 678
  • Indonesian Cinema 690
  • China after the Revolution 693
  • Popular Cinema in Hong Kong 704
  • Taiwanese New Cinema 711
  • The Modernization of Japanese Film 714
  • New Australian Cinema 722
  • New Zealand Cinema 731
  • Canadian Cinema/Cinéma Canadien 731
  • New Cinemas in Latin America 740
  • New Concepts of Cinema 750
  • The Resurgence of Cinema 759
  • Index 785
  • List of Picture Sources 823


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