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