Cannes 1939: the very first edition of the festival that never took place

The grand premiere of the Cannes International Film Festival, which was to be held in September 1939, was never able to take place due to World War II. Back to the historical context that conditioned the birth of this event, and the very first films selected!

Cannes 1939: the very first edition of the festival which never took place © Getty / -bilge

And Jean Zay created the Cannes Film Festival

It is the Minister of National Education and Fine Arts of the government of Léon Blum, founder of the CNRS who is at the origin, Jean Zay. In collaboration with Georges huisman, Director of Fine Arts, they honor this formidable project proposed by the senior official, writer, director of the French Association for artistic action Philippe Erlanger, and (the very first) film critic Émile Vuillermoz.

The aim is to promote the youngest possible creation, to promote the establishment of real statutes for the cinema professions and greater recognition of the author. This is a turning point in the creation of what are our benchmarks for free, independent and international cinema.

It is he who gives life at the most prestigious film festival in the world:

Encourage cinematographic art in all its forms in order to help provoke a true spirit of collaboration between all the producing countries […] bring together art and elegance from all over the world […] No country better than ours could preside over such an event

Jean Zay, at the RDF, summer 1939

We are, in France, between the end of the Popular Front of Leon Blum and the beginnings of the government ofEdouard Daladier ; Mussolini’s fascism and Hitler’s Nazism imposed at that time their hard-hitting and bellicose incursions on a Europe which was doing everything to avoid war.

The Cannes Film Festival facing the Venice Film Festival: cinema facing the fascist peril

With the creation of the Cannes film festival, it is a question of encouraging a diplomacy of the cinema in order to unite the free nations for stand up against the Venice Biennale (Mostra) (created in 1932): the latter is then the only international film festival in the world but also, and above all, one of the great instruments of propaganda of Joseph Goebbels.

In the wake of the Munich agreements at the end of 1938, an international festival in France would be considered a diplomatic provocation with regard to what was heard in Munich. Except that the international rupture that marks, in March 1939, the invasion of what remains of Czechoslovakia, by Hitler, and the Albania conquered by Mussolini, lead the government and the French diplomacy to put a cultural barrier to the coups of Nazi forces. and fascists. The cinema is perhaps the first means by which France intends to resist in the face of the implicit pressures of the Nazi and fascist dictatorships. It should make it possible to lead, vis-à-vis the Axis, and through culture, an offensive and anti-fascist diplomacy by other means, by opposing a counter festival worthy of the name.

Georges huisman begins negotiations with the US film industry and US producers. From September 1938, the Americans were interested in setting up a Venice counter festival. Thus, they further motivate the birth of the Cannes festival, which must reflect the festival of freedom.

The establishment of this festival corresponds to a pivotal period for the history of cinema, which begins to represent a universe of mass culture, notably with the transition from black and white films to colorization. American cinema intends to praise its cultural leadership as much as the incarnation of democracy throughout the world.

If the (political) intentions of this counter-festival are displayed only implicitly, the director of the festival’s organizing committee, the director general of Fine Arts, Georges Huisman does not fail to assert a model of values ​​and operations that radically break with that of the Fascist Venice Biennale. As here in the edition Paris-Soir of July 9, 1939 whose words had been collected by a certain Georges Bateau: “The French film will be treated in Cannes on an absolute equal footing with foreign productions. In the jury, he will have only one voice like the other nations, which is not the case in Italy within the framework of the Mostra… In Venice, you know, Italian films occupied a special place. , and Italy was assured of a certain majority in all deliberations

On August 23, 1939, during the signing of the German-Soviet pact, the promotional posters for the Cannes Film Festival were soon found stuck next to the mobilization posters. The Festival stops three days before its start since the organization of its first edition is suddenly thwarted by the outbreak of the Second World War. Indeed, on September 1, the opening day of the festival, German troops entered Poland, following which the United Kingdom and France declared war on Nazi Germany on September 3. Now we have to wait for the Liberation and September 1946.

The very first prizes in 1939

Following his interview, in Paris-Evening, the Director General of Fine Arts indicates how the festival intended to proceed with the award ceremony: “In Cannes, prizes will be awarded to the best productions of each nation represented, and the Grand Prix Louis-Lumière, intended for the best director , will be put in competition between all the participating nations. It will be the same for the prizes intended for the best female and male performers “.

Following this interview, an article summarily formulates the various prizes (which would have been awarded during) the first festival. We learn that “17 prizes will be awarded. The grand prize will be awarded to the best film presented by each country and may be awarded as many times as there are participants. Two international jury prizes will be awarded, one to countries which have presented at least eight films, the other to those which have presented at least four. The other prizes to the best film music composer, to the best operator, to the best cartoon, documentary “.

Unlike today, the Palme d’Or did not yet exist in 1939. The most prestigious prize of the Festival, recognizing the best film of the competition, is awarded from 1955, replacing the Grand Prize of the festival.

The very first French selection of the time

These are cinematographic choices tinged with politics, anti-fascism that include everything that makes the values ​​of freedom in the face of dictatorships. The French films selected are four in number. These are films that despite everything remain secondary in the work of its directors.

  • “Hell of the Angels” by Christian-Jaque (with Louise Carletti, Jean Claudio, Serge Grave and Marcel Mouloudji)

Left to their own devices after a sad past, Lucien, amnesiac and Lucette, escaped from a reformatory, find themselves in a notorious city in which they seek to integrate into the miserable population of this eastern slum. Parisian. They unite as best they can to face poverty, drugs and violence.

  • “The Ghost Cart” by Julien Duvivier (with Pierre Fresnay, Louis Jouvet, Mila Parély)

Every year, on New Year’s Eve, at midnight, a ghost cart appears and looks for a new driver. A person dies to drive it. David Holm, a bad boy, dies in turn from a stabbing, during a fight. It’s midnight.

  • “The law of the north” by Jacques Feyder (with Charles Vanel, Michèle Morgan, Pierre Richard-Willm)

The story of three men and a woman who flee in the great Canadian North. They face together the cold and the privations, each carrying their mourning and their secrets.

“La loi du nord” by Jacques Feyder (1939) with Pierre Richard-Willm, Michèle Morgan, Jacques Terrane © AFP / LIMOT / COLLECTION CHRISTOPHEL
  • “The man from Niger” by Jacques de Baroncelli (With Victor Francen, Jacques Dumesnil, Annie Ducaux)

In Sudan, three French officers are taking action to help the country, provide them with better access to water and fight the scourge of leprosy.

An article in the newspaper L'Ouest-Éclair from August 25, 1939 devoted to the shooting of the film "The man from Niger" by Jacques de Baroncelli title: "To the glory of the French Empire"
An article in the newspaper L’Ouest-Éclair of August 25, 1939 devoted to the shooting of the film “The Man from Niger” by Jacques de Baroncelli, title: “To the glory of the French Empire” / National Library of France
  • “France is an empire”, a documentary by Jean d’Agraives

A propaganda documentary which was to highlight the greatness of France since the beginning of the 19th century, in particular on the civilizing mission that it had assigned itself through colonization. A way to learn, a posteriori, how France perceived itself in 1939.

The selection of feature films at the time was totally different from the way it is today. Until 1972, it was the countries that sent their own selection. We chose for the French official selection at Cannes political films which, for many of them, insist on the imperial power of France, films which insist on the idea that France embodies a powerful democracy and an imperial nation. , in particular with “France is an empire” then “The man of Niger”.

On the list of selected American films, it is impossible to miss the “Wizard of Oz” by Victor Fleming with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Margaret Hamilton and Frank Morgan. We will unfortunately never know what prize he could possibly have won … But in The Little Parisian of 23 August 1939, it is estimated that it is “the most wonderful color fairy movie ever to be made“.

Poster of The Wizard of Oz (1939) by Victor Fleming with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan
Poster of The Wizard of Oz (1939) by Victor Fleming with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Bert Lahr, Jack Haley, Frank Morgan © AFP / 7E ART / MGM / PHOTO12

The 1939 Cannes Jury list honored in 2002 and 2019

In 2002 (63 years later, therefore), a jury chaired by Jean d’Ormesson was specially constituted to honor the selection of the very first Cannes Film Festival, thus awarding the Palme d’Or to Cecil’s “Pacific Express” B. De Mille and awarding the prize for best female hope to Michèle Morgan and Judy Garland.

Jean d'Ormesson announces the winner of the Palme d'Or alongside Gilles Jacob and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, with the official poster of the 1939 festival, Cannes, May 2002
Jean d’Ormesson announces the winner of the Palme d’Or alongside Gilles Jacob and Jean-Jacques Aillagon, with the official poster of the 1939 festival, Cannes, May 2002 © AFP / OLIVIER LABAN-MATTEI

In 2019, also, the Committee Jean Zay Cannes 1939 proposed to reconstitute the event, in Orleans, symbolic city of its instigator, such as it should have been it in Cannes. Like a real Cannes festival with red carpet, opening and closing ceremonies, a jury chaired by Amos Gitai. All 30 films were shown. A special jury had been appointed.

Go further

🎧 REPLAY – The heart of the story – The Festival prevented: Cannes September 1939

📖 READ – Olivier Loubes : Cannes 1939, the festival that did not take place (Armand Colin)

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Cannes 1939: the very first edition of the festival that never took place

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