Colonies de vacances (holiday camps) for the children of French cinema employees

by Sue Harris

The social aspects of the life studio workers came into focus recently at one of our team seminars on the topic of ‘Time and Leisure in the Studios’ led by Morgan Lefeuvre and Richard Farmer. Their presentations on the organised collective activities (sporting events, gala days, festive parties) of specific studios in London and Paris stressed the many local connections between studios and the communities in which their workers lived, and the ways in which studio employment marked the family life of employees in ways that were more than simply economic. This prompted me to remember my own family’s connections with the Vauxhall Motors factory in Luton (which employed some 36,000 locals in the 1950s), and whose looming presence and paternalistic ethos gave structure to my childhood in the 1970s (Saturday ballroom dance classes at the Vauxhall Recreation Club, the thrill of seeing celebrity guests at the annual July Sports Day, goodie bags and Christmas presents on the annual coach ride to the pantomime in Bedford or Golders Green). And while much history has been written about the iconic cars developed on the Luton site, and the importance of the factory to the local economy, there is now little trace (beyond the shared nostalgic memories of my peers) of the social and cultural influence of this employer on the structural fabric of our lives in our childhood.

A key link between the lives of children of industrial workers in France and the professional employment of their parents was through summer holiday camp provision. The colonies de vacances movement was a social movement established in France in the late nineteenth century, anchored in principles of health, hygiene and education. Concern about the general health of urban children, and particularly fear of diseases like tuberculosis, gave rise to a powerful civic belief in the benefits of fresh country air, collective living and purposeful leisure activity. Initially fostered by benevolent church and municipal organisations, and dynamised by increased workplace unionisation, the movement gathered momentum throughout the early twentieth century, transforming in 1937 (under the auspices of progressive Popular Front Health Minister Henri Sellier) from a fragmented and localised movement into a regulated national framework. Some 420,000 children were accommodated in a network of rural sites in the 1930s pre-war years (Lee Downs, 17) and a 1956 review of a contemporary study of the phenomenon of the holiday camp noted that:

France has produced a remarkable achievement in a vast network of colonies de vacances. Here, every year, considerably more than 1,000,000 town children, most of them under 14 years of age, enjoy four weeks of creative holiday experience. The distinctive features of colonies de vacances are permanent premises, equipped with all essential amenities but with no luxuries; sites variously placed at high, medium and low altitudes and by the sea; specially trained staffs of moniteurs and monitrices who also know how to make wet days into happy ones; proper nursing and culinary staff; a culturally creative plan which, with suitable modifications, underlies all colonies.

Dobinson, 1956, 225.

For most working-class children the colonie de vacances was their formative experience of travel and vacation, and children of parents in the cinema industry were no different. Contributions to the mutuelle du cinéma in the 1930s (a voluntary insurance scheme that ensured sickness provision for industry workers), gave access to rural camps located in regions like the Ile de France and Val de Loire; camps that were sometimes only 30-50km from Paris, but were a world away in terms of geographical and social experiences. We have found reports of les enfants du cinéma (as the children of cinema industry professionals, including those of studio technicians and creatives were known), spending summers in repurposed country estates with vast parklands and glamorous names like the Château de la Michaudière (La Ferté Alais), the Château de Villefallier (Jouy-le-Potier), and the Château de la Tuilerie (Dammartin-en-Goële).

A postcard home from the colonie de vacances at Château de Villefailliers, featuring an image of the dormitory (c. 1959).

By the end of the 1950s, les enfants du cinéma were heading further afield, for holidays in winter resorts and coastal towns such as Cap Ferret near Bordeaux. High profile charity events such as the gala nuit du cinema held at the prestigious Parisian Gaumont Palace on 5th May 1951 saw stars of the calibre of Françoise Rosay, Paulette Dubost, Nicole Courcel and Claude Dauphin unite to raise funds for les œuvres sociales (social benefits for workers), including on this occasion the colonie de vacances programme (Paris-presse, L’Intransigeant, 1951; La Cinématographie française 1407, 1951).

Holiday camps were generously subsidised for working parents who subscribed to the post-war entr’aide du cinéma (a collective fund that replaced the pre-war mutuelle insurance, and adverts urging workers to subscribe to the entr’aide du cinema, and promoting its benefits appeared frequently in La Cinématographie française in the early 1950s.

A front page appeal by Jean Petitbarat, General Secretary of the colonie de vacances programme for the cinema industry, for financial support to maintain and develop the programme. The Château de la Thuilerie is featured (1952).

Worker-parents, whose legal entitlement to paid holidays amounted to four weeks per year at a time when children’s holidays were still organised around rural agricultural seasons (long summers to help with the harvest) were incentivized to send their children out of the city for a month at a time. In 1950, a full-board four week stay at the Château de Vaires (Loire Inférieure) cost 370 francs per day, plus rail fares of up to 1424 francs (depending on the age of the child), and appropriate clothing and footwear had to be provided (La cinématographie française, 1950). This, as well as the 4000 francs deposit required to secure a place, would have been beyond the means of many lower paid and unskilled workers such as stagehands or seamstresses at a time when the average unskilled wage was around 12,000 francs per month (La Cinématographie française, 1950). But entr’aide subscribers benefitted from a daily reduction of 120 Francs on the whole stay, amounting to considerable savings of around 3,360 francs over the month.

Although holidays as such were curtailed in wartime, holiday camps established in the 1930s and earlier nevertheless played an important role as evacuation centres, providing respite and security for French children. Children from the industrial Boulogne-Billancourt area of Paris (where the Billancourt studios stood cheek by jowl with the massive Renault car factory) were evacuated en masse following bombings by the RAF and US Army Air Force in Spring 1942 and 1943 respectively. Many Parisian children were billeted with rural families in under-populated areas such as le Creuse, but many enfants du cinéma found themselves rehoused at the Château de la Michaudière in its new guise as a ‘centre de protection’ (La France socialiste, 1943). A Monsieur Claude P is cited on a website dedicated to the history of the town of La Ferté Alais (Essonne), recalling that:

During the war our father worked in the cinema industry and my brother and I spent many months at the Château de la Michaudière where we had school in the morning and outdoor games in the afternoon. The monitors were wonderful, they were top athletes, and life there was so healthy that there was virtually no illness among the two hundred or so of us there.

Philippe Autrive

The accompanying wartime newsreel extract shows scenes of les enfants du cinéma taking part in organised sporting activities in the grounds of the Château de la Michaudière in 1943, and a cheque for 10 million francs, raised by cinema audiences in another fundraising scheme (la semaine du cinéma), being presented by André Debrie of the National Cinema Committee. In July 1943, 150 evacuee children were in residence in La Ferté Alais for five months, while 350 were accommodated at the Collège Jacques Amyot in nearby Melun (L’Œuvre, 1943).

220 cinema children leaving occupied Paris for 5 months at the Château de la Michaudière, L’Œuvre 22 October 1943.

The opening in 1943 of a further centre in Dontilly, near Donnemarie-en-Montois, shows the extent to which the sector was active in securing safety outside the city for its young children, and this was not limited to Paris: the children of Marseille cinema workers and prisoners of war (‘les enfants marseillais de la grande famille du film’) spent a month in 1942 in one of three colonies near Lyon (Le Journal, 1942). Evacuation was not without its dangers however, with news of an attack on a colonie de vacances near Versailles on 11 July 1944, in which numerous children were killed and injured, reported in the press (Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, 1944).

In 1946, as France readjusted to life after Occupation, new holiday camps for cinema children were opened, notably one at Campagne-lès-Hesdin, between Arras and the Channel coast, in the buildings of a substantial hospital built under Nazi occupation in 1942. Although it needed considerable refurbishment, the site was lauded for being ideal as a holiday camp, equipped as it was with high ceilings, insulation, lavatories, kitchens, showers and even a cinema for the rainy days. (La Cinématographie française 1164, 1946).

The phenomenon of the holiday camp was of interest to filmmakers as well as employers and their employees, and inevitably found its way onto celluloid. A French-Italian co-production directed by Léonide Moguy (Demain il sera trop tard, 1950) dealt with the issue of sexual attraction in a co-educational holiday camp. More substantially, René Clair, returning to France from Denham Studios in London in 1939, set about the shooting of Air pur (Clean Air), ‘a film set in a holiday camp, featuring 150 children and as many cats and dogs.’ In an interview with Lucie Derain, Clair described his project as follows:

I want to show the life of poor children, of working-class parents who, for ten months of the year live and play in the Paris back streets, live in apartments without enough light and air, and for whom the two months of the summer in the countryside are a complete escape. My film sees the children leave Paris for a holiday camp in the centre of France. I want to explore the general idea of how everyone, children and adults, can be deeply altered by a change in how they live, how a breath of fresh air can make life better.  


La Cinématographie française 1072, 1939.

Advert for Air pur that appeared in La Cinématographie française 1067, 14 April 1939.

The film was first announced in March 1939, and location shooting began in Paris on 17th July 1939 with a cast of some 300 children. Location shooting continued in the Corrèze region, with young actors Jean Mercanton and Elina Labourdette engaged as leads, and exterior shooting moved on as the summer advanced to Draguignan in the south of France. At the end of August, a vast exterior set – ‘of a size rarely seen in French studio backlots’ (Épardaud, 1939) – was under construction at Victorine Studios in Nice, and the film was both so widely anticipated and so advanced that a double page spread in Pour Vous only added to the general excitement (Pour Vous, 1939).  

Feature article on Air pur, complete with drawings and images from the shoot.

Alas, events were to overtake the production: with the military mobilization having depleted the studio workforce by 40% (La Cinématographie française 1087, 1939), the film was definitively abandoned when war broke out on 1st September 1939, an early casualty of the looming catastrophe. Clair spent the war years in exile in the USA and was unceremoniously stripped of his French citizenship by the Vichy regime in 1941. He wouldn’t make another French film until Le Silence est d’or in 1947, a lively costume drama in which he turned a romantic and nostalgic lens to life in the French studios of the silent era. It is fitting that while their parents were busy on his set in the Pathé studios at Joinville and Francoeur in Paris, the children of his crew were perhaps relishing some of the ‘clean air’ and holiday experiences he had hoped to represent only a few years earlier.

References

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1087, ‘Le travail dans les studios’, 2 September 1939, p. 5.

Anon. Le Journal, ‘Quand les gosses du cinema s’en vont à la campagne’, 22 July 1942, p.2.

Anon. L’Œuvre, ‘Les Vacances des enfants du cinéma’, 7 July 1943 (NO PAGE INDICATED).

Anon. La France socialiste, ‘Des centres de protection pour les plus petits’, 9 October 1943, p.2.

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1164, ‘Les oeuvres sociales du cinéma: L’inauguration de la colonie de vacances de Campagne-lez-Hesdin’, 13 July 1946, p.18.

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1381, 1’Nouveaux salaires d’exploitation depuis le 1er septembre’. 116 September 1950, p.22.

Anon. Paris-presse, L’Intransigeant, ‘La nuit du cinéma, samedi au Gaumont Palace’, 4 May 1951, p.6.

Anon. Journal des débats politiques et littéraires, ‘Une colonie de vacances mitraillée par l’aviation anglo-américaine’, 12 July 1944, p.2.

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1360, ‘La colonie de vacances de l’entr’aide du cinéma’, 22 April 1950, p.14.

Anon. La Cinématographie française 1407, ‘Nuit du cinéma: 5 mai au Gaumont Palace’,  10 March 1951, p.23.

Lucie Derain, ‘René Clair nous parle d’Air pur’, La Cinématographie française 1072, 19 May 1939, p.36

C.H. Dobinson, P.A. Rey-Herme, La Colonie de Vacances hier et aujoud’hui. In International Review of Education, Vol 2, No 2, 1956, pp. 224-225.

URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3441622 (accessed 10.07.2021).

Laura Lee Downs, Histoire des colonies de vacances : de 1880 à nos jours, Editions Perrin, 2009.

Edmond Épardaud, ‘Dans les studios’, La  Cinématographie française, 1090-1092, 6 October 1939, p.7.

Nino Frank, ‘René Clair et les 200 gosses d’Air pur ont pris la clef des champs’, Pour Vous 559, 2 August 1939, pp. 6-7.

Philippe Autrive, La fertéalais.com: URL: https://www.lafertealais.com/monsieur-jean-quere-animateur-de-colonie-en-1944-au-chateau-de-la-michaudiere-pres-de-la-ferte-alais/ (accessed 4 August 2021).

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