Touring the French studios

By Morgan Lefeuvre

Closed to the public – which gave them a dose of mystery and enhanced their appeal – the French studios welcomed throughout the period (and particularly in the 1930s) many representatives of the press, but also of political, economic or social circles. The studio visits, often reported in detail in the press, served several purposes. These varied according to the period but also according to who organised them: the studio management, an independent producer, or even bodies outside the film production community.

At the beginning of the 1930s, the transition to sound led to a profound renewal of the French cinematographic landscape, prompting studio managers to organise more and more studio tours for the press, to promote the excellence of their technical facilities. These sumptuous receptions almost all followed the same protocol: journalists were driven by coach from the centre of Paris to the studio where they were welcomed by a few representatives of the management and were then invited to visit the installations, before attending a screening and sharing a cocktail, or possibly a lunch. Here is how Marcel Carné, then a journalist for Cinémagazine, related the tour organised by the management of the Tobis studios in Epinay-sur-Seine in November 1929:

The coach has left Paris, and while the conversations are going on, the industrial landscapes of the northern suburbs pass by. […] At last we arrive, after the coach has turned into a small provincial street, calm and quiet. […] The dead leaves crunch under our feet as we get out of the vehicle. We inevitably pose in front of the photographer, click and already the kind and erudite technician A. P. Richard takes possession of our persons and leads us to the projection cabin [Cinémagazine, 8 November 1929, p. 214].

Although all the studios organised press receptions to show their new sound installations or present their productions, these receptions took on a remarkable importance in the biggest ones. They were particularly frequent at the Paramount studios in Saint-Maurice and the Pathé studios in Joinville, where journalists generally came in large numbers (several Pullmans were sometimes chartered for the occasion), partly because they were guaranteed to meet famous actors and to be served lunch, whereas the smaller studios generally only offered them a drink! Some privileged people sometimes visited the installations in smaller groups, or even alone in the company of a director, a scriptwriter, or a technician from the studio, who they were always proud to point out was a personal acquaintance. As a journalist from the Revue de Paris, who had come to visit Paramount Studios, reported with a touch of pride: ‘We find ourselves in front of an iron door of a suburban factory that can only be opened thanks to the signature of my companion Yves Mirande [Revue de Paris du 13 December 1932].

Although the first receptions organised during 1930 were mainly aimed at promoting the technical quality of the new installations, from the end of 1931 Pathé and Paramount organised press conferences at the studio in order to communicate on the good health of their company. While activity at Joinville slowed down considerably between December 1931 and February 1932 (with two weeks of complete closure), Pathé’s management organised a large reception on 19 February, inviting the press to spend a full day at the studio with a programme of three screenings and a lunch in the company of the most popular stars: Gaby Morlay, Marcelle Chantal, Simone Cerdan, Ginette d’Yd, Victor Francen and Charles Vanel. The day ended with a cocktail party before the journalists returned to Paris by coach. As no shooting was in process, no set visits were organised and the reception took place exclusively between the projection rooms and the studio bar-restaurant [La Cinématographie française, 27 February 1932, p. 14 and Ciné-Journal, 26 February 1932, p. 9]. These types of receptions organised for the press had the function of reassuring film professionals and silencing the negative rumours that were sure to spread at the slightest sign of a loss of momentum in production. The reporter of La Cinématographie française seemed to be quite seduced, as indicated in the conclusion of his report: ‘In summary, good day, good work, fast and easy, in a silence respected by professional people, and three good films. In a next meeting, we will see Les Croix de bois, which everyone is waiting for impatiently’ [La Cinématographie française, 27 February 1932, p. 14]. At Paramount, a similar meeting was organized on June 24, 1931, in order to cut short the rumors of the closure of the Saint-Maurice studios [La Cinématographie française, 27 June 1931, p. 62].

Visitors in the yard of the Pathé studios in Joinville during the National Cinema Days in 1931 – © Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé

From 1929 onwards, and increasingly after 1933, press receptions were also organised in the studios by independent producers. Unlike the previous category, the aim here was not to showcase the studio itself, but rather a film, or possibly a production programme. These shorter receptions – no more than an hour or two – were often organised at the end of shooting in order to prepare for the promotion of the film, before its release on the screens. In September 1931, Super-Film, a rental and distribution company that had just started producing, organised a small reception in the Éclair studios in Épinay, on the set of its last film Prisonnier de mon cœur directed by Jean Tarride.

The journalists, received by MM. Weill, Chicherio and André Brûlé, were led into the studio where an amusing set by Meerson, representing a provincial prison, stood. Roland Toutain and Mary Glory performed a short scene from Prisonnier de mon cœur. Then Roland Toutain improvised an amusing little speech of welcome; Mr. Chicherio, the general secretary, explained what Super-Film was doing at present and what it intended to do: three new films to be made in two or three months. After a toast to the prosperity of Super-Film, the meeting ended [La Cinématographie française, 5 September 1931, p. 13].

Although these shots taken in the presence of the press were more staged than real, spontaneous work, the unpolished setting of the studio provided journalists with the feeling of seeing the work in progress, of entering into the secrets of creation, which gave their articles an additional attraction for the reader.

The studio also welcomed a wide variety of parties and receptions, the only purpose of which was to get people talking about both the studio’s directors and their prestigious visitors. People came to the studio to show themselves off, just as they would at the theatre or at an exhibition opening. In January 1930, a delegation of ‘personalities from the world of arts, literature and theatre’ visited the Joinville studios:

On Tuesday, Miss France 1930, accompanied by numerous personalities from the world of Arts, Letters and Theatre, visited the Pathé-Natan studios in Joinville.

Miss France 1930 attended the sound and talking shots of a scene from L’Enfant de l’amour, currently being directed by Marcel L’Herbier[…]. This visit of the most beautiful woman in France to the most beautiful studios in Europe was highly commented on [La Cinématographie française, 11 January 1930, p. 38].

This ‘pure courtesy’ visit had no other objective than to get the word out about the Pathé studios, beyond film circles, by feeding the society columns of the newspapers. A few weeks earlier, the winners of a beauty contest organised by Paris-Midi and Le Journal were received on the set of Augusto Genina’s Prix de Beauté, also in Joinville [La Cinématographie française, 5 October 1929, p. 15]. Among these numerous visits for free, the press regularly mentions actors who have come to see a few shots of a film directed by a ‘director friend’ or in which a ‘comrade’ was filming. The must was to be able to welcome a French star back from Hollywood, or even an American actor, to the set. La Cinématographie française presents as a great event, the visit of Cecil B. De Mille and Gary Cooper to the Saint-Maurice studios in July 1931, where they were accompanied by the French Minister of Public Education and Fine Arts, Mario Roustan [La Cinématographie française, 1st August 1931, p. 23]. Studio managers are quick to seize any chance they get to throw a party or an event that draws attention to their facilities. Whether it’s a visit to a monumental set, a scene with a lot of extras or the installation of new equipment, anything is considered an opportunity to invite the press and, if possible, the stars of the screen to spend a festive moment at the studio.

Cecil B. De Mille and Gary Cooper visit the Paramount Studios in Saint-Maurice near Paris in July 1931

Over time, the objectives of these tours and receptions diversified, with the studios regularly being used to help the country’s political, economic and commercial influence. Throughout the 1930s, many French and foreign politicians were welcomed to the Paris studios. The ministers responsible for the film industry (trade, fine arts, public education) but also members of parliament were regularly invited, mainly to Pathé and Paramount. If studio directors hoped to interest politicians in the functioning of production and to encourage them to defend the interests of the film industry in Parliament, French leaders also relied on the studios to highlight the technological and commercial dynamism of our industries in the eyes of foreign diplomats. The major Parisian studios thus welcomed many foreign delegations on official visits. The Ambassadors of Italy and Argentina, the Consuls of China and Egypt, the Resident General of Morocco, the Mayor of Tunis, the son of the King of Ethiopia and the Crown Prince of Morocco (then aged four!), all visited the Paramount and Pathé studios between June 1930 and August 1932. The purpose of these tours seems more diplomatic than economic. It was not directly a question of selling technology or films, but of honouring a friendly nation by receiving its representatives in what was then considered one of the jewels of French industry in terms of technical innovation and cultural influence.

Official visit of the Bey of Tunis and Prince Sidi Hassan (future King Hassan II of Morocco) to the Joinville studios in 1932 – © Fondation Jérôme Seydoux Pathé

Reserved for a few hand-picked personalities at the beginning of the 1930s, studio visits gradually opened up to a wider public, as their weight within the French film industry diminished. From the 1930s, visits were sometimes organised for members of associations or works councils. On 16 February 1935, members of the ‘Stenographic Alliance’ were welcomed to Joinville for a paid guided tour of the facilities [Bulletin trimestrielle de l’Alliance sténographique, January 1935, p. 3]. Each secretary was asked to pay 3 francs for a brief visit to the dream factory! At the end of the decade, the ‘Club des amis de Pour Vous’, a film magazine with a large circulation, regularly organised studio visits for its members, which were very successful [Pour Vous, 3 May 1939, p. 6]. In war time, tours of the studios began to be offered to the public to raise funds for various causes. During the Semaine du Cinéma, organised by the COIC, nearly 1,500 visitors flocked to the Saint-Maurice and Rue Francoeur studios to visit the facilities. The proceeds from these paid visits (10 Frs per person in 1941) were then donated to the POW relief fund [Aujourd’hui, 12 June 1941, p. 2]. After the war, the tradition continued and it was to help unemployed entertainment workers that the Buttes Chaumont studios opened their doors to visitors on Sunday 4 March 1945. Several hundred people came to visit the sumptuous medieval sets created by Max Douy for the film François Villon [Le Film français, 9 March 1945, p. 12]. Increasingly dilapidated and ageing, French studios no longer attracted foreign diplomats or Hollywood stars, but opened their doors to a public still keen to catch a glimpse for a few francs beyond the screen.

The public visits the sets of the film François Villon at the Buttes Chaumont studios – Regards, 15 March 1945

References

Anon. ‘Une journée de la presse à Joinville’, Ciné-Journal, no. 1173, 26 February 1932, p. 9.

Anon. ‘Paramount ne ralentit pas son activité en France’, La Cinématographie française, no. 660, 27 June 1931, p. 62.

Anon. ‘Miss France visite les studios Pathé’, La Cinématographie française, no. 584, 11 January 1930, p. 38.

Anon. ‘Au club des amis de Pour Vous’, Pour Vous, no. 546, 3 May 1939, p. 6.

Anon. ‘La visite des studios parisiens a obtenu un immense succès’, Aujourd’hui, 12 June 1941, p. 2.

Anon. ‘Les dimanches au studio’, Le Film français, no. 14, 9 March 1945, p.12.

Anon. [title missing] Revue de Paris du 13 December 1932. Archives BNF, coll. Rondel, RK 788.

Bulletin trimestrielle de l’Alliance sténographique, no. 116, January 1935, p. 3.

Marcel Carné,  ‘Le film parlant français – Une visite aux studios de la Tobis’, Cinémagazine, no. 45, 8 November 1929, p. 214.

Lucie Derain and Louis Saurel, ‘Studios’, La Cinématographie française, no. 665, 1 August 1931, p. 23.

J.M., ‘Prix de Beauté nous reçoit’, La Cinématographie française, no. 570, 5 October 1929, p. 15.

F. Morel, ‘Une journée aux studios Pathé-Natan’, La Cinématographie française, no. 695, 27 February 1932, p. 14.

Louis Saurel, Super-Film a reçu la presse aux studios Éclair d’Épinay’, La Cinématographie française, no. 670, 5 September 1931, p. 13.

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