The Early Classic Era From Sound To The Second World

The advent of sound in 1929 inaugurated what is usually called the classic French cinema. Sound was a mixed blessing, at first viewed with suspicion by the industry because of the costly technological investment it required, all the costlier since France's only home-grown sound system was of poor quality and rapidly taken over by the German Tobis Klangfilm company. On the other hand, the language barrier introduced by sound ensured a viable domestic market for French films, while the standardisation of projection speed and running times imposed by higher overheads ensured that 'the cinema finally became a fully rationalised, mass-produced spectacle' (Williams, 1992: 182). The modern cinema industry can be said to have been born with the advent of sound.

Yet it is the 'classic' rather than the 'modern' label that seems on the whole more appropriate to the cinema of the 1930s - partly because so many of the French films now thought of as 'classics' date from this period, partly because it was characterised by the dominance of the classic industrial model of production. This was nowhere near as closely integrated in France as in the United States; Crisp speaks of'the atomised and relatively artisanal nature of the film "industry" in France ... and the lack of vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition sectors' (Crisp, 1993: xvi). Any national cinema in this period, however, was to some extent forced to define itself in relation to Hollywood, and the examples of Gaumont and Pathé - still major names in France - illustrate how important a factor the industrialisation of the medium was. Both companies, however, were to lose out to the USA in the 'trade wars', Pathé selling off its factory to Eastman-Kodak and Gaumont pyrrhically merging with MGM. Without the state and governmental support it was to enjoy in later years, this was a difficult period for French cinema.

Sound had a more conservative effect than we might imagine, for the opportunity to transfer literary and theatrical classics to the screen was liberally used, leading to a large number of uninspired journeyman adaptations. Moreover, despite a 1932 governmental decree that dubbing of foreign films into French had to be done in

France with French personnel, widespread fears were expressed that 'American cultural colonialism of the world could proceed unimpeded and French screens would be flooded with foreign imports' (Crisp, 1993: 25). The justification for such fears is nowadays, of course, all too plain to see; but the French film industry, and the French state, have always shown great tenacity in defending what is often known as France's 'cultural exception', and even without large-scale governmental assistance in the 1930s the industry's artisanal structure and largely successful resistance to the Depression were to ensure the production of many outstanding films.

Given the other constraints mentioned, however, it is possible to see how a filmmaker such as René Clair may have been more justified than might now appear in lamenting the loss of the silent cinema's originality and universality. Clair, nevertheless, adapted rapidly enough to become the French cinema's first, and (apart from Jacques Demy) to this day only, leading director of musical comedies. Sous les toits de Paris (1930) is, as its title suggests, an evocation of the picturesqu'e 'people's Paris' that was to figure importantly in films of the period, culminating in Renoir's Le Crime de Monsieur Lange ( 1936). A nous la liberté ( 1931 ) satirises the very mass-production technologies of entertainment that made it possible, with its scenes in a prison and a phonograph factory structurally almost indistinguishable from each other. Le Million (1931) choreographs the frantic search for a missing lottery ticket; even from so apparently Arcadian a world as Clair's, the economy of pleasure is rarely absent. Clair's work may now appear slightly fey and insubstantial, but the visual verve of A nous la liberté in particular, and its satirisation of the nascent modern entertainment industry of which the film is itself an example, do not deserve the neglect into which they have latterly fallen.

Jean Vigo made only two films of any length before his death at the age of 29 in 1934. Zéro de conduite (1933) had to be left partially incomplete because his time in the studio ran out, and L'Atalante (1934) was not a script of his choosing. Yet the first film's evocation of a revolt in a boys' boarding school, and the second's tale of life on a canal barge, have nothing of the journeyman about them; cinema as dream - the Surrealists' ideal - here reaches an apotheosis. Zéro de conduite was banned by the government virtually on release, perhaps surprisingly considering the innocence of its central characters' uprising (they use no weapons more deadly than tiles torn from the school roof). Yet we should remember that the 1930s was a decade of intense social instability in France, threatened with recession in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash and for much of the decade at risk from German expansionism. The brief interlude of the left-wing Popular Front government, which introduced paid holidays and the 40-hour working week before its downfall, came to stand out in popular memory as a moment of solidarity and togetherness

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