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G - 8 : Cannes - When the Film Industry Stood up to Dictators

Photographers and Movie Stars were from the Beginning Part of the Cannes Film Festival - Could not find the Name of the Actress - the Photo is from Twitter

Every year in May, the famous and beautiful in the world of movie and fashion descend on Cannes – the Palais des Films opens its doors, the red carpet is rolled out, stars and starlets stress about what to wear, the photographers check their power packs, wannabees desperately try to book the last available hotel room. The film festival on the Côte d’Azur is a tradition since 1946. So is the eruption of flash lights for celebrities prominent enough to walk up the red stairs to the Palais des Films.

The Palais des Films is just to the right of Cannes Yacht Harbour

In our digital world where we stream movies from Netflix, Amazon or Apple and watch them at home on our laptops and iPads, cinema has lost a lot of its allure. But telling a beautiful story still fascinates and people want to see their stars in real life. The digital age may change Cannes but the Cannes Film Festival will go on.

Official Poster for the First Film Festival in Venice in 1932

The event has its origin in the struggle between western democracies and fascist regimes which eventually led to the Second World War. Movies were a new media in the 20th century. The first cinema dates back to 1905 and was opened in Pittsburgh. Movies with sound are even younger and arrived in 1927. The first film with synchronized sound was “The Jazz Singer”, the story of a boy who wanted to be a singer but was forced to become a rabbi.

Official Poster for the Movie from 1927

Mussolini’s and Hitler’s propagandists immediately understood the potential of motion pictures. They could create a virtual reality and peddle the illusion of progress and peace whilst in fact preparing for war. It was Mussolini’s Finance Minister, Giuseppe Volpi, who had the idea for an international film festival in Venice. In 1932, two years before Hitler ascended to power, Mussolini still cultivated the myth of a modernist who would improve the Italians’ well-being and happiness. His intentions though was the conquest of the Mediterranean.

In 1947, after the War, the Venice Film Festival took place in the Court of the Doge Palace

The festival in Venice was launched with fanfare. Nine nations participated. At the opening, the American movie “Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was shown. Due to the Great Depression, the next festival was only held two years later. But Venice was the place where the global movie industry met. It was the only international film festival. Few years after the invention of sound movies, the industry was still in its infancy. There were not many films; the high volume production of Hollywood a few decades away. Most movies were made in England, France, Germany and Italy in places like the Cinecittà near Rome which still can be visited.

Leni Riefenstahl was Hitler's favourite film director - here during the filming of "Olympia"

After Hitler annexed Austria in 1938, world events took a nasty turn. The Italian jury stopped judging movies by their content and artistic value. Propaganda became the key factor. Not surprisingly, Italian and German movies won the trophies in 1938. Jean Renoir’s pacifist movie “La Grande Illusion” was cast aside. Leni Riefenstahl's documentary “Olympia” and “Luciano Serra, Pilota”, a film made by Mussolini’s son, won first price. Western movie makers realized they had to leave. Participating in the Venice festival meant supporting dictators. An alternative had to be found.

Note of the French Government on Cannes in 1939

The French Government took notice and evaluated Cannes, Biarritz and Nice as potential candidates. Cannes won. Its city council offered the best terms and promised to invest into the festival’s future. On the 31st of August 1939 the Cannes film festival opened with a dinner and the private screening of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. Guest from the US had come by an ocean liner chartered by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Poster for the First Film Festival on the Eve of WWII

On 1 September 1939 though, Hitler invaded Poland. The Second World War had started. The festival was suspended. Nine months later, Italian troops occupied Cannes. They stayed for four years until American Forces liberated it on 24th of August 1944. Luckily, Cannes survived almost intact. The heavy fighting took place further west in Frejus and Cavalaire.

Italian Occupying Forces stand Guard for a Fascist Party Leader and two Naval Officers

France was keen to re-start the Cannes festival as soon as possible. Major efforts were made to re-launch in 1946. On 20 September, the festival opened doors again. For a few days, the world of glitter and glamour descended on Cannes and gave the French a glimpse into a new, more prosperous life style where you could own a car, have a house and go on holiday.

Poster of the officially First Cannes Film Festival

Prominent stars from all over the globe attended Cannes' First official Film Festival. The French showed their own artistic achievements. In war-torn France where food and everyday goods were still rationed, it was a few days of joy, pride and happiness.

The famous French Singer Edith Piaf sang for the opening of Cannes in 1946

But the organizers' budgets were so stretched that the festival had to be cancelled in 1948 and 1950. Since then, the festival was held every single year – only interrupted by Covid in 2021.

Jean Cocteau on the beach with Michele Morgan 1946

Over its 75 years of existence, the Cannes Film Festival has significantly changed. Whilst the Palme d’Or is still the most prestigious award for movie directors, the festival has become much broader. It kind of fused with the French fashion industry who provides not only the gowns for the attending stars but also sends its models as guests and ambassadors. For celebrities of any kind, Cannes is a must and prominently figures in the diary.

Kate Blanchett in Givenchy and Jessica Jung in Ralph & Russo in Cannes in 2018

It is easy to assume that Cannes’ quality must have suffered. But opening the festival to small producers from around the globe introduced movies which otherwise would not make it on international stage. With its broad appeal, Cannes is more innovative than the Oscars or the Golden Globes in the United States. Am not so sure whether I would say the same about the fashion in Cannes. But this is in the eye of the beholder.

The Palme d'Or is still the most prestigious Film Award for a Movie Director

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