French History @ the IHR

French History @ IHR: Cinema, Protest and the Interwar

Date & Place: Monday 14 November, Pollard Room, IHR, North block, Senate House

Speakers: Annie Fee (UCL)

Paper Title: ‘Give Me Shelter: Cinemas and Working-Class Life in Inter-War Paris’

Devanture du cinéma du Panthéon, 13 rue Victor-Cousin, Paris (Ve arr.), France, 25 octobre 1918, (Autochrome, 9 x 12 cm),  Auguste Léon, Département des Hauts-de-Seine, musée Albert-Kahn, Archives de la Planète, A 14 988
Devanture du cinéma du Panthéon, 13 rue Victor-Cousin, Paris (Ve arr.), France, 25 octobre 1918, (Autochrome, 9 x 12 cm),
Auguste Léon, Département des Hauts-de-Seine, musée Albert-Kahn, Archives de la Planète, A 14 988

Anna Fee recently joined us to discuss her work on the cinema and protest in interwar France. Here, she discusses some of the issues raised in her paper: ‘During the Great War, Parisian cinemas cradled the people of Paris in their warm, smoke-filled theatres with visions of Charlie Chaplin, the fearless Pearl White and merciless Musidora. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that an explosion of cinema attendance accompanied the war.

Magic City, août 1914, photo Charles Lansiaux. L'établissement de magic city converti en caserne pour les territoriaux
Magic City, août 1914, photo Charles Lansiaux. L’établissement de magic city converti en caserne pour les territoriaux

Owners of the roughly 200 cinemas in Paris could thank organised labour for this sudden increase in attendance. After the war, the major trade union confederation, the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), launched a campaign to secure an eight-hour workday and threatened to take to the streets en masse on May Day 1919 if their demands were not met. Once a certain measure of leisure time was secured, a circular process of self-reinforcement emerged as unionists transformed cinemas into spaces not only for leisure but also spaces to fight for leisure as well as for a range of other demands.  The bourgeois classes worried that workers would spend their newfound leisure time at the wine merchant, but rather than lead the workers to alcoholism, the law led them to regularly attend their local cinemas, both to watch films and to meet with their fellow union members. In direct response to this new audience, exhibitors sought to profit by building cinemas in working-class neighbourhoods of Paris where men and women could spend their “eight hours of play.” By reconstructing the social fabric within which Parisian neighbourhood cinemas emerged and gained meaning during and after the Great War we can reach beyond cultural histories of intellectual cinephilia and reveal how cinemas provided a space where working-class Parisians could create a cultural subjectivity consciously opposed to the aesthetic criteria of the bourgeois public sphere.’

M. Marcel Cachin - quelques communistes devant son domicile 4, rue Ordener 1923 Agence Meurisse
M. Marcel Cachin – quelques communistes devant son domicile 4, rue Ordener 1923 Agence Meurisse

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