June 21, 2024

The First Cannes Film Festival

The first Cannes film festival was held in 1939. It was founded to showcase world cinema, and as a rebuke to fascism.

Count Giuseppe Volpi
Count Giuseppe Volpi

Predating Cannes was the Venice Film Festival, which started in 1932.

Venice was the brainchild of Count Giuseppe Volpi di Misurata, a hotel entrepreneur and enthusiastic supporter of Benito Mussolini; Volpi had previously been finance minister in the fascist government.

His motivations were not artistic. Volpi owned several hotels in Venice, and saw the festival as a means to generate tourist revenue. Using his government connections, he had himself appointed head of both the Film Festival, and the parallel art festival, the Biennale.

Poster for the first Venice Film Festival
Poster for the first Venice Film Festival

The first edition of the Venice film festival was based in Volpi’s own Excelsior Hotel, and ran from 6 – 21 August. Films were screened on the hotel’s terrace.

A strong line up of movies was assembled, including classics like ‘It Happened One Night’ and ‘Grand Hotel.’

The opening night film was ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’, a recent adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson book directed by Rouben Mamoulian, and starring Frederic March.

A scene from 'A Nous La Libertie'
A scene from ‘A Nous La Libertie’

There was no festival jury in the first year, so the audience were able to vote for their own award winners. One of these was the film ‘A Nous la Liberte’, which was voted ‘Funniest Film.’

This French farce tells the story of an escaped prisoner who becomes a successful industrialist, then has to cover up his past when an old prison friend shows up. While the film was well received, it had some interference; Fascist censors cut several scenes from it, for their anti-establishment ideas.

Overall, the festival was considered a great success; people had turned out in numbers, to watch a strong slate of films. It was subsequently established as an annual event, and quickly became Europe’s foremost film forum.

Palazzo del Cinema
The ‘Palazzo del Cinema’

In 1937, the Venice Film Festival moved to a new home.

From this date it would be situated on the Lido, a barrier island in the lagoon fronting the city, that was popular with tourists. A purpose built venue, the Palazzo del Cinema, was constructed there with a 2 000 seat capacity, to serve as a festival hub. Suiting the times, and its Fascist government sponsors, the cinema was designed in the imposing ‘brutalist’ style.

Government support would come with conditions. Volpi would remain the head of the festival, but now Fascist officials would have a greater say in what films were shown, and how it was run.

Their influence was felt straight away.

La Grande Illusion: Humanity trumps war
La Grande Illusion: Humanity trumps aggression

The 1937 line up featured government approved Italian and German content, alongside chancier material from overseas. One of the most high profile films shown was ‘Le Grande Illusion’, directed by Jean Renoir.

Set during World War I, the film shows two French officers who are shot down over German lines, and sent to a prisoner of war camp. There, one of them strikes up a friendship with the commandant, an aristocratic solider with an ingrained, old fashioned, set of principles.

Renoir’s film shows soldiers as human beings trapped by circumstance, able to transcend the brutality of their environment by remembering their humanity. The haunting, mournful movie was a huge critical and commercial success on release, and has become one of the most famous films in history.

The Venice jury were equally impressed, and set to award it the festival’s top prize, ‘The Mussolini Cup.’ Then Mussolini himself intervened.

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini

Acting on a protest by Adolf Hitler, outraged by the film’s sentiment and pacifist undertones, Mussolini pressured Volpi to change the jury’s decision. Volpi did as instructed.

To try and placate the festival’s French delegation, the award now went to another of their submissions, the more innocuous comedy-drama ‘Un carnet de bal’.

Hitler was placated, but not satisfied; ‘Le Grande Illusion’ was immediately banned in Germany. Goebbels referred to it as ‘cinematic enemy number one.’

Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler: secret film fan

Adolf Hitler was a great fan of movies.

A frustrated artist in his youth, even as a political leader he still took an interest in many forms of art, but had a particular fascination with cinema. Hitler recognised its potential as a propaganda tool, and often fixated on anything that indicated the cultural reach of the United States.

He also just enjoyed watching films. Albert Speer, his architect, and armaments minister, observed it was one of the rare things he did for relaxation:

‘Every evening a crude movie projector was set up, to show a newsreel and one or two movies. The choice of films was a matter Hitler discussed with Goebbels.


Frequently we saw foreign films, including those that were withheld from the German public. Many were shown twice, or even more often.


His preferences, and the habit of seeing one or two films every evening, continued until the beginning of the war.’


– Albert Speer, ‘Inside the Third Reich’

Hitler was said to be a fan of ‘King Kong’, but dismissive of Charlie Chaplin, who had parodied him in ‘The Great Dictator’.

Leni Riefenstahl in 'Das Blaue Licht'
Leni Riefenstahl in ‘Das Blaue Licht’

A German film maker that Hitler admired was Leni Riefenstahl.

Hitler had first become acquainted with her through the film ‘Das Blaue Licht’, released in 1932. The film was a kind of historical fable, with Riefenstahl playing an eccentric loner who the local villagers think is a witch.

While on the surface, an unusual choice of movie for the future dictator, Hitler was most taken with the film’s visuals; it was set in the Alps, and featured spectacular shots of the mountain scenery. Hitler had built his personal villa, known as ‘Berghof’, in a similar location.

As well as acting, Riefenstahl had also co-directed the film, close to unheard of at the time for a woman.

Apocalyptic vision: Triumph of the Will
Apocalyptic vision: Triumph of the Will

That same year, Riefenstahl saw Hitler deliver one of his famous speeches.

‘I had an almost apocalyptic vision that I was never able to forget.


It seemed as if the Earth’s surface were spreading out in front of me, like a hemisphere that suddenly splits apart in the middle, spewing out an enormous jet of water, so powerful that it touched the sky and shook the earth.’


– Leni Riefenstahl, on seeing Hitler

The two would subsequently meet, and Hitler would employ the film maker on two projects that made her name. The first, ‘Triumph of the Will’, took Hitler’s appearance at a rally in Nuremberg and turned it into a hypnotic, apocalyptic, cinematic experience.

The second was a documentary about the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin.

The Olympic torch in Nazi Germany
The Olympic torch in Nazi Germany

Hitler had intended the Olympics as a global showcase for the success of his Nazi regime.

His ambitions for the movie of the event were equally high. This was the first documentary ever made of an Olympic Games, and he expected something epic in scope.

Riefenstahl rose to the challenge with a fierce work ethic, and no shortage of technical innovation. She and her crew would pioneer a number of filmmaking methods, that would subsequently become widely used.

Camera track was laid around the stadium, to allow for dramatic motion shots. Multiple cameras were deployed, to ensure the widest range of editing options. A waterproof camera, operated by a diver, was used for underwater shots in the aquatic stadium. Riefenstahl would also source amateur footage from spectators, and mix this into her final cut, heightening the sense of a first hand perspective.

The film would be titled ‘Olympia’, a reference to the Gods of classical civilisation, that summarised Hitler’s aspirations in a single word.

Promotional poster for 'Olympia'
Promotional poster for ‘Olympia’

Due to the enormous amount of footage shot, post production on the documentary would take two years. When it was released in 1938, it was met with acclaim from film critics and cinephiles, dazzled by the innovative approach.

Hitler was highly pleased with the outcome, and the film was awarded Germany’s top cinema award, the National Film Prize.

In August of that year, it was scheduled as part of the 6th Venice film festival.

Poster for 'Luciano Serra, Pilot'
Poster for ‘Luciano Serra, Pilot’

The festival line up that year was heavy with high profile American films.

Among these, ‘Jezebel’, a historical drama starring Bette Davis, and ‘Pygmalion’, based on George Bernard Shaw’s popular play, both of which were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Count Volpi was again head of the jury.

But once the festival was underway, a scandal erupted.

Some jury members leaked that the festival prize winners had been decided in advance. At the insistence of German officials, ‘Olympia’ would win the Mussolini Cup, for Best Foreign Film. Meanwhile, ‘Luciano Serra, Pilot’, produced by Mussolini’s son, would win Best Italian Film.

The French, British and American delegations immediately withdrew from the festival in protest.

Cannes, on the French Riviera
Cannes, on the French Riviera

Resentment over Fascist interference in Venice had been building for some time, and this more overt meddling proved the final straw. French film figures would now look to create their own film festival, to compete with Venice.

Historian Philippe Erlanger, journalist Robert Favre Le Bret, and cinema pioneer Louis Lumiere lead the push, with Government sponsorship from Jean Zay, the Minister for Education.

Two candidate cities were considered, Biarritz, and Cannes; both popular tourist destinations in the south of France. Cannes was eventually selected as its location, on the French Riviera, was thought likely to most appeal to film stars and celebrities, who the organisers hoped would attend.

Cannes’ municipal authorities had also agreed to help cover the costs.

Promotional flyer for the first Cannes film festival, 1939
Promotional flyer for the first Cannes film festival, 1939

The first Cannes film festival, originally dubbed ‘The International Film Festival’, was scheduled for 1 – 20 September 1939. Louis Lumiere would be the honorary President, and Le Bret head of the jury.

The aim of the festival was ambitious:

‘Encouraging the development of all forms of cinematographic art and foster a spirit of collaboration between all film-producing countries.’


– Cannes Mission Statement

MGM chartered an ocean liner to transport a number of Hollywood stars across the Atlantic for the opening night; Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mae West, James Cagney and Spencer Tracy among them.

The new festival’s organisers also sent a notice to their counterparts in Venice, formally withdrawing France from that year’s festival.

Newspaper headline, September 1 1939
September 1 1939

The opening night film was ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’, directed by William Dieterle.

That same day, September 1, 1939, came the news everyone had been dreading, since Hitler’s rise to power: German forces had invaded Poland.

The French government immediately ordered a general mobilisation of its Army, while both France and Britain issued an ultimatum to the German government: withdraw their troops, or face the consequences. Hitler refused to blink. Two days later, France and England declared war on Germany.

The second world war had begun.

Poster for the 1946 Cannes film festival
Poster for the 1946 Cannes film festival

The Cannes film festival was called off, and then cancelled, after just the opening night screening. It would not return until 1946; the French government hoped it would lure tourists, and some much needed revenue, back to their war ravaged country.

It has been held every year since, except 1948 and 1950, when the post war budget meant no funds were available. The festival was also cancelled in 1968, to show solidarity with the May 68 movement.


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