Cannes Film Fest: Early Years, 1938-1945–Reasons for its Creation; Choosing Cannes as Location

Cannes Film Fest: Early Years

In 1939, the French Government decided not to participate at the Venice Film Festival anymore, but instead to host its own festival in Biarritz, Cannes or Nice.

The Cannes Film Festival has its origins in 1938, when Jean Zay, the French Minister of National Education, following the proposal of high-ranking official and historian Philippe Erlanger and film journalist Robert Favre Le Bre, decided to set up an international cinematographic festival. They found the support of the Americans and the British.

The French motivation was to compete with the Venice Festival, which at the time was the only international film festival, and showed lack of impartiality with its fascist bias. The political interference seemed evident in the 1937 edition, when Benito Mussolini meddled to ensure that Renoir’s French pacifist film, La Grande Illusion would not win.

The last straw was the 1938 event, when Mussolini and Hitler respectively overruled the jury’s decision in order to award the Coppa Mussolini (Mussolini Cup) for the Best film to the Italian war film, Luciano Serra, Pilot, produced under the supervision of Mussolini’s son. The Coppa Mussolini for Best foreign was given to Olympia, a German documentary about the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics produced in association with the Nazi Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, despite the fact that the regulations prohibited awarding a documentary.

Outraged by the decision, and as measure of protest, the French, British, and American jury members decided to withdrew from the festival, with the intention of not returning. This snub encouraged the French to found a free festival. Thus, on May 31, 1939, the city of Cannes was selected as the location for the festival over Biarritz. The town hall, along with the French government, signed the International Film Festival’s official birth certificate, naming the event, Le Festival International du Film.

The reason for favoring Cannes was its touristic appeal as a French Riviera resort town, and also because the city hall offered to increase the municipality’s financial participation, including commitment to build a dedicated venue for the event.

The first edition was planned to be held from September 1 to 10, 1939 in the auditorium at the Municipal Casino, with Louis Lumière as the honorary president. Its aim was “encouraging the development of all forms of cinematographic art and foster a spirit of collaboration between film-producing countries.”

Hollywood stars, such as like Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Tyrone Power, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mae West, Norma Shearer, Paul Muni, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, and George Raft arrived with an Ocean liner chartered by MGM.

On August 31, the opening night gala took place with the private screening of the American film The Hunchback of Notre Dame starring Charles Laughton and Maureen O’Hara and directed by William Dieterle.

The next day, September 1, German troops invaded Poland. As a result, the festival was postponed for 10 days. However, the situation only worsened and on September 3, France and the UK declared war against Germany, which sparked the Second World War. The French government ordered  general mobilization, which prevented the festival from continuing, and so it was finally cancelled.

In 1946, the festival was relaunched, from September 20 to October 5, during which 21 countries presented their films at the First Cannes International Film Festival, which took place at the former Casino of Cannes.

In 1947, amid serious problems of efficiency, the festival was held as the “Festival du film de Cannes,” where films from 16 countries were presented.

The festival was not held in 1948 and 1950 due to budgetary problems.

In 1949, the Palais des Festivals was constructed on the seafront promenade of La Croisette, although its inaugural roof, still unfinished, blew off during a storm.

In 1951, the festival was moved to spring to avoid direct competition with the Venice Festival which was held in autumn.