The Cannes Film Festival, Episode 110

Cannes Film Festival photo Cal4beach
Cannes Film Festival photo Cal4beach

The Cannes Film Festival draws big names and big crowds, but on the day of its birth it seemed to be heading towards failure. On the occasion of the 69th International Film Festival opened in Cannes on Wed, May 5th 2016, we look back at this annual ritual starting with its humble first iteration and discuss some of the movies that were celebrated over the years.

Recommended Hotel: in Cannes we like the Okko Hotel Centre.

To Prepare for Your Trip: The Cannes Starter Guide

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The Cannes Film Festival

As you may have gathered if you’ve been listening to the show for a while, I am not much of a socialite and I don’t work in the film industry. But the Cannes film festival is a huge event. You may think, yes, but America has the Oscars and that’s what counts. Yes, the Oscars are huge, but they are an award ceremony, not a film festival. Cannes is a film festival. The biggest film festival in America is Sundance, that Robert Redford started at his home resort of Sundance in Utah. Lovely place, Sundance, but a much younger film festival. There are many other film festivals all over the world, but for some reason the ones at Cannes and Sundance are the ones I always hear about.

How did the Cannes Film Festival start?

Who started it? Philippe Erlanger can be credited for getting it started, along with his friend Jean Zay who is credited for a lot of things. On Sept 3, 1938, a young man who is trained as a historian and works as a public servant, is  invited to represent the French Government at the Mostra Film Festival in Venice. At the time Italy is under the rule of Mussolini even though this happens before the war. This young Philippe Erlanger is happy because a French movie is rumored to be one of the favorites that year, it’s a movie called Le quai des brumes (Port of Shadows). Then he hears that the German minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels is going to be at the festival in person and that both Hitler and Mussolini want a movie called Olympia to win. It’s a German propaganda movie about the 1936 summer Olympics and a love song to the Aryan race. The Americans refuse to attend the festival, the English leave the festival, and this young French man gets back on the night train to Paris and stops at Cannes, sees the glorious beach and palm trees and thinks this is a beautiful place. Then he gets back onto the train and goes to meet with his friend Jean Zay who is the minister of culture at the time—and now in the Pantheon following his heroic acts of resistance. Erlanger tells his friend Jean Zay that they must react to this provocation by the Germans and Italians by instituting a film festival for free nations. Then they wonder where they should host it. Maybe in Algers (which is French at the time), maybe in Vichy (which is not yet the capital of collaboration), maybe Biarritz, and why not Cannes? They were looking for a large city where people liked to go vacation.

Cannes Film Festival

Once the proposal is made, the city of Cannes offers to pay for the whole thing, and that’s why the festival is established there. They work hard on this project, and the first Festival de Cannes takes place just over 1 year later. The world loves this idea. American stars arrive on hydroplanes that land in the bay of Cannes, the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor come by train with 100 suitcases, and the Cannes Casino houses a fantastic dinner. This Casino is not there anymore, but I’m told it looked like a train station and was not all that interesting. On the first night of the festival suddenly the weather turns and some strong wind destroy a lot of the decor, beach chairs fly around, and people see this as a bad omen. This first festival didn’t get to continue beyond that first day because the next day, Sept 1, 1939, Hitler has decided to invade Poland. On Sept 2nd, England declares war to Germany, and on Sept 3rd, France declares war against Germany. That first iteration of the Cannes Festival ended poorly.

The Cannes Festival is on hold during the war but resumes in 1946. France is still recovering from the war, the French are still hungry and broken. The Americans and the Russians start jockeying for power. The English dock a small aircraft carrier in the bay, the Russians throw a cocktail party with Vodka and Caviar, while the Americans have all the whisky and appetizers you can eat. The people of Cannes are very happy to get some nice food and drink and welcome them all! There were giant picnics, and on the beach in Cannes regular people could be seen talking to the stars. It was all friendly and not at all what it became later with security and strict divisions, etc. The first bikinis appear in Cannes. Fashion models are too modest to be seen in a bikini, but a young lady who poses nudes for artists doesn’t care and shows up on the beach with the first bikini! As a result she gets 5000 love letters. Which goes to show you that some men are shallow, but it’s funny anyway. It was always a mixture of low-brow entertainment mixed with some of the most brilliant and creative people. For example, the fist person to preside the Cannes Film Festival was Louis Lumière, the man who invented movie technology! And at first there were no prizes per se. People came to present their movies and lots of people when home with a prize. It became more competitive later on. It was, and is, a place where people meet, exchange idea, start projects, etc. But it’s hard to keep real now that there are so many people there. I was there one year and it was so busy, just crazy for me. But I’m sure for people who love the movies and work in the industry, it must be exhilarating. Next year it’ll be the 70th anniversary, it’s going to be truly crazy. The Cannes Festival has grown in size every year, it’s just crazy.

Palais des Festivals et des Congrés photo Timantha
Palais des Festivals et des Congrés photo Timantha

Early Winners at the Cannes Film Festival

French people like to say that the Cannes festival only gives awards to films nobody wants to see. I think they have a point. But it wasn’t always that way and it doesn’t have to keep being that way.

Let me set the stage: a beautiful resort with a beach front lined with palm trees, a red carpet, limousines, stars wearing high fashion gowns, film executives and film producers who go from one meeting to the other, and press from all over the world, cocktail parties, overbooked hotels, and lots of gawkers. For 11 days in May, Cannes is the hotspot of glamor and fame. It used to be that you could talk to the stars on the Croisette (name of the Cannes board walk), but it rarely happens any more. The whole thing is orchestrated and the public is held at bay behind well-guarded barricades—I know, that’s where they parked me. The movies are shown, seen, and critiqued by licensed film critics. You cannot buy a ticket to that movie theater, sorry listeners!

Oct 5th 1946 is the end of the first Cannes festival. They shot some fireworks, they had some cocktail parties, but the first festival de Cannes itself was a messy affair. They had lots of breakdowns, film broke, the power stopped working, they lost film and they mixed up film reels. It was a mess. The American and Russian delegations accused one another of sabotage, and of course it was nothing of the sort, it was just poor organization. That year Hitchcock was presenting his movie Notorious, well, it was interrupted a few times because of technical issues.

At the time the jury was made up of 17 MEN, yes, men only, from the countries where the movies were from. There were 45 movies and 68 shorts presented that year and the Festival was housed in the Casino in Cannes. That year, to spare everyone from hard feelings, they delivered 11 prizes. It was like Kindergarten, everybody wins!!! But the highest honor goes to Roberto Rossellini Roma Citta Aperta, it’s a movie about a young engineer in Rome who tries to escape the Nazis. This movie was made in 1946, one year after the end of WWII, and it was not a blockbuster. Three years later (Sept 1949) the festival is 3 years old and has already moved to a bigger and better place: the Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, a gorgeous convention center right on the water.

The Bay of Cannes, photo Ludovick
The Bay of Cannes, photo Ludovick

Anyway, that year 1949, another Nazi story gets the prize: The Third Man by Carol Reed. I bet if you don’t remember the movie, you remember this tune by Anton Karas. This movie was filmed in the ruins of the city of Vienna, such as it was left at the end of WWII, Orson Wells is in this movie, and it’s about an American who goes to Vienna to find a friend of his and finds out that his friend is at the center of an illicit drug trade (penicillin, not the kind of drug trade we think of today). This movie is probably the first movie to win the Cannes Festival to go on to become a movie standard that lots of people have seen and love.

In April 1953, the Cannes Film Festival has moved to the Spring, which is more pleasant weather-wise (not sure that’s still true today, but let’s not digress on the weather!) the Grand Prix is awarded by author and film-maker Jean Cocteau to another mythical movie: the Wages of Fear by French-Italian film maker by Henri-Georges Clouzot and starring Yves Montand.

1956, 9th Cannes Festival, by now this Festival is a big deal, Picasso and Brigite Bardot are in attendance, for the first time a documentary gets awarded the Grand Prix, a documentary that inspired a lot of love for the oceans in a lot of people, including me: The Silent World by Jacques-Yves Cousteau. I loved that movie and watched it on TV whenever it came on. I also read the book and pretty much memorized the coffee table book inspired by this movie that somebody gave me as a kid. This is the movie that made Cousteau famous world-wide.

In 1963,  a movie called The Leopard wins, a movie by Visconti starring Burt Lancaster, Alain Delon and Claudia Cardinale who even posed on the beach at Cannes with a real leopard, which drew a lot of attention! It’s a historical saga about Garibaldi and the unification of Italy. This was one of the first high budget movie, and it’s a really long movie, 3 hours and 50 minutes, not my thing, but it was a popular movie.

In 1964 Catherine Deneuve appears on the scene, she’s only 20, and the movie is Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (the Umbrellas of Cherbourg) and this one is strange because it is a singing movie, much like an opera, where even regular dialogue is sung. The music was by the wonderful Michel Legrand, I’m sure you’ve heard some of it. It’s a love story, of course, the young couple has to face many obstacles, including the war in Algeria where they young man has just been called to serve. Again, there was some nice attention-getting going on, when people showed up for the movie they were all given an umbrella, and as the exited the theater, firemen sprayed water on them, so they all opened their umbrellas! This movie was an enormous success in France.

1970, in the middle of the Vietnam war, the anti-war movie by Robert Altman, M*A*S*H* wins the Grand Prix. This movie is not appreciated by everybody, Kurt Douglas says he hated it and leaves during the deliberations and the vote. As much as I loved MASH the TV series, I must admit the movie didn’t do much for me either.

1976, a movie by a young Martin Scorsese, Taxi Driver wins the prize. Robert DeNiro is the driver. Jodie Foster is only 13 and appears in this movie. Spectators are shocked by the violent ending of the movie, and so is the person delivering the Grand Prix, Tennessee Williams.

Cannes Bay photo Tim Gage
Photo Tim Gage


2 thoughts on “The Cannes Film Festival, Episode 110”

  1. Thank you, thank you! I have always wanted to know what a particular songs was that sometimes runs through my head. It was the theme you played from “Les Parapluies de Cherbourg” which won Cannes in 1964. I have now downloaded this song, and am currently downloading the entire movie. I think I will watch it during my trip next week to Normandy—where, ironically enough, I will return to Paris via train from Cherbourg.
    Merci beaucoup!

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