Paramount in Paris
or, Babel by the Seine
Instead of looking at one movie or writing a more typical History Through Hollywood, this week I’m focusing on a strange chapter in movie history inspired by a recent encounter with Smartling, a company that offers a cloud-based translation service for apps, websites, and documents. In our wildly globalized world, it’s important to be able to communicate across borders and languages. But although the pace and extent of globalization have certainly accelerated in the last decades, it is not a new phenomenon.
Some industries have always had an international reach. Hollywood, for example (you knew I’d get there sometime), has looked beyond national borders from the very beginning. Today, Hollywood makes the majority of its profits overseas, but the American film industry has almost always had a healthy market share of international screens.
This foreign success was threatened, though, in the late 1920s when movies began to talk.
What had been a silent medium (though always accompanied by live music) began to change. Unlike the seemingly overnight transition depicted in Singin’ in the Rain (1952), sound conversion actually swept Hollywood and the world at varying speeds and with varying levels of enthusiasm.
It was an exciting, scary, and complicated transition for everyone involved. Some popular silent stars had unappealing voices or strong accents that effectively ended their careers, the patent situation of sound technology was a tangled mess, and filmmakers suddenly had to rethink their methods and work around the unwieldy new equipment. Singin’ in the Rain depicts this frustrating situation rather brilliantly:
Besides the enormous tasks of making sound pictures and wiring theaters, talking pictures had huge and potentially disastrous implications for Hollywood’s share of the foreign market. After all, Hollywood had dominated the worldwide market for the last several years; for instance, in the 1920s, American films captured about 70% of the French box office (Andrew). Silent film exported wonderfully, but when movies began to talk, many feared that the resulting language barriers would end film’s ability to transcend borders.
Hollywood wasn’t sure how to “translate” its films, and it feared losing the worldwide audience (and profits) it had enjoyed for the last decade. But other film industries were delighted by the language specificity offered by the sound film. Some filmmakers and studios in France, for example, looked forward to talkies “as a chance to recapture at least some of that audience which it had lost to American films around 1920” (Crisp).
But the American film industry was not going to relinquish its domination of the international market without a fight. The dubbing and subtitle technology was not yet advanced enough to be a viable option, so making movies in various languages was pretty much the only choice. So Hollywood decided to make foreign-language films to supply the world’s screens.
Unsurprisingly, most national cinemas were not excited to have America intrude upon their newly reclaimed territory. In March of 1930, an American film producer dismissed Europe’s alarm: “We know already what language is being used in England, in Germany, and in France against the American intrusion. And we know as well that those who clamor the loudest have been, and still are, our best clients” (Andrew). Hollywood had ruled the screens for a decade, and didn’t doubt it could satisfy its “best clients” even in their own languages.
And so the “American intrusion” began. Hollywood started “importing” international talent to make foreign-language films in America for export. This enabled the studios to make movies their way in their own backyard, just in languages besides English.
The second option devised to retain foreign audiences was a bit more extreme. The big American studios already had distribution offices and theaters dotting the globe, as you can see from this map of Paramount’s “empire” published in Motion Picture Herald in August, 1931:
But sound pushed the Hollywood studios to establish bases or expand their holdings overseas to film multiple-language versions (MLVs) with foreign casts. None of the studios, though, were as aggressive as Paramount in pursuing this goal. The company had been investigating producing films in France since 1923, but in 1929, spurred on by the success of talkies, Paramount got serious about the project.
Besides the newly raised language barriers of the sound film, Paramount had another powerful inducement to producing films in France: the American studios had made a great deal of money in France in the last decade, and legally a portion of those profits had to remain on French soil (a regulation intended to bolster the French film industry).
Paramount decided to spend some of their French-bound money producing sound films in foreign languages, and Robert T. Kane, the former general manager of Famous Players/Lasky studio in Astoria, New York, and a Paramount producer, arrived in Paris in 1929 to investigate the situation.
Kane, whom historian Colin Crisp describes as a “magnate with a big cigar and a little French,” liked what he saw, and since Paramount was flush with profits, the company decided to produce foreign-language films abroad. A headline in The New York Times on May 14, 1929 announced “Lasky Will Make Talkies in Europe: Producer Predicts Popularity on Continent by Reproduction with Native Casts.” Jesse Lasky, vice-president of Paramount, explained:
The sound movement in Europe is on in earnest…The Europeans’ acceptance of sound pictures will, of course, present new and difficult problems for the American film industry, but I feel confident we will solve them in a manner satisfactory to the Europeans.
He attempted to calm anxious Europeans by assuring them that “You can readily see that the so-called Americanization of the world’s screens will no longer be true…Instead; we will soon serve each country with talking films in its native tongue and by its own actors.” He outlined Paramount’s plan for sound production of MLVs in France, using French films as an example:
We will buy a story which has the distinct European appeal and at the same time contains all the elements of success for the American public. The film will be made in an American studio. Then, with this picture as a model, we will reproduce it faithfully in a French studio, but substitute an entire French caste [sic]. By saving on the very large cost of the original production, the reproduction abroad can be made for a small portion of the original cost.
It was an ambitious plan, and Paramount threw its resources into making its “reproduction” scheme a reality. In April of 1930, Paramount purchased the Aubert studio at Joinville-St. Maurice, about 26 km from Paris, and promptly destroyed most of it.
None of the French studios had been designed for sound production, so Paramount “totally dismantled the outdated Aubert studios already on the site…replacing them with an entirely new purpose-designed studio on the American model” (Crisp). The company poured money into the complex, building six new soundstages, and installing modern laboratories (Williams). All of this costly construction was undertaken in order to turn the relatively humble Joinville complex into something resembling a Hollywood studio. As Lasky excitedly said:
As to the prospects of Paris becoming a sort of European Hollywood, I think the chances are excellent, for from here we can draw upon the finest talent of the Old World and bring whole companies of actors to our Joinville studios with a minimum of time and expense. (“Paramount to Film Talkies in Europe: Will Solve Language Problem with Casts Composed of Foreign Actors.”)
The idea of a “European Hollywood” with huge studio complexes and constant production was quite unusual in France. The French film industry was comprised mostly of small production companies that usually rented studio space to produce one or two films before going bankrupt and starting over again. By contrast, Hollywood had by 1930 developed a producer-unit system in its huge, vertically integrated studios predicated on economies of scale, and it was this mode of production and the capital to support it that Kane brought to Joinville.
France did have a few large production companies, namely Pathé and Gaumont, but by this time in the late 1920s they had shifted focus from production and were facing financial troubles. The massive mergers that brought Gaumount-Franco-Film-Aubert (GFFA) into existence left it 98 million francs in debt at a time when huge expenditures were needed to sonorize studios and theaters (Crisp). To meet its financial obligations after a banking crisis in 1930, GFFA sold its distribution agencies and equipment factories, and found a willing buyer in Paramount for its Joinville property.
The same sort of situations that allowed Paramount to step in and buy the Joinville complex also enabled the studio to get a jump on sound production and exhibition in France. The smaller-scale operations of French studios and their precarious financial situations in the late 1920s and early 1930s meant that French companies were not rushing to complete the costly conversion of theaters and studios for sound. Add to this a complicated and risky patent situation regarding sound equipment, and it is no surprise that conversion in France was slow and uneven.
Paramount saw an opportunity, and jumped at it. Kane set to work creating his European Hollywood: “Telegrams, cables, and telephone messages flashed over Europe as [Kane] collected engineers, directors, actors, equipment” (“Letters and the Arts: Paramount’s Paris Studio.”) He recruited “an unprecedented concentration of talent—a who’s who of the best actors from theater in Europe and elsewhere” to his studio (Waldman).
The list of personnel is staggering: the directors who worked at Paramount at Joinville include Julien Duvivier, Serge de Poligny, Claude Autant-Lara, Marcel Pagnol, L’Herbier, Jean Renoir (he finished Boudu sauvé des eaux at the studio), Alberto Cavalcanti, and Alexander Korda. Actors at the studio included Françoise Rosay, Marguerite Moréno, Jeanne Fusier-Gir, Dalio, Jean Murat, Pierre Brasseur, Henri Garat, Michel Simon, Madeleine Renaud, Jean-Pierre Aumont, and the famous Argentine tango singer Carlos Gardel.
“The bulk of contemporary French dramatists” worked there, too: including Sacha Guitry, Pierre Benoit, Achard, Paul Colline, André Dahl, Yves Mirande, Poulbot, Saint-Granier, Pierre Wolff, and Henri Jeanson (Crisp).
Paramount budgeted $8,000,000 for French productions in 1931, which was about 20% of the company’s total production budget (Andrew). The average feature length film at the studio cost up to $100,000 and a short was about a tenth of that (Waldman). In his first year, Kane intended to produce “ninety full-length films and more than fifty short ones” (“Letters and Arts”).
To accomplish these production goals, Paramount in Paris set a frenzied pace. French critic Nino Frank, (who coined the term film noir fifteen years later), emphasized the incredible pace as well as the incredible capital at the studio, in his (slightly hyperbolic) description:
At St. Maurice, in the new studios of a Californian firm, with palm trees and swimming pools, they’re filming night and day, 12 films a week, 20 days per film, 80 stars on the set, and they’re advertising for actors, directors, and technicians who can work in all languages…The bosses are American, the administration Hungarian, the writers French, the directors Russian, the technicians German, the assistants Italian, the laborers from the Balkans. They film while eating, while sleeping, while swimming, while arguing. The great river of dollars flows endlessly. Millions are nothing, they build not even on chalk and on sand, but on champagne and caviar…(Crisp).
The original plan for Joinville was to make the same movie in about ten languages using different crews and actors, though “In many cases, for economy’s sake, only the closer shots were re-taken in different language versions, then interspersed with the more distant shots from the original American version” (Crisp). Most films were never made in the oft-quoted fourteen languages—instead the average was closer to four or five early on before the studio focused on Spanish, French and German-language versions and then just French. The films weren’t all mass-produced copies, either. More than a third of the films produced at the studio were original productions, especially towards the end of its existence.
The sheer number of people from different countries speaking different languages made comparisons to the Biblical Tower of Babel inevitable: “The resultant linguistic chaos, with several different directors and a dozen different casts all working in different languages and alternating in identical scenes on an identical set, earned for the studio the title Babel-sur-Seine” (Crisp).
You can see Paramount’s Babel (center image on the left page) in this 1931 Motion Picture Herald article celebrating Paramount’s 20th anniversary:
Making so many films in so many languages in only so many days was a logistical undertaking of the highest order. The process typically followed the pattern outlined for this Swedish language film at the studio:
As soon as the subject is chosen, the scenario department plans the continuity and Swedish dialogue. Then the personnel department busies itself finding actors suited to the different roles and settles all the questions connected with transporting them in a body from Stockholm to Paris…As soon as the actors have arrived, the costumers and designers start preparing costumes and scenery, and rehearsals commence. When the costumes and scenery are ready and the actors know their parts, the camera men take their places on the platform, along with the carpenters, electricians, property men, script girls, stage managers, sound engineers, and mechanics, who appear and disappear according to the need of the moment. Only then does the real filming and sound-recording begin (“Letters and Arts”).
Not only were languages flying around, but so were assorted tricks, styles, and filmic conventions. Babel-sur-Seine most likely had a large impact on film style and production just because it brought together so many different traditions and personnel who could learn from each other.
For example, the French film industry lacked “script girls,” assistants to the director who watched for script errors and technical problems during filming. Script girls were common in Hollywood, so naturally Paramount brought the position to Joinville. Script girls caught on and soon became a fixture on French sets. And Michel Kelber, a French cinematographer, remembers being taught an American lighting style where a strong key light was placed above and in front of an actor. Kane explained a classic Hollywood adage to the cinematographers working at Paramount: “Gentlemen, we are in the business of selling voices, and actors…” It was all about the stars, and Kelber remembers that
As a result, we had to constantly hold on the actors, film them in front, in full light, avoiding anything that might distract from the expression on their face. The Americans had developed a quite specific type of lighting setup for this purpose—a single spot from in front…this single unidirectional light, falling from above, came as a revelation to us…(Crisp).
Other stylistic options, conventions, and devices must have been traded back and forth between the different crews and actors as they milled about Babel by the Seine.
As you can see from Kelber’s story, Kane was extremely involved in the studio’s operations and earned a reputation for being a bit controlling. French filmmaker Marcel Pagnol, whose legendary film Marius (1931) took shape at the studio, became friends with Kane, and despite Pagnol’s dislike of the rigid hierarchy at the studio, he later wrote, “If I was later able to direct films, while at the same time administering a laboratory, studio facilities, and distribution agencies, I owe it to the friendship of Robert T. Kane” (Williams).
As Pagnol suggests, Kane was skilled at operating the studio, and Paramount in Paris was extremely productive; in only three years, 1930-33, the studio released 300 films. Indeed, Paramount made twenty-five French-language films in 1931-32 alone, which was more than any other production company in France: Pathé-Natan produced 20, Osso made 12, Haïk and Braunberger each produced nine, and Gaumont contributed 4. At the same time, sound films were overtaking theater as the more popular entertainment, growing from a 40% audience share in 1929 to a 64% share three years later (Crisp).
Paramount in Paris seemed to be a great success:
for the first two years of the decade everyone gleefully made lots of money. The French thronged to see sound films no matter where or how they were made. Hollywood resuscitated a collapsing market, taking all the risks and providing the enormous capital to make the sound film venture possible (Andrew).
But Paramount at Joinville was not to flourish long. The Great Depression hit the company hard, and Paramount began to flounder. It suffered massive losses in 1931-1932, going from profits of eighteen million dollars in 1930 to deficits of fifteen million in 1932 (Andrew).
In response to these losses, Paramount in Paris scaled back its production. In 1931, the company had begun to focus only on German, Spanish, and French films, down from the fourteen languages it had originally supported. In 1932, only two of the twenty-four French language films released were also filmed in another language, and in April of that year the studio announced that it would only make French films because it had “its hands full producing enough pictures to meet the French market demand” and it was “impractical” to continue to compete in the other languages, too (Kingsley).
The French films to be made at Paramount would be adapted from “French stories and plays, with no French versions of American-made pictures” (Kingsley). Thus, the studio founded to create MLVs of American films changed its course. Kane went from greenlighting “foreign-language versions of hit films that Paramount had turned out in Hollywood and Astoria” to approving adaptations of French boulevard theater, and original scripts to be made only in French (Walkman). In this way, Paramount in Paris helped start the trend of boulevard films, which remained “a massive presence in French cinema of the 1930s” (Williams).
The dissolution of the multi-language operation meant that the economies of scale upon which the scheme at Joinville had been founded were no longer operating. The disappointing profits, combined with the Depression, forced Paramount to shut down most of its studios at Joinville in 1933, though a few stages remained open for dubbing, a method which had finally become a viable option, and was much cheaper than producing MLVs.
In April of 1933, as Joinville was beginning to wind down, Kane left Paramount for a position at Fox, where his brother-in-law Sidney Kent was now president. Fox suggested that Kane would continue in the same vein for them, perhaps even at Joinville:
The Paramount studios at Joinville represent an investment of several million dollars. General liquidation in America of Paramount interests will determine whether the forthcoming Fox production will take place at the Joinville studios which Mr. Kane himself established four years ago or at other modern sound studios near Paris (“Fox Film Control in Europe is Seen.”)
Kane’s departure and Paramount’s major financial troubles signaled the end of Paramount in Paris, only three years since Paramount had purchased the studios at Joinville. This wild experiment of Babel-sur-Seine remains relatively unknown today, partly because very few of the 300 features and shorts that were produced at Joinville survive. It doesn’t help that the story fits so well into a narrative of money-obsessed Americans encroaching on artisanal, artistic European, particularly French, cinema. The belief that these films were assembly-line products lacking any artistic merit has held back close analysis of the movies that did survive (perhaps even influencing the preservation of the films) and, by extension, the story of the phenomenon itself. Colin Crisp writes that
Retrospectively, all French critics have labeled these Paramount productions as banal and pedestrian, and some contemporary accounts suggest they were seen in the same light then. No figures exist on the exact economic status of their output, so it is uncertain whether the undertaking would have flourished or not.
Of course some filmmakers and cinephiles were critical of Joinville, but it is difficult to know what the average audience member thought. For instance, it seems odd that silent Hollywood films were popular and profitable in France in the 1920s, but Paramount’s sound films, as the story goes, were all flops. Yet some scholars and critics even today seem to accept this assumption, suggesting that the films weren’t “culturally specific” enough to be successful. But the silent films exported by Hollywood were not necessarily “culturally specific,” either, yet they found great success on foreign screens.
As I mentioned, in our flat, globalized world, Hollywood movies make the majority of their money outside of the United States, which affects the type and style of movies that get made. And Hollywood and other national cinemas are still locked in a battle for the box office. Babel-sur-Seine was a short-lived phenomenon from nearly eighty-five years ago, but the issues it was grappling with are still relevant, though hopefully our world is a little more in sync…
Andrew, Dudley. “Sound in France: The Origins of a Native School.” Yale French Studies 60 (1980): 94-114. JSTOR.
Crisp, Colin. The Classic French Cinema, 1930-1960. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.
“Fox Film Control in Europe is Seen.” The New York Times. 5 April 1933. 22. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
Kingsley, Grace. “Foreign Film Plans Expand.” Los Angeles Times. 27 April 1932. 6. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
“Lasky Will Make Talkies in Europe.” The New York Times. 14 May 1929. 5. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
“Letters and the Arts: Paramount’s Paris Studio.” The Living Age. Oct 1930. 206-207. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
“Paramount to Film Talkies in Europe: Will Solve Language Problem with Casts Composed of Foreign Actors.” The New York Times. 27 April 1930. 10. ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
“Represented in 70 Foreign Lands.” Motion Picture Herald. 8 Aug 1931: 94, 98. 104, no. 6. http://lantern.mediahist.org.
Waldman, Harry. Paramount In Paris. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1998.
Williams, Alan. Republic of Images: A History of French Filmmaking. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.