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From 1906 to 1913, the French dominated world cinema as no single country has since. Pathé, France's leading production company, controlled one-third of the world film business in 1908. Some estimates credit the French with 90 percent of the world's early film business, a dominance achieved without governmental assistance. At that time, it was the American filmmakers who responded with charges of cultural imperialism and calls for government protection.
The world's leading screen star, Frenchman Max Linder, dominated the development of comedy. In fact, film comedy and slapstick were almost exclusively French inventions. Benefiting from such French "cultural imperialism," Charlie Chaplin drew extensively on Linder's films in shaping his own film style and character. The French dominated most cinematic forms and even experimented with the Western before Americans had established it.
France's film domination ended with World War I. Not only were production resources diverted to the war effort, but French filmmakers made a strategic mistake. The French Pathé empire of the 1910s began making films to suit Parisian tastes, limiting their attraction for the growing international audience. Hollywood producers took advantage of this opportunity and began replacing the French as filmmaking leaders. By 1919, the French share of the world market had fallen to 15 percent.
Yet France's cinematic successes were by no means over. The French were to challenge Hollywood for film leadership in the 1930s, a period usually cited by film historians as the Golden Age of French cinema. Many of the films they produced in that era remain classics, among them Jean Vigo's L'Atalante, Marcel Carne's Daybreak, René Clair's A Nous La Liberté, Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion, and the same director's Rules of the Game.
At the end of the 1920s, the French film industry ranked fifth in the world. By the end of the 1930s, however, French production had doubled, and the French industry ranked behind only the United States. During this period, French cinema received no government subsidies. The restrictions on imported films were trifling and did not keep American movies off French screens.
The films of France's Golden Age were so good that French audiences preferred them to the American product. In 1936, for example, the six most popular films in France were all native French productions. Of the 75 most popular films, 56 were French; only 15 were American. In 1935, 70 percent of all film receipts in France went to French-produced movies.
The French Golden Age was renowned for the artistic and commercial freedom that directors enjoyed. Unlike most major film producing countries, France did not have a rigid studio system. Hundreds of independent producers made up the bulk of the market. Directors--whose will reigned supreme--often shopped their proposed projects around until they found a producer in accord with their fundamental vision. In addition, French censorship was weak, especially compared to the restrictive Hays Code of the United States.
French filmmakers faced a turbulent market in the 1930s. Pathé and other early giants had frittered away their dominance, and many of the small filmmakers were in perpetual financial trouble; each year dozens of them went bankrupt, with new producers taking their place. As is frequently the case in cultural history, however, financial pressure did not prevent artistic achievement.
A Laissez-Faire Mise en Scène
The laissez-faire environment of the French Golden Age allowed the influence of foreign films to fertilize French creativity. Director Jean Renoir claimed to love only Hollywood movies and to scorn French films. Renoir often went to see American movies three times a day, seven days a week, seeking inspiration from Hollywood. Historically, French directors have been among the most insightful fans of American cinema, and such American directors as Howard Hawks (His Girl Friday, The Big Sleep) enjoyed critical reputations in France before they did in America.
The famous French New Wave directors of the 1950s and '60s were to draw on American inspiration as well. Jean-Luc Godard began his career with Breathless, a work filled with references to Humphrey Bogart. François Truffaut was inspired by Alfred Hitchcock's Hollywood films. Such American directors as Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick were seminal for an entire generation of French filmmakers, who nonetheless made movies that were undeniably French, movies that were embraced by a native French audience no more "corrupted" by American work than were the directors.
Moreover, French cinema has never been a culturally pure, Gallic product. Foreigners not only influenced many of the best-known "French" films, they also directed them. Beginning in the silent era and continuing until the present, many of France's leading directors have come from all over Europe, including Denmark (Carl Dreyer), Russia (Yakov Protazanov), Spain (Luis Bunuel), Germany (Max Ophuls), and Poland (Krzysztof Kieslowski). The films of just these directors include some of France's finest work, from The Passion of Joan of Arc, to L'Age d'Or, to The Earrings of Madame D., to Kieslowski's recent trilogy, Blue, White, and Red. French filmmaking has been so diverse throughout its history that fascist Vichy propaganda during World War II attacked it for being too cosmopolitan and insufficiently "French."
From Fascism to Protectionism
Cinematic protectionists often portray quotas and subsidies as culturally enlightened. In fact, cinematic regulation and subsidization came to France at the hands of the fascist regimes of World War II. Contemporary French film policies are a direct extension of France's wartime heritage.
The laissez-faire environment of 1930s cinema was unpopular with many French filmmakers, who wanted the state to protect their interests. Protectionism was debated but, largely because of pressure from the Americans, never passed. Such policies were enacted only after France had lost her national independence. The collaborationist Vichy government developed quotas and subsidies as part of its program to restructure the French economy. French economic and cultural activities were now to serve the interests of the government, not the interests of consumers or artists.