From the beginning of the Cannes Film Festival, Variety knew it was on to something, dispatching one or two scribes each year. (Other American papers showed up later.)
In the early days, the paper covered the French Riviera itself, which had come alive after the war and was one long extended glitzkrieg by 1946. (That was the year Cannes organizers got their event back on track, after an aborted beginning in September 1939.)
The early days weren’t easy. On Oct. 2, 1946, Variety wrote that some films were held up in customs, there were complaints about acoustics and projectionists had mixed up reels on such pics as “Notorious.” The paper added that “Nineteen nations have representatives at what looks like a big fair, with hotel robbers and car snatchers doing a peak business.”
Still, Jean-Pierre Aumont, Maria Montez, Errol Flynn and Cantinflas were there and “The Lost Weekend” was a big hit.
Two years later, the city hosted film screenings, though budgetary constraints prevented it from being a full-fledged fest. Said a page one story in Variety Sept. 1, 1948: “In Cannes, you cannot get a room for love or money. The hunger for American films is reflected in the mobs that have followed Lana Turner, Rita Hayworth and Sonja Henie. Jack Warner is respectfully referred to here in the press as Monsieur Jacques, and no one here is as popular or well-known as Erich von Stroheim…”
Correspondent Cynda Glenn summed up the non-fest event in a tone that rings true today as well: “Here, underneath the cloudless skies, one can forget the struggle for Europe and all the other staggering problems that are bedeviling the world.”
There was a similar non-fest in 1950. But by 1955 — the 50th anniversary of Variety and the first time Cannes presented its Palme d’Or — coverage of the fest was extensive and enthusiastic.
In the April 27, 1955, issue, Paris correspondent Gene Moskovitz described American interest as “quite intense,” with five Hollywood films screening in various contexts and venues. The two official Yank entries were “The Country Girl” and “Marty.”
Moskovitz credits “a truly international jury” as responsible for putting to rest the charge of favoritism that had been leveled at previous all-Gallic juries. Hungarian emigre Anatole Litvak repped the U.S. on the jury.
As for the celebrity quotient, it included stars from Doris Day and Gary Cooper to Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Gene Kelly, Charles and King Vidor, Olivia de Havilland and Isa Miranda.
The fest was unrolling peacefully except for the pulling of two politically themed pics, a Yugoslav war film called “The Bloody Rout” and the Alec Guinness vehicle “The Prisoner.”The glitz at these early Cannes editions was as unrelenting as it is today, with starlets cavorting on the beach (breast-baring incidents took place even before Brigitte Bardot sported her notorious bikini) and top thesps making appearances. Dorothy Dandridge (star of “Carmen Jones”) and Eddie Constantine performed that year at the final ball.
Ten years later, Cannes had attracted an new layer of suits.
A Variety editorial on the eve of the 18th edition of the fest in 1965 read: “No matter the hoopla and nonsense that permeates the Carlton and the Palais environs, the end result is beaucoup biz.”
Coverage of all things international in Variety had expanded five-fold in the years between 1955 and 1965 — the newly-introduced International section spanned pages 31 through 165 in that May 12 issue and boasted rundowns from all key territories.
The big problem facing the global biz was not yet piracy but protectionism, including, per Variety, the occasional seizure of distribution machinery or “forced partnerships” with native distribution companies.
As for the 18th Cannes fest itself in 1965, a phalanx of Variety scribes seemed to cover all the nicks and crannies of the event, including a gossip column called, inevitably, “Doing the Cannes-Cannes.”
And, for the first time that year, Variety tried to analyze the dealmaking that took place at the fest.
Under the headline “Cannes tone is now very tradey,” scribe Harold Meyer opined that “so much emphasis was being placed on wheeling and dealing that interest in the competition itself waned rapidly, and those mainly concerned in the outcome were the actual contenders.”
Meyer described how hotel suites had been transfornmed into improvised offices — they still are — and how others had operated from “a wicker chair” on the Carlton terrace, making deals over an orange juice or martini. They still do.
Long before the likes of Cannon, Carolco or Canal Plus were players, Variety deemed Embassy Picturesa darling of the Croisette, with the company racking up deals on napkins and such for a then-stunning $2.5 million. It was also the year of a tiny British indie called Compton, which was touting a hot title — “Repulsion” — by a young Pole named Roman Polanski.