Cannes’ early days

Fest was 'sheer buff heaven'

Originally ran March 27, 1997
ROME – If ever nostalgia were a justifiable lapse of reportorial objectivity, the early days of Cannes would be the time and place to look backward. Put simply, for its first dozen or more years, the Cannes Film Festival was sheer film buff heaven.

One or two films a day — and the time to see them, discuss them, write about them, talk to their makers, even enjoy leisurely meals in inexpensive seaside bistros, soak in some sun on uncrowded beaches, often in the company of the very accessible stars and directors who, after the drought of the war years, were ready and willing to help play catch-up and fill in the gaps with their films and related information.

In the 1940s and ’50s, exciting contacts and discoveries were an everyday occurrence, where the missing pieces of film history began to fall into place. The catalyst that melded the buff and the fan, the filmmaker and the star, East and West, North and South, not forgetting the creation of the auteur.

Ironically, Cannes was not created for the film buff at all, but to lure attention away from Venice, the granddaddy of all film festivals, as well as to increase tourism, image and the sheer gloire of the host country, ever a fervent combatant for culture. (Not coincidentally, the Cannes festival jury was all-French until 1952, when some carefully screened outsiders were admitted.)

In fact, the first Cannes events, after an aborted start on Sept. 1, 1939, were slotted directly opposite Venice’s traditional fall niche, and were first held in the elderly premises of Cannes’ gambling casino until the first Palais — after some financial and structural problems — became usable in 1949.

Weathering conflict

The head-to-head confrontation with the lagoon city, after some diplomatic haggling, eased in 1954, when Cannes moved its dates to a meteorologically “safer” April-May spring slot.

We early observers — Variety was there from the start with first one, then two reps, while the New York Times waited until 1955 for its firststory — lived and loved Cannes to its fullest, from the then narrow, two-lane Croisette, the near-empty (and restaurants-less) beaches, the festival-hosted picnic trips to the Lerins Islands across the bay. We enjoyed the private screenings in tiny Rue d’Antibes moviehouses of films that hadn’t been invited (and were naturally deemed superior to those that had). We feasted on the grandness of the grand hotels (the old Grand, the Carlton, the Gray d’Albion and so on), but also the tiny, noisy, dingy Walsdorff-Victoria, which boasted the best-kept secret in town: It had the only Michelin-starred hotel restaurant in Cannes, where in those early years such future filmmakers as Lindsay Anderson, Clive Donner, Karel Reisz, Walter Lassally and Gavin Lambert often gathered to talk film.

It was ironic, yet true, that even then, the most desirable Cannes hotel — for the moneyed class — was not in Cannes at all, but in Cap d’Antibes, at the Hotel du Cap, one bay down the doast.

For journalists, the central gathering point wasn’t the du Cap, but the Blue Bar, a snack stopover downstairs in the Festival Palais that expanded — in size and price — over the years, under fatherly and colorful owner Felix. A pioneer PR man even then, Felix would greet arriving journalists and critics with a free espresso, a one-time bribe each year.

Discovering world cinema

Cannes, even from the beginning, wasn’t just a Cote d’Azur vacation spot for errant trade reporters. The festival has unwrapped a treasure chest of the best of the notable filmmaking countries and the oft-hidden talents that the event was able to lure into its international spotlight thanks to its keen-eyed directors and their foreign-based talent scouts.

Mexico, for example, was an early “find,” with Emilio Fernandez prized as early as 1946 for his “Maria Candelaria” and in 1953 for “La Red,” as well as Luis Bunuel, whose nine films shown in Cannes alternatively won brickbats and accolades over the years.

Greece was first noted in 1955, when Michael Cacoyannis’ “Stella” gave an early hint of Melina Mercouri’s screen clout, followed by her acting win in 1960 with “Never on Sunday.” “Pather Panchali,” the first in Satyajit Ray’s immortal “Apu” trilogy, won the Indian director a prize in 1956, the first of many international accolades.

Sweden’s Ingmar Bergman, first in 1947 (with a script prize for “A Ship to India”), then in 1958 for “Brink of Life,” got early recognition at the Riviera event. 1958 also saluted “new” Russian cinema when “The Cranes Are Flying” won a major award and actress Tatiana Samoilova garnered international attention.

Japan’s “Gates of Hell,” helmed by Teinosuke Kinugasa, in 1954 reaffirmed that country’s international impact, while Andrzej Wajda’s “Kanal” in 1957 opened eyes to Poland’s film tradition, inspiring young Roman Polanski to hitch a ride to the Riviera in an open-top red Alfa to see what was going on.

Hungary, Austria and other filmmaking nations later became Cannes “discoveries.” Italy — from the first international recognition in Cannes in 1946 with Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City,” to many later wins for “best selections” and kudos galore to Fellini, Antonioni, Germi and others — was a “favored nation” in terms of prizes. But perhaps the most notable discovery was France itself, and its New Wave.

Its breakthrough came as late as 1959 when a formerly acidulous film critic, Francois Truffaut, often thumbs-down on Cannes itself, won the best director Palme for his “400 Blows.” That same year, “off-campus” screenings on the Rue d’Antibes of thrilling innovative efforts such as Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” and Claude Chabrol’s “Les Cousins” added substantially to the auteur aura, which, with outsider Alain Resnais and his enigmatic first film, “Hiroshima Mon Amour,” grew and grew despite yea- and nay-sayers.

Cannes always blurred the line between sublime and ridiculous. Long before Fellini in 1960 coined the word “paparazzi,” shutterbugs were busy immortalizing — and often creating — Cannes happenings. Prime coups were the parties thrown in posh Cannes villas by such local luminaries as the Aly Khan and the Begum Aga Khan, where only unobtrusive flashless Leicas were permitted. But one paparazzi incident caused the still prudish Cannes event to tone down this more frivolous side, at least for a while.

During a fest-sponsored island party-cum-photo opportunity, British starlet Simone Sylva whipped off her bra and embraced a surprised Robert Mitchum. The pictures hit the international press and fest boss Robert Favre-LeBret, fearing a conservative backlash, apologized and lowered his censorial boom. (In a sad footnote, Sylva committed suicide only months later.)

Other stars, or aspiring ones, milked the Cannes spotlight nevertheless, with Brigitte Bardot sporting a memorable bikini in 1953, while Grace Kelly, lured to Cannes as a squeaky-clean antidote to the Sylva affair, came, met and married her prince, neighboring Monaco’s dashing Prince Rainier, thanks to a photo opportunity set up the French magazine Paris Match.

Other marriages furthered by Cannes encounters involved Kirk and Anne Douglas, Gregory and Veronique Peck, Rita Hayworth and the Aly Khan, Olivia de Havilland and Pierre Galante, and Melina Mercouri and Jules Dassin, to name but a few.

Cannes parties, in those heady early days, also provided substantial lenshound and gossip fodder. Among the many memorable do’s remain the Mexican parties of the late ’40s and early ’50s, topped only by the 1960 “Never on Sunday” Greek bash in which the Ouzo flowed freely and some 700 guests danced the night away, trampling masses of broken plates under foot in Greek style at Les Ambassades, while fireworks soared and burst outside.

And Cannes, perhaps inevitably, was changing, for better or for worse, into a “bigger” event, due mainly to the increasing importance of the local film market, which began its nonstop buildup in the late 1950s, bringing with it money, buyers and sellers, round-the-clock and overlapping screenings, with “hectic” replacing “leisurely” in Croisette comments.

Yes, nostalgia implies “loss,” and those heady early years were lost forever in the growing success of the Cannes event.

Bob Hawkins covered the Cannes Film Festival for Variety for many years in the 1950s and 1960s, and was later Executive Editor of Variety. He is now in semi-retirement in Rome.