Film Scouts Diaries

1997 Cannes Film Festival Diaries
Pre-Festival: A Capsule History of Cannes

by Cari Beauchamp

Signs all over town tell us it is the 50th Cannes Film Festival, but of course if we start getting picky, it began 58 years ago. The whole thing really started in 1939 and we have Mussolini to thank for it. It was his personal and political domination of the Venice Film Festival that set off the Americans and western Europeans -- It was pretty bad when Goebbels arrived to claim Germany's prize in 1935, but when the grand prize Mussolini Cup was shared by Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia" and the Italian film, "Luciano Serra, Airman," directed by El Duce's eldest son, in 1938, the American and British jury members resigned in disgust and with the French, sought out a site for a more equitable event.

When the city of Cannes volunteered to build a Palace of Festivals, (in any other town it would have been called a convention center) they were off and running. The first Cannes Festival opened on September 1, 1939 and Mae West, Gary Cooper and a "steamship of stars" had come from Hollywood. There was even a cardboard reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral to promote the opening night film starring Charles Laughton. But that very morning, Hitler invaded Poland, two days later France declared war on Germany and the Cannes Film Festival was postponed for another 7 years.

When it opened again on September 20, 1946 it was a smashing success and while budget constraints and post war rebuilding caused another year gap, by 1951 it was a truly annual event and the Festival grew each year in terms of the stars it attracted, the quality of films, the number of international critics and of course, the tourists and the papparazi.

In 1954, the French starlet Simone Sylva dropped her bikini top and feel into Robert Mitchum's arms and the photo sent around the world sealed the sexy image of Cannes. The next year Grace Kelly went on a photo shoot to the Palace at Monaco and met a Prince in passing -- the following year their wedding took place just before the Festival opened so guest could conveniently attend both international events.

Politics has often reared its head, but never more so than in 1968 when the Festival was shut down completely in a crescendo of protest that had begun with the French government dismissal several months before of the head of the Cinematheque. But if you ask studio heads in Hollywood today, they often claim politics plays a hand in the films that are chosen for competition. Yet the always present love©hate relationship between the Americans and the French has become a natural part of Cannes with the films and filmmakers from a hundred other countries vying for attention as well.

Over the fifty festivals there have been so many highlights and serendipity has played a role in most of them ....Rita Hayworth meeting Aly Khan, Melina Mercouri being introduced to the black listed American Jules Dassin at a Cannes screening and they returned together several years later with "Never on Sunday."

Jack Nicholson claims he had planned on being a director until he was sitting in the Palais watching the screening of "Easy Rider". He watched himself come onto the screen and "I knew I was movie star."

"E.T." was premiered at Cannes at Steven Spielberg claimed in "was one of the greatest evenings of my life" when a theater packed with grizzled professionals cried like youngsters and rose to their feet in a standing ovation as the credits rolled. "Cinema Paradiso" was discovered here, "sex, lies and videotapes" came to acclaim here, the list goes on and on.

So they are pouring into Cannes once again -- the studio executives, the stars, the wannabes, the critics, the photographers, the screenwriters, the distributors, the hustlers --no one too sure what they find, but always hopeful that a little serendipity will make this a Festival to remember.

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