Picture of a a 1960s festival attendee

History of the Cannes Film Festival

By Benjamin Craig

On the surface, a city such as Cannes perhaps might not strike you as the place to host the world's most famous film festival. It's not a capital city, or even near one. Yes, cinema was invented in France - but that was in Paris, not Cannes. And sure, the weather in Cannes may be nice, but that certainly isn't a unique selling point. So just how did a reasonably small resort town end up hosting the most prestigious film festival there is?

Like much of the world as we know it today, the Cannes Film Festival exists as an indirect result of the rise of the fascist regimes in Europe during the 1930s. Its roots date back to 1932 when the first competitive international film festival was held in Venice. In those days, the Mostra di Venezia - and chiefly its awards - was as much about the national prestige of the participating countries as it was about the films. As the decade marched on, both the official selection and the prize-winners began to noticeably favour the countries of the fascist alliance, particularly Germany and Italy.

Matters came to a head in 1938 when Jean Renoir's "La Grande Illusion" was overlooked for the festival's top prize - known back then as the Coppa Mussolini ("Mussolini Cup") - despite being the clear favourite amongst both festivalgoers and jury members. Instead, the Coppa was jointly-awarded to a two-part German film called "Olympia", commissioned by Joseph Goebbels to document Nazi successes at the 1938 Berlin Olympics; and "Luciano Serra, Pilota", made under the supervision of Il Duce's own son. When the results were announced, the French were of course outranged and withdrew from the festival. Both the British and American jury members also resigned in protest at the idea that politics and ideology were able to stamp all over artistic appreciation. "La Grande Illusion" - a largely anti-war film - was subsequently banned in Germany and Italy; Goebbels himself labelling it 'Cinematographic Enemy No.1'.

But Venice's folly turned out to be Cannes' triumph. Later that same year, a group of critics and filmmakers got together to petition the French Government to underwrite the cost of running an alternative international film festival in France - one where films could be shown and compete without bias or political censorship. Afraid of upsetting Mussolini, the French government was initially lukewarm to the idea, but the powerful lobby group wasn't going to be easily dissuaded. Headed by Philippe Erlanger (head of Action Artistique Française), Robert Favre Le Bret (who would become the festival's longest serving president), and Louis Lumière (the co-inventor of cinema), the group put intense pressure on the government, which eventually caved in and gave the event the green light.

Several locations were initially considered for the festival, but the final choice came down to either Biarritz on the Atlantic coast or Cannes on the Mediterranean. Officially, it was the city's "sunny and enchanting location" which clinched it for Cannes, however most people acknowledge that the real reason for its selection was the fact that the municipal authorities agreed to cough up the dough to build a dedicated venue for the event.

The inaugural Festival International du Film was slated to kick-off on 1 September 1939; that month chosen by shrewd city officials who realised that such an event could be used to extend the summer tourist season by an extra two weeks. But the fledgling festival only managed its opening night before being closed down following the outbreak of World War II the following day.

The festival remained in hiatus during the war, re-emerging for a second attempt on 20 September 1946 under the joint aegis of the French ministries of Foreign Affairs and Education. As the City of Cannes had yet to make good on its promise of a dedicated venue, the first festival-proper took place in the old winter casino with the 82-year-old Loius Lumière taking on the duties of inaugural jury president. Films presented for the first festival included Billy Wilder's "Lost Weekend", David Lean's "Brief Encounter", Roberto Rossellini's "Rome Open City", George Cukor's "Gaslight", Walt Disney's "Make Mine Music", Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious", and Jean Cocteau's "Beauty and the Beast". Films from Charles Laughton, Howard Hawks, and Cecil B. De Mille were also screened out of competition.

The first festival was generally regarded as a success by all and sundry, so for its sophomore outing in 1947, it was moved under the wing of the newly-formed Centre National de la Cinématographie (CNC), a government body charged with supporting and promoting the cinematic arts, and preserving France's screen history. Amongst its general organisational responsibilities, the CNC also took over the co-ordination of the submissions and selection process for the event. Indeed, in the early days, films were nominated by their respective countries rather than the festival itself, with the number of berths available to a given country being proportionate to the volume of its cinematic output. As a result, Cannes in the early days was more of a 'film forum' than a competitive event - with the CNC trying very hard to ensure that every film screened went home with some kind of award.

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Cannes - A Festival Virgin's Guide
(6th Edition)

By Benjamin Craig
The leading handbook for filmmakers and film industry professionals attending the Cannes Film Festival.