While I was looking through foreign language film material, I came across two extraordinary press books for two films by Marcel Carné: ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ (a.k.a ‘The Devil’s Envoys’) (1942) and ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ (‘Children of Paradise’) (1945). The press books form part of the Roy Fowler Collection at the museum, which includes a very rich resource of material from French cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. Normally, press books consist of a selection of publicity stills from a film or pages of publicity shots of the film’s stars. We also hold one of the standard press books of ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’ as part of the BDC collection. However, by contrast, the press book of the film that I catalogued is unusual in that it does not focus on showing pictures from the film but instead aims to look like a medieval manuscript. It is ring-bound and the cover is illustrated with an elaborate embossed floral design, which runs through the whole book.
The pages are separated by transparent paper. Although the book features painted scenes and characters from the film, they have been given a medieval look. The pages consist of a detailed plot summary in old-fashioned script, with separate paintings of the main characters attached to the top corners.
While the drawings are such that you can recognise the actors, the only obvious link to the film is a flyleaf at the beginning advertising a specific screening of the film and listing the main cast and crew. This style of programme seems to have also been used at the film’s premiere at the Madeleine cinema in Paris.
The press book for ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ (1945), by contrast, manages to include black-and-white stills from the film within an old-fashioned overall look. The cover is unusually thick and embossed, with a hand-drawn and partly coloured picture taken from a film still.
Two more of those pictures are used to introduce the film’s sub-sections.
An introductory black-and-white hand-drawn picture sets the nineteenth century scene, while A4 portrait photographs of the main cast represent the film’s setting within the world of theatre. A detailed plot summary uses small drawings from the period to illustrate the text, as well as beautifully framed black-and-white stills from the film.
The press books’ luxurious appearance may have something to do with the fact that both films were directed by Marcel Carné during the Occupation of France. ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’, which had the ‘longest first run (of a film) of the period’ (Turk, 190), was hailed by Andre Bazin at the time as ‘having restored to French cinema grandeur and style’ (Turk, 191), which shows that the opulence of the film, as well as that of the press book, was deemed necessary to reawaken pride in French cinema. It has been claimed that there were numerous allusions to the situation of occupied France in the plot, with the Devil’s envoys representing the Germans, while the unsuspecting castle inhabitants stand for the occupied French, submissive but defiant underneath. By setting the story in the 15th century, a time of court grandeur, Carné alludes to a more optimistic time in French history.
‘Les Enfants Du Paradis’ was not released until the end of the war. Carné was very keen to wait until the war was over before the film’s release, so that the film would be the first to be shown in free France (Turk, 227). The press book’s drawings give an indication of the production’s lavishness, with huge sets made to represent the Boulevard du Temple, the size of which could either demonstrate a pride in French culture and history during the hardship of war or be an example of Carné’s conviction that ‘quality filmmaking was inseparable from extravagant expense’ (Turk, 227). Interestingly, the film is still acknowledged to be one of the classics of French cinema. However, in addition to criticism of his excessive expenditure, Carné has been accused of making films that were not patriotic enough. However, the theme of what Bazin called ‘spiritual patriotism’ (Turk, 192) seems to run through both films. In ‘Les Visiteurs du Soir’, the quiet defiance of the French is supposedly demonstrated by the lovers’ hearts still beating after they have been turned to stone. Likewise, the image of the theatre, or spectacle, that runs through ‘Les Enfants du Paradis’ has been regarded as an example of the ‘spiritual survival’ (Turk, 254) of life under Occupation. I believe that both films are examples of an attempt to awaken the French audience’s pride in its history and culture, as well as satisfying the need for audience escapism during, and just after, the war. Therefore, the films’ significance would have been emphasised by their press books’ unusually lavish format, designed to transcend the ephemeral purpose of publicity material in general.
Quotes taken from: Turk, Edward Baron (1989) Child of Paradise: Marcel Carne and the Golden Age of French Cinema. Cambridge, Mass.: HarvardUniversity Press.