Paris - City of Lights, Camera, Action

The Eiffel Tower

PARIS, France -- I live in one of the beach communities of Los Angeles, a 30-minute freeway drive from the Hollywood studios, depending on the time of day and the traffic.

Hollywood is called the film capital of the world, "Tinseltown," the home of glitz and glamour, the place where celluloid dreams began. Not if you're in Paris.
"Non, non Monsieur, ce ne pas vrai, c'est ici," said my guide who was conducting a tour of the French film industry in Paris.

He was right. The film industry did begin in Paris, in the late 1800s. As hard as it may be to believe, the first Western was filmed closer to the Champs-Elysees than Sunset Boulevard.

Back in 1896 the first "oater" was shot and screened in Paris. The ranks of the Indians were filled by local Turks and North Africans, most sporting the fashion of the day, large handlebar moustaches.

Early developments in photography and film were pioneered primarily by the French and to some extent Americans ( Thomas Edison and George Eastman most prominently). From the 1830s, French inventors dominated photography and its innovations. They were continually pushing forward the science and the art, toward the development of "moving" pictures.

In 1889 Edison attended the World's Fair in Paris primarily to see the latest developments. French inventor Etienne Marey had created the first motion picture camera. When Edison returned to the United States, he basically patented Marey's invention, with refinements. That was not really theft, because everyone was borrowing ideas from everyone else in the mad pursuit of the "moving" image. Edison never challenged Marey's patent claims in Europe, but in America, he was tenacious.

Champs-Elysees - Arc de triomphe

On Dec. 28, 1895, The Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, were the first to present their films to the public with their newly patented invention, the Cinematographe.

Only 33 people paid one franc to attend the birth of cinema at the Grand Cafe, 14 Boulevard des Capucines (today commemorated with a plaque), but within weeks audiences in Paris had grown to 2,500 a day. Viewing films in cafes remains one of the major ways of going to the movies in Paris to this day.
The Lumiere brothers' films were primarily documentaries, which they continued making into the 1900s, when Pathe took over. Pathe became internationally known for newsreels, a common part of the U.S. movie experience into the middle 1900s.

Thanks to the Marquis de Lafayette, the French military commander who saved our bacon during the Revolutionary War, our history has been inextricably linked with France in art and politics, and the French have been fascinated with us, especially with the Old West.

In fact, not only did they make the first Western in 1896, they continued to make a variety of Westerns, pioneering the genre and even coming to the United States to set up production offices in Fort Lee, N.J., and San Antonio, Texas in the early 1900s.

This did not sit well with Edison, who, in his efforts to dominate American film, exerted economic pressure on foreign film companies by almost single-handedly forcing the nationalization of the American film industry. Later, through his representatives, he made physical threats against members of the French film industry. The representative for Lumiere Films fled the country under an assumed name to escape. Later Edison took aim at his American competitors, actually forcing the film industry to move west to California to escape violence. So to some extent we even owe Hollywood to the French.

A city of major film buffs, Parisians love to go to the movies and support a wide variety of theaters. One of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world, the movie houses cater to all nationalities.

The Louvre

American films score big with the population, far outstripping even French offerings at the box office.

One of the more remarkable movie houses still operating in Paris is the Art Deco masterpiece, the Rex, built in 1932, as much for variety entertainment as films. It remains Europe's largest theater, with a seating capacity of 2,800. The gigantic screen (70 by 30 feet) is often reserved for the premiere of the major blockbusters (i.e. American films).

The theater also boasts the first escalator in France, which was inaugurated when Gary Cooper officially cut the ribbon and rode it for the first time in 1957, reinforcing the country's "up and down" connection with the American film industry.

The Paris Tourist Board is preparing a brochure on significant film sights in the city that will include a self-guided tour of famous film locations in Paris, and a brief history of French Cinema.

I went on a preview of the tour, on foot and by bus, given by a member of the French Film Board. We passed by the Eiffel tower, the Opera House, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomph and the Louvre, all well integrated into many famous films. But he also pointed out the apartment location of "Last Tango in Paris." We stopped at Maxim's for brief remarks about the filming of " Jefferson in Paris," even learning a little about the television adventures of the " Beverly Hillbillies in Paris," and the shooting of the " Great Race" right in the middle of rush hour traffic.

We drove by that expensive hotel, The Georges V (pronounced "sank"), where Meg Ryan stayed during the filming of the " French Kiss," before it later "sank" at the box office, and filming sites for 1995's " Sabrina" and 1976's " Marathon Man" at the Place Vendome.

There are a number of small theaters on the left bank that supported and nurtured counter culture filmmakers and helped establish the " Nouvelle Vague" and " Cinema-Verite" movements in the 1950s through the 1970s, reestablishing the connection between film and art that is so characteristic of the French film industry.

An artist enclave since the Bohemians claimed the turf in the 1870s, Monmarte still has artists who capture its street scene on canvas and film. CNS photo by John Blanchette

We concentrated in the neighboring communities of Montmartre and Pigalle, where artists and painters had lived since the Bohemians claimed the turf in the 1870s. It became the neighborhood of Toulouse-Lautrec and composers Erik Satie and Gustave Charpentier, among many others.

A generation latter Utrillo, Modigliani and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire took up residence in this artist colony. In fact, Picasso's first studio in Paris was in Montmartre, now a small shop bordering a shaded walk street, also commemorated with a simple plaque. The day we visited, a trio was performing next to the shop. If I squinted my eyes and turned my head askew, there was an eerie similarity to Picasso's well-known painting of three musicians. You never know from where an artist's inspiration might have sprung, but I have an idea now.

Off Rue Lepic in Montmartre, we wandered by the Cafe des Deux Moulins (the Two Windmills Cafe), the scene of the just-released French blockbuster film " Amelie," that has everyone in Paris flooding to the cinema. It was packed. The owner told me business had more than doubled with the release of the film.

Unlike the United States, where filmmakers and artists are composed of fundamentally different groups, the film industry in Paris from the late 1920s, especially avant garde cinema, rose out of the same creative cauldron. Many artists and painters were involved in the new medium, including Man Ray, Jean Cocteau and Luis Bunuel.

Jean Renoir, second son of the Impressionist painter, drew his first breath in Montmartre in 1895, the same year cinema was born. One of France's greatest filmmakers, he was one of several French directors who moved to Hollywood to escape World War II, and continued to make successful films in English. Much of French film is treated more as art than entertainment and continues so to this day. Thus the "art house" theaters in America get a lot of their material from the French film industry.

The French love commercial film as well, but they don't have the resources or inclination to compete with American or even British filmmakers in this area.
Aside from the Rex, a variety theater converted to film, most theaters in Paris are small. There are some multiplexes, but there are many more tiny (some as little as 20 seats) houses that often incorporate restaurants and/or cafes into the evening on the town, serving dinner, a film and a post-show libation in rather elegant surroundings -- no chewing gum under your arm rest, sticky floors or wafting odors of popcorn, this is Paris!

The French love the movie experience and don't mind spending a whole evening standing in huge lines for almost anything on celluloid, from 1940s gangster flicks to old Jerry Lewis films.

Visitors can avoid the long lines at many of the larger theaters by purchasing multiple film tickets (usually five for about $20) that allow them to reserve seats and skip to the front of the line.

Notre Dame

Unless your French is fluent, when going to movies in Paris, look for films marked v.o. (virsion originale). These are films shown in their original language, subtitled in French.

There is a reason Paris figures in so many films. Built out of swamp land first settled by an early Gaulish tribe called the Parisii, over the centuries the city has been molded like clay into a piece of art itself. It is a visual place, a city of romance, great beauty, remarkable history and culture, endlessly artistic and inventive. Sharing the name of a Greek God, Paris is photogenic, day and night. A moving picture itself, it should rightly be known as the "City of Lights"É camera, action!


Getting there: Many airlines fly into Charles de Gaulle International from across the United States, but only one allows you to practice your language skills in flight with the attendants, while dining on French cuisine, wine and cheese: Air France. Check the Web site ( for special deals and prices.  Staying there: Make reservations for lodging in advance, especially May to October. Try the Internet. Or if in Paris, go to the Visitor's Bureau, 127 Avenue de Champs Elysees, where all the employees speak English, are friendly, can make reservations and usually can offer several options within a price range. Go directly to your hotel; Paris innkeepers begin renting rooms early in the day.

Paris in a rare snowstorm

I stayed at the stunning Hotel Royal Monceau on Rue Hoche, within sight of the Arc de Triomph. Mikhail Gorbachev stayed there whenever he visited Paris. They discourage families with children staying there. Rates begin at $600 a day double occupancy.

As a student years ago, I stayed at the Hotel de Esmeralda across from Notre Dame in the Latin Quarter. It is still there and still a deal at about $70 for a double with shower, toilet and a view.

For more information: For booklets and brochures, visit, or write Paris Office of Tourism, 444 Madison Ave., 16th Floord, New York, NY 10022, (212) 838-7800.

John Blanchette is a free-lance travel writer.

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