On the 20th September 1946, filmmakers from 21 nations arrived in what had once been a casino in Cannes, an already-glamorous resort on the French riviera, and presented their works to an international audience of big names in the industry. Decades later, the Cannes film festival has become the most famous in the world, and renowned for its heady mix of stars, showbiz and sun. Its origins, however, go further back, to a more uncertain time in European history.
In 1932, Jean Zay, the French Minister for Education, visited the world’s first and most renowned film festival in Venice, part of Mussolini’s Italy. What he saw shocked him and much of the rest of the democratic world, as the Duce had created an endless parade of fascist propaganda. Encouraged by his friends and counterparts in Britain and America, he began to consider the idea of setting up a rival festival in France, in a location that could rival Venice for fame and glamour. His choice was Cannes, a boulevard town near the Italian border but as unlike Mussolini’s gray fascist nation as it was possible to be. Enjoying an average twelve hours of sunshine a day and already a haunt of the rich and famous, Cannes had a racy reputation that went well with a new film festival, which was planned for 1939. In the end, it didn’t happen, as the French government were understandably preoccupied with a bigger problem, the outbreak of World War 2. Only a year after the festival was supposed to open, France had fallen and Cannes and the rest of the south was under the thumb of the collaborating regime in Vichy. Zay, after the fall of his country, tried to flee to Casablanca to start a resistance movement, but was captured by Vichy troops and secretly murdered for being a known troublemaker in 1944. A literary prize was created in his honour in 2005, to go with the film festival – his enduring legacy.
In 1946, once the war was done, France was liberated, and the worst crimes of the collaborators were being swept under the carpet, a film festival seemed a good way to lighten the mood. The area around Cannes had suffered little from the fighting, and the impressive showyness and beauty of the area in a war-torn Europe helped with the great success of the original festival. In 1951 it was moved to Spring to avoid clash with the Venice festival, and has taken place every year in May since. In the 1950s the high-profile love scandals and stars – most famously Brigitte Bardot – posing for photos became hallmarks of the festival, and attracted international attention. The Palm d’Or prize for the best film was introduced in 1955, and has since been awarded to films which would go on to be as famous as Taxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and Apocalypse Now. In the 1980s a red carpet – now probably the most famous in the world was installed in front of the entrance, and most recently – in 2009 – the festival branched out into Buenos Aires, Argentina.