How the Cannes Film Festival was Founded | History Hit

How the Cannes Film Festival was Founded

Poster for the 71st Cannes Film Festival
Image Credit: Paul McKinnon / Alamy Stock Photo

On 20 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, are rooted in a more uncertain time in European history. Founded with the desire to compete with the Venice Film Festival, then increasingly vital as an unbiased arts venue in the face of 1930s and 40s fascist propaganda, Cannes’ history is as fascinating a story as many of the films it hosts every May.

So who created the Cannes Film Festival, and why?

It was founded in retaliation to fascist propaganda

In 1932, Jean Zay, the French Minister for Education, visited the world’s first and most renowned film festival in Venice, which was then 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. For instance, in 1937, Mussolini ensured that French pacifist film La Grande Illusion was prevented from winning a prize.

Similarly, in 1938, Hitler and Mussolini ensured that a Nazi-created propaganda documentary about the Berlin 1936 Summer Olympics was the winning entry. Outraged, the French, British and American jury members withdrew from the festival with the intention of not returning.

Encouraged by his friends and counterparts in Britain and America, Zay began to consider the idea of setting up a rival festival in France in a location that could rival Venice in both fame and glamour. His choice was Cannes, a boulevard town near the Italian border that was very unlike Mussolini’s grey, fascist nation.

After World War 2, America feared communist infiltration of its institutions, including Hollywood.
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Its opening was delayed by World War Two

Enjoying an average twelve hours of sunshine a day and already a haunt of the rich and famous, Cannes had a racy reputation that was a natural choice to accompany a new film festival, which was planned to open in 1938, shortly before the outbreak of World War Two. However, Germany’s invasion of Poland just two days into the festival drew the Axis powers of France and the UK into conflict, so it was cancelled.

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. In 2005, a literary prize was created as part of the film festival to honour his legacy.

Marc Rucart and Jean Zay (right). Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1946, once the war was over and France was liberated, a film festival seemed a good way to lighten the mood and draw together many of the leading artists of the age once again, eight years after it was first meant to take place.

The area around Cannes had suffered little from the fighting, and the impressive splendour and beauty of the area in contrast to war-torn Europe helped bolster the great success of the original festival. In 1951, Cannes was moved to the spring to avoid a clash with the Venice festival, and it has taken place in May every year since.

In the 1950s, high-profile love scandals between attending celebrities as well as stars posing for photos became hallmarks of the festival and attracted international attention. In 1955, the Palme d’Or prize for the best film was introduced, with the coveted accolade being awarded to famous films such asTaxi Driver, Pulp Fiction and Apocalypse Now in the years since its inception.

Brigitte Bardot at the 1953 Cannes Film Festival. Image credit: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1980s, a red carpet, which is now known for being one of the most famous in the world, was installed in front of the entrance. The red carpet has witnessed its fair share of controversial moments: most recently, ‘Heelgate’ in 2015 saw many female attendees of the premiere refused entry from the festival on account of the fact they weren’t wearing high heels, which led to widespread protest.

Today, the festival is world famous for its splendour, hosting the famous glitterati of the age and for awarding prizes which often serve as a yardstick for the Oscars.

Lucy Davidson