CANCELLED DUE TO THE WAR, the cannes 1939 film festival will TAKe PLACE IN ORLÉANS, in NOVEMBER 2019

Why the original edition of 1939 will be held in Orleans?

The first Cannes Festival that was supposed to take place in 1939 in Cannes, will become a reality in Orléans, the city of Jean Zay, 80 years after its cancellation. It’s time to give thanks to the paternity of what would become a major element of world cinema.

Short Biography of Jean Zay

Jean Zay was born in Orléans on the 6th of August 1904, son to Léon Zay, a renown journalist and Alice Julie Zay, a talented teacher. From a very young age Jean showed a very open, positive, and shiny personality with a passion for hard work. Jean Zay had one sister, Jacqueline, with whom he was very close and who became an artist sculptor. Jean’s grand parents from his father’s side were Jewish and moved to Orléans from the city of Metz. This fact was used by his opponents, as soon as he appeared on the political scene.

Very early, Jean became a gifted reporter with excellent writing and oral skills and a great sense of justice. He finished his law studies and became a successful lawyer, known for his blunt and brilliant rhetoric. He soon pursued a political career, becoming in 1935 the youngest ever Minister of Culture and Education, Fine Arts, Youth and Sports. In 1937 Jean Zay reorganizes the whole French film industry that helped to stabilise it and save it from imminent bankrupcy. In 1938 he decides to establish the international film festival of “the free nations” in Cannes, that was to become the main competitor to the Mostra in Venise. Thanks to his ambition and tenacity, but also his open and friendly character, the impossible became possible and all was in place on time for the first international film festival in France in Cannes.

Jean zay overall achievements for cinema, Art, culture and youth

- created the Cannes Film Festival, set up the National Film Awards and contributed to the creation of the Cinémathèque française

- forged the Réunion des theaters lyriques nationaux, renovated the Comédie-Française, nationalized the ancient theaters of Orange and Vienna

- created Musée de l’Homme, the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Popular Arts and Traditions, the Marine Museum, the Museum of Public Works, the Museum of French Monuments and the Palace of Discovery,

- proposed a status of the architect and of the copyright

- worked for the renovation of the National Library, the restoration of the Palace of Versailles, the Reims Cathedral, and saved in 1939 the masterpieces of the Louvre and Prado, the stained glass windows of Notre-Dame de Chartres, Reims , Troyes, Metz and Sainte-Chapelle; the works of art of Saint-Séverin, Saint-Etienne-du-Mont, Saint-Sulpice, the Pantheon,

- conceived the ENA and the CNRS

- shaped the modern, democratized and open urban education, with its three primary-secondary-higher levels, prefiguring the reform of the single college of 1975

- set up compulsory schooling up to 14 years and orientation classes, and introduced the daily physical education hour and the sports dimloma

- prohibited political and religious propaganda in public education

- promoted Preventive Medicine, the creation of ONISEP, CROUS, and Bookmobiles

- created 225 posts for professors and 5000 posts for teachers, to reach the goal of a maximum of 35 pupils per class

- favored experimentation, innovative pedagogy and active method to the detriment of the word of authority

Historical Background for the Festival

On the 1st of September 1939, the first Cannes Film Festival was due to open. The Minister of National Education and Fine Arts, Jean Zay, worked hard for it  to become  a large scale film diplomacy event, a symbol against the fascist Venice Film Festival, bringing together the films of the "free nations” and affirming the essence of French cultural policy. 

After the organizational work done under a great time pressure,  about thirty films from the following countries were selected: United States, France, Great Britain, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Sweden, the Netherlands and Poland.

On August 6, 1939, the train arrived to  Cannes train station bringing the inventor of the cinematographer himself, Louis Lumière, who was to become the honorary president of the festival.  The Grand Hotel, the Palm Beach and the municipal casino were mobilised; the poster was ready. Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Norma Shearer, George Raft, Gary Grant, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Barbara Stanwick, are announced guests off the Croisette aboard a liner chartered by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with Hollywood sending no less than seventeen films. 

The titles include: Only Angels Have Wings by Howard Hawks, Mister Smith Goes To Washington by Frank Capra, Wizard of Oz by Victor Flemming, Pacific Express by Cecil B. De Mille and Love Affaire by Leo McCarey.

Thanks to Jean Zay’s initiative, the Cannes Film Festival, THE film festival of the “free nations” was about to start… until the entry of the German troops in Poland on September 1st, 1939 brutally interrupting the final preparations. Ultimately, the festival would not take place.

Affiche Cannes 1939 -vignette.jpg

The poster from the 1939 festival by the painter Jean-Gabriel Domergue.

© Cinémathèque française collection.


Who is organizing the project today?

The project of the festival was launched by Jean Zay Cercle d’Orléans (created with help of the historian Antoine De Baecque and Jean Zay’s two daughters Catherine and Heléne), dedicated among others to raising awareness about him as a person and his writings which have an incredibly universal and contemporary character. The idea of the festival was received in a very enthusiastic way. Starting with of the Mayor of Orléans, city of Jean Zay, followed by the ministers of Culture and Education - directly concerned by this tribute to their illustrious predecessor. Today the project is led by its organisational committee (for names see below) and various associative initiatives. The support granted by the institutions and communities is extremely important, as well as the commitment of the professional partners accompanied by the volunteer team.

* In 1940, Jean Zay was imprisoned by the French government of Vichy, collaborating with the Nazis. From the secluded cell, he wrote his memoires, which were published under the name “Souvenirs et Solitude”. He got killed by the French Milice in1944, an act promoted and fed by anti-semitic hatred created by Petain government and Vichy, exactly one year before the end of the WorldWar2.