The 1st edition of the Cannes International Film Festival

Cancelled due to the war
Taking place in the city of its creator, Jean Zay
12th-17th November 2019


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

80 years after its cancellation, the first Cannes Festival that was supposed to take place in 1939 in Cannes, will become a reality again in Orléans, the city of Jean Zay. 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, 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 in order to make its structure from stable and save it from bankrupcy. In 1938, in order to compete with the Mostra of Venice, he decides to establish the international film festival of “the free nations” in Cannes. 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.

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 were selected.  from the 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, honorary president.  The Grand Hotel, the Palm Beach and the municipal casino were mobilised; the poster was ready. Gary Cooper, Tyrone Power, Norma Shearer, George Raft, Cary Grant, James Cagney, Spencer Tracy, Barbara Stanwick, are announced guests off the Croisette aboard a liner chartered by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer: Hollywood has sent 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, president of the event and his initiative, the Cannes Film Festival THE film festival of the “free world” 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 of 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 “Memoire et Solitudes” . 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.


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