Author: Colleen Kennedy-Karpat.
Colleen Kennedy-Karpat book ‘Rogues, Romances and Exoticism in French Cinema of the 1930s’ opens with a story about Japanese film star Sessue Hayakawa gambling in a casino in Monte Carlo and after one night at the tables loses a fortune. The next day the body of a Japanese man is found on a road leading out of Monte Carlo, killed in an apparent suicide. Hayakawa had become famous for a 1915 Hollywood film for Cecil B. De Mille called The Cheat and thereafter made a successful career in Hollywood. He also had a successful career in France in the early 1920s. In fact Hayakawa didn’t die and had instead gone back to Paris to be with his lover. As fate would have it Hayakawa didn’t make another film in France for a few years and so the myth of his death was perpetuated but he did return later in the 1920s to make films back in France and continued to do so throughout the 1930s. The point of this story kicking off Kennedy-Karpat’s book was the idea that because someone who dies is Japanese then this must be the famous ‘Oriental’. Indeed Hayakawa as a subject opens the book and his films made in France in the late 1930s closes it with a series of films including a remake of The Cheat called Forfaiture (1937) before ‘colonial’ cinema in France came to an end with the Second World War (Sessue Hayakawa later became most famous outside of France as the troubled Japanese commandant in The Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957). Throughout the 1930s there were whole generic types of films that were about or centred around French Foreign Legionary troops most notably with La Bandera (1935) in which the hero has joined the legion to “forget” or with colonials caught between the home country and their adoptive country in the Diaspora.
The book then proceeds to focus throughout the seven chapters on case study films commencing with perhaps the best known film analysed in the book, namely Pépé le Moko alongside two other films of the 30s starring Jean Gabin, La Bandera and Le Messager (1937) but throughout the rest of the book the films vary from the rare to the never seen and even lost. For this reason it makes the book fairly inaccessible for many focussing as it does on these rare unseen films and without viewing these films there is little cultural recognition beyond Pépé le Moko. It becomes apparent on reading through the book that many of these films fall into generic types that differ greatly from the Hollywood interpretation of colonialism and even British films which deal with colonization. Of course there were films in which white actors are blacked up or what Kennedy-Karpat terms as ‘race drag’ but these French films faced much less in the way of censorship that so stymied the film industry in Britain and Hollywood; the first French sound film, Caïn (1930) although it comes under criticism in the book the film quite openly deals with relationships between Caucasians and non-whites. In fact many films studied in the book include cross-race relationships albeit that these are complicated relationships, maybe even doomed relationships. This is something that would not fly in post-Production Code Hollywood.
What is unfortunate about the book is that it completely alienates itself from Hollywood cinema, except for a footnote that mentions Marlene Dietrich in her own Foreign Legionary film Morocco (1930). Indeed Dietrich’s films often dealt with the exotic as did the films of Dolores Del Rio among other stars in 1930s Hollywood, films which could be seen favourably alongside their French counterparts. But the author has actively decided against these comparisons with the exception to De Mille’s The Cheat which gets plenty of coverage as an example of racial stereotyping. Kennedy-Karpat’s study is a book less about French cinema than it is on French studies about the beginning of the end for French colonialism as seen through French popular culture but is never the less an interesting read.