It took 80 years, but Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington finally won top prize at the 1939 Cannes Film Festival.
The award was presented Nov. 16 in Orléans, France, where the heirs of Cannes’ founding father, Jean Zay, re-created what was supposed to have been the very first festival — except that the Nazis invaded Poland on Sept. 1, the day the fest was meant to start, postponing it until 1946.
The founder’s two surviving daughters, Hélène and Catherine, were the instigators of a weeklong event set in their father’s native city, where Joan of Arc famously broke a siege by the British during the Hundred Years’ War. It was at the Scène National d’Orléans that Cannes 1939’s full program was screened for the public, as well as to a jury headed up by Israeli auteur and Croisette regular Amos Gitai (Kippur).
Other jurors included French filmmaker Pascale Ferran (Bird People), Oscar-winning Hungarian director László Nemes (Son of Saul) and screenwriter and former WGA president Howard A. Rodman (Savage Grace), representing Hollywood.
Indeed, the very first Festival de Cannes was meant to be a Hollywood-heavy affair. Zay, who was the Minster of Education and Arts under France’s leftist Popular Front government, traveled to New York in June of ’39 with a mission to both reaffirm the Franco-American union against the fascist powers and to seal a commercial accord that would give Hollywood films free access to the French market.
The first Cannes competition featured nine American movies — far more than the two or three regularly selected nowadays — and included such classics as Capra’s Mr. Smith, Leo McCarey’s Love Affair, Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings and a little-known fantasy film called … The Wizard of Oz.
MGM, the studio behind the Victor Fleming blockbuster and other movies selected for competition, had even commandeered a cruise liner to bring stars like Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, Norma Shearer and Spencer Tracy directly to the Côte d’Azur.
Outside the Hollywood contingent, the competition featured a handful of directors now considered certified masters.
There was Alfred Hitchcock, representing the U.K. with his Charles Laughton starrer Jamaica Inn; Douglas Sirk, then working under his real name, Detlef Sierck, with the Dutch crime movie Wilton’s Zoo, which he made during his passage from Germany to America; and there was even Sergei Eisenstein with his medieval epic Alexander Nevsky — until the Soviets pulled it from competition before the fest-that-never-was had even begun.
“I thought it was a great idea to screen the original program in its entirety,” French film critic and historian Antoine de Baecque, who presided over Cannes 1939, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We had to track down all 30 films, which wasn’t an easy task.”
De Baecque went on to explain how the original Cannes fest was created in direct political opposition to the Venice Film Festival (founded in 1932), triggering a rivalry that continues till this day.
“By 1938, Venice had been taken over by the Nazis, with German propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels determining that the grand prize would go to Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. After Venice ended, the French, American and British delegations got together and decided to create their own festival to rival the Axis powers’. The first Cannes was a political act, an anti-fascist act.”
Although France had much to do with the creation of Cannes — the first honorary president of the festival was to be none other than the father of cinema, Louis Lumière — not all members of the government backed the decision. Some officials, including those who supported the Munich Agreement of 1938 and were hoping to maintain peace with Germany, saw it as an act of “cultural war,” with the two festivals suddenly competing for the biggest movies and stars.
This may explain why some of the best French films of 1939 — titles like Jean Renoir’s La Bête Humaine, Marcel Carné’s Daybreak and Julien Duvivier’s The End of the Day — wound up premiering in Venice, leaving Cannes with now-forgotten movies like Jean d’Agraives’ colonial documentary La France est un empire (France Is an Empire).
“The latter was actually imposed by Zay,” de Baecque says. “As ironic as it sounds, it was considered anti-fascist because it celebrated the exploits of the French colonies.”
Films like La Bête Humaine also opted for Venice because of the strong ties back then between the French and Italian film industries, as well as the fact that Venice was the much bigger festival. The tide would change after the war, with Cannes soon gaining the upper hand for many decades, until Venice came back full force over the past 10 years thanks to a string of Oscar-winning premieres and the fact that Cannes has refused to screen Netflix movies in competition.
Jean Zay, the man who started it all, would never see Cannes happen.
The son of Jews from Alsace-Lorraine, Zay was the subject of vehement anti-Semitic attacks from the Nazi-backed Vichy government and was arrested for desertion in the summer of 1940. Sentenced to exile in a penal colony, he remained in France until late June of 1944 — just a few weeks after D-Day — when three members of the pro-Vichy Milice Française picked him up from prison under false pretenses and murdered him in a nearby forest. In 2015, Zay’s body was interred at the Panthéon in Paris, the resting place of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and resistance leader Jean Moulin.
Largely forgotten by cinephiles over the decades where Cannes built its reputation as the premier movie festival of the world, Zay’s name was finally resurrected last week in Orléans, with the Grand Prix Jean Zay replacing the Palme d’Or.
The top prize went to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, awarded unanimously by the jury. McCarey’s Love Affair, starring Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer, received the best director prize, and The Wizard of Oz won an award for “technical innovation.”
“It has all the distinguishing qualities of a grand prize winner,” jury member Ferran said of the Capra movie in a press conference held after the closing awards ceremony.
More bluntly, jury president Gitai drew parallels between Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the current turbulent times. “It’s the only film in the selection that really speaks about what’s happening today,” he said. “Fake news, the way in which the media is manipulated by power, the crisis of Democracy … and an individual who tries to fight against that manipulation.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.