The first annual Cannes Film Festival opens at the resort city of Cannes on the French Riviera. The festival had intended to make its debut in September 1939, but the outbreak of World War II forced the cancellation of the inaugural Cannes.
The world’s first annual international film festival was inaugurated at Venice in 1932. By 1938, the Venice Film Festival had become a vehicle for Fascist and Nazi propaganda, with Benito Mussolini’s Italy and Adolf Hitler’s Germany dictating the choices of films and sharing the prizes among themselves.
Outraged, France decided to organize an alternative film festival. In June 1939, the establishment of a film festival at Cannes, to be held from September 1 to 20, was announced in Paris. Cannes, an elegant beach city, lies southeast of Nice on the Mediterranean coast. One of the resort town’s casinos agreed to host the event. Films were selected and the filmmakers and stars began arriving in mid-August. Among the American selections was The Wizard of Oz. France offered The Nigerian, and Poland The Black Diamond. The USSR brought the aptly titled Tomorrow, It’s War.
On the morning of September 1, the day the festival was to begin, Hitler invaded Poland. In Paris, the French government ordered a general mobilization, and the Cannes festival was called off after the screening of just one film: German American director William Dieterle’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany.
World War II lasted six long years. In 1946, France’s provincial government approved a revival of the Festival de Cannes as a means of luring tourists back to the French Riviera. The festival began on September 20, 1946, and 18 nations were represented. The festival schedule included Austrian American director Billy Wilder’s The Lost Weekend, Italian director Roberto Rossellini’s Open City, French director Rený Clement’s The Battle of the Rails, and British director David Lean’s Brief Encounter.
At the first Cannes, organizers placed more emphasis on creative stimulation between national productions than on competition. Nine films were honored with the top award: Grand Prix du Festival. The Cannes Film Festival stumbled through its early years; the 1948 and 1950 festivals were canceled for economic reasons. In 1952, the Palais des Festivals was dedicated as a permanent home for the festival, and in 1955, the Palme d’Or (Golden Palm) award for best film of the festival was introduced, an allusion to the palm-planted Promenade de la Croisette that parallels Cannes’ celebrated beach.
In the 1950s, the Festival International du Film de Cannes came to be regarded as the most prestigious film festival in the world. It still holds that allure today, though many have criticized it as overly commercial. More than 30,000 people come to Cannes each May to attend the festival, about 100 times the number of film devotees who showed up for the first Cannes in 1946.