In July 1938, the Venice Mostra, the first international competition dedicated to the film world, saw the major pre-war film-producing countries gather together for the sixth time. France was represented with a series of films, and on the jury by the diplomat Philippe Erlanger.
On the day of the Awards ceremony, the jury was unanimous. An American film had captured their hearts, but under pressure from Hitler the Nazi propaganda film Olympia by Leni Riefenstahl and the Italian film Luciano Serra, Pilot by Goffredo Alessandrini reaped the ultimate accolade, named the Mussolini Cup. The decision provoked outrage among the members representing democratic countries and France, the United States and Great Britain left the Mostra, vowing not to return.
During his train journey back to France, Philippe Erlanger, thought of setting up an event to replace the Mostra and offer the world a festival that was free of pressure and constraints. On his return, he contacted the authorities. There was no time to waste – a rival French festival was required before the next Venice competition came around.
From September 1938 to May 1939, the initiative became a genuine State affair. Georges Bonnet, the Foreign Minister, was afraid of poisoning Franco-Italian relations, but the Education Minister Jean Zay, and Minister of the Interior Albert Sarraut, supported the idea of a film festival for Europe in which art would no longer be influenced by political manoeuvring. In June 1939, the creation of a film festival in France was announced in the media, supported by various film-producing countries, led by the United States, and scheduled to open on 1st September – the same day as the Mostra, which left only a few months to prepare the entire event.
Cannes: Caught between Venice and Hollywood
France clearly had to create a setting as prestigious as Venice for its rival festival. Out of a list of ten French towns, the choice initially fell on Biarritz on 9 May 1939. But the supporters of Cannes around Georges Prade, a municipal councillor from Paris, and the directors of the Cannes hotels, mobilised and finally ended up winning the event. And so, on 31 May 1939, the town of Cannes and the government signalled the official birth of the International Film Festival, a mere three months before the event’s inauguration date. The ‘Pearl of the Riviera’, a jewel on a coastline often compared with California, began to dream of Hollywood.