Another Grand Illusion: Jean Renoir's First Year in America
by Elizabeth Vitanza
“I trust that you will have a happy time in Hollywood, where I feel sure they will highly appreciate the Director who made some of the greatest French films like “La Grande Illusion.” (1)
Dear Bob, I would like to see you making a new picture. I miss you on the screen. The pictures they are making now seem to me so annoying, and flat, and poor. I am sure they are killing the interest of the audience for the movies and very soon, people will prefer the merrygorounds or the whorehouses and we will have to find another job. With my love, JR (2)
Two weeks after Jean Renoir’s arrival in the United States, Eric von Stroheim joined the chorus of congratulations celebrating the French director’s emigration, wiring to suggest they work together on a project he had developed:
Heard the good news about you and Zanuck. Sincere congratulations once again it proves [your] eagerness and excellent judgment. Do you already have a script in mind or would you be interested in a story I’m writing at the moment. If interested, send me a telegram and I’ll send you synopsis. Think the story presents big possibilities especially with you as director. Am sure could be another Grand Illusion. Warmly and best wishes for you and Dido. ERIC (3)
However plausible this collaboration seems, and despite his many well-placed émigré and American contacts within the film industry, Renoir’s first year in Hollywood presaged years of professional setbacks. Although Renoir had secured a two-picture deal in early 1941 with Twentieth Century-Fox, every project he suggested to studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was vetoed. Disappointed after the experience of filming Swamp Water (4) —his first and only Fox picture—he opted out of his less than year-old contract to regroup. Thus, somewhere between the two epigraphs lies the story of how and why Renoir’s hopeful arrival in the States rapidly gave way to despair over the entire state of American cinema. This paper will examine Renoir’s transition from France to Hollywood in the first half of 1941. Through personal correspondence and film treatments, I argue that Renoir’s ideas contained thematic and formal elements that clashed with Hollywood’s wartime agenda. Furthermore, I will attempt to demonstrate how these clashing elements reveal a previously neglected continuity between the end of Renoir’s French years and the intended thrust of his American career.
Leading up through the shooting of Swamp Water Renoir had at least four proposed projects during the first half of 1941. Two were of his own making (titled Les Enfants dans l’orage (5) and Wind, Sand and Stars) and two were given to him by Fox ( Venezuela (6) and I Wake Up Screaming). It is highly indicative of Hollywood’s notoriously constrained creative climate that not one of these treatments ever developed into a Renoir film. In 1954, Renoir gave his version of events in an interview: “When I wanted to do Terre des hommes, they were still in the intensive studio state, but this film had to be shot at the location described in the book. I think that’s the main reason no one accepted it.” (7) Evidence from 1941 suggests the contrary: that is, Renoir’s brief employment at Fox stemmed from issues much larger than difficult shooting locations. His letters and internal company memos reveal Renoir’s profound frustration with Hollywood, where he could not realize his filmic ambitions, and Washington, where he was powerless to help his son Alain obtain an exit visa from France. Just seven months after landing in New York, Renoir wrote his brother Claude in a somewhat despondent tone:
My job really isn’t fun in Hollywood. It consists of sitting in a comfortable armchair, smoking cigarettes and saying “action” and “cut”. I have understood the uselessness of trying to do something personal. My boss, M. Zanuck, is a type of Richebé, with the aggravating difference that he’s on a scale four or five hundred times larger. (8)
By the time of his exile to the United States, Renoir was hardly naïve to the economic realities of filmmaking (as his reference to French producer Richebé suggests) Much of his correspondence in the 1920s up through the mid-30s aggressively attempts to negotiate financing and distribution for his films and shows a clearly pragmatic understanding of the industry. “I’ve studied the progress of the all the films that came out this winter…the success of a film depends solely on its launch. We can’t forget that it is the movie theater owners who are the masters of the situation,” he observed in a letter to his brother Claude in 1925. (9) However, Renoir appears to have had serious misconceptions about Hollywood’s readiness to embrace the work of a distinctly French director in 1941. Zanuck was infamously difficult to work with, but to simply blame him for Renoir’s difficulties is to ignore the larger political and cultural forces that lay behind Zanuck’s decisions. One must critically consider the content of the projects Renoir proposed to his American producers in order to better fathom his lack of success. Specifically, what was it about the way in which he framed his ideas that made them unmarketable in Hollywood?
The history of Renoir’s failed screen adaptation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s 1939 international bestseller (10) , Terre des hommes, published in English a year later as Wind, Sand and Stars, is amply documented in personal correspondence as well as company memos. The two airplane pilots (Renoir had flown in World War I) had become friends as they crossed the Atlantic together into exile in December 1940. Saint-Ex, as he was affectionately known, remained in New York while Renoir and his wife Dido continued on to Hollywood. In addition to letters and memos discussing the idea, there are three surviving treatments of Wind, Sand and Stars, all written during the first half of 1941. Because this project intersects chronologically with his tenure at Twentieth Century-Fox, it provides an ideal point of entry into a critical examination of Renoir’s American imbroglio. Studying the trajectory of Renoir’s treatment of Wind, Sand and Stars in relation to Zanuck’s counter-proposals brings into sharper focus the contrast between Renoir’s vision and that of a major Hollywood studio of the 1940s.
Set in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America, Renoir’s Wind, Sand, and Stars treatment weaves together the stories of several French airmail pilots who travel the globe establishing airmail routes. Through their adventures, we become aware of the forces that determine the pilots’ singular existence, such as:
The forced severing of personal ties [,] the risks of the trade [,] the dissimilarity between airmen and office workers, and perhaps most importantly, the “round of change”—an element stressed throughout the picture. We are dealing with the pioneering phase of commercial aviation. Because of accident, or due to the extension of a given route, plane crews are constantly shifted from one point to another of the globe as necessity demands […] this round of change contributes toward the buildup of a further impression, to be sustained throughout: that of simultaneousness.” (11)
The young daughter of an Argentine mechanic adds romance to the story, but it is political intrigue that is at the heart of the film’s dramatic climax: The main character and his radioman crash in Libya and are taken prisoner by a “warring band of dissident Arabs.” (12) This is first and foremost a story about fraternal relationships between men. The French commander of the Sahara, Bonnafous, negotiates the aviator’s rescue by exchanging ammunition for the hostages and the film ends with the now world-weary pilot returning to work: “This is rather melancholy,” notes the treatment, “but without bitterness, because we are made to feel, after the trial by thirst, that the pilot has finally met his tribe on the march.—a tribe of no sect, of no race, of no individuals: it is the tribe of man. Coming forth from a parched, deserted planet, as from Mars, he has re-discovered mankind.” (13) At the close, we have the last lines of dialogue between the commander and the pilot as they discuss the foolishness of the Arabs, who had feared that Bonnafous, their sworn enemy, was going to abandon the fight: “‘So they thought, the idiots, that I was going back to France to play bridge and marry the Colonel’s daughter! Would you, a pilot, give up your pilot’s trade?’ And the answer is: ‘No’.” (14) The hero has finally learned, as does Boeldieu in La Grande Illusion that “le devoir, c’est le devoir”; fade to black.
The treatment’s themes and structure are reminiscent of many of Renoir’s previous films, most notably La Grande Illusion. Martin O’Shaughnessy’s analysis of the 1937 film centers on “the specific tension between a search for universal community and the need to maintain boundaries, specifically those of gender, in order to safeguard identity.” (15) The POWs struggle to remain Frenchmen in a time and a place that strips them of their usual means to identity. The pilot-hero in Wind, Sand and Stars embarks on a similar journey. As his comrades disappear in plane crashes, he works to understand his evolving self-awareness: Is his future as the husband of the young Argentine farm girl, is it back in France, or is it forever alone in his plane? The film’s conclusion that a man’s professional calling trumps his romantic interests is yet another common thematic thread linking the two projects. Renoir gives weight to the camaraderie of the pilots due to their “horizontality” (here, based on their profession as pilots) just as he does with the POW’s in La Grande Illusion. Yet for all these affinities with his most internationally successful film, Zanuck along with the heads of other major studios, passed on the scenario in 1941. (16) Why would they reject an adaptation of a bestselling book that would fit so snugly into the paradigm of Renoir’s most successful film?
Renoir consistently drew comparisons to his greatest international and financial success, La Grande Illusion, in order to push his new screenplays. Again and again, the film is the point of reference as the Renoir film par excellence in his pitches to Zanuck and his agents. In late January, Renoir describes his excitement over film proposal for, Flight South, which he described as being about: “juvenile delinquents who are freed as the Germans invade […] I am almost certain that I finally hold in my hand a super Grande Illusion.” (17) Paradoxically, the celebrated originality that gained Renoir entry into Hollywood also prevented him from continuing to make films there in his signature style. While American studios “admired the art films of European directors, […] there was a persistent tension between the demands of art and the bottom line. American film makers kept at least three audiences in mind as they made their pictures: a fickle mass audience, the box office, and their own peers, whose approbation they sought.” (18) American audiences generally demand American movies. Therefore, Renoir’s reputation simply proved to U.S. producers that he was skilled enough to learn to do Hollywood projects. The director conceded as much in his memoirs: “I was quick to realize that what Fox expected of me was not that I should bring in my own methods but that I would adopt those of Hollywood.” (19) Moreover, in the context of World War II, promoting America onscreen was a matter of national importance and thus another factor in producers’ decisions. By 1941, there was no license for European art films, especially not about occupied France.
The war had forced Renoir to flee France; now it was inhibiting his artistic freedom in America due to popular aversion to honest portrayals of French society. Whereas Renoir strove throughout his career to incorporate current events into his projects, Zanuck eschewed historical subject matter as an unnecessary intrusion into his films. Flight South, the film about juvenile delinquents freed from reform school as the Germans invade Paris, failed to interest Zanuck. The studio head probably assumed (correctly) that the contemporary context of Flight South would have been unappealing, too pro-French for American audiences. The film takes place during the German invasion of 1940 and gives an unflinching look at French class hatred via the story of refugees who seek help from their countrymen unsuccessfully. The treatment explains: “Tragically enough, these people [French villagers] actually look forward to the occupation by the Germans, when order will be restored.” (20) Even Venezuela, Zanuck’s never-made pet project in early 1941, had been modified in order to have a more ambiguous world setting. (21)
Part of the problem lay therefore in Hollywood’s increasing wartime collaboration with the U.S. government, and its attendant political agenda. As Ruth Vasey notes, in 1939 “[The] war transformed the foreign situation in ways that nobody could have foretold. The industry forged conspicuous new links with the State Department; and as revenues from Latin America increased, offsetting losses in Europe, Hollywood cooperated closely with the Office of Inter-American Affairs, adopting a high-profile role in ideological promotion.” (22) Renoir seemed slightly aware of this when he first pitched the Wind Sand and Stars adaptation in March. “There is no implication of war in the story [as there had been in Flight South], which should provide a fascinating and exciting subject for the screen,” (23) he assured his boss on a practical level. Zanuck understood that “politics translated into controversy and bad box office,” (24) but—at least outwardly— this was not his main criticism of Renoir’s explicitly political film.
In spite of its sensitive subject, Flight South’s fatal flaw, according to Zanuck, was a lack of plot:
The story about the boys, who flee from reform school, is very interesting--but merely as a suggested story […] I do not believe any story can be a successful commercial venture unless it has a strong and vital plot. There are no exceptions to this rule. All of the big hits have been built on solid plots and stories with a definitive objective. It is not sufficient for you or anyone to dramatise characters, elements and background. (25)
To criticize Renoir for dramatizing “characters, elements and backgrounds,” is to criticize the very essence of his idiosyncratic style! The studio’s emphasis on story, so vigorously enforced by Zanuck, stood in opposition to Renoir’s own method of creating characters first, then placing them together in a situation to see what transpires, though it might often be nothing outwardly dramatic. In a memo to his agent, Andre Daven, Renoir explained his approach: “Every time I’ve been fortunate enough to succeed with a film, I’ve noticed that from the beginning it wasn’t because of the story, but rather of the human milieu and the characters’ personalities.” Later on in life, Renoir echoed this same philosophy in an interview: “I’m most attracted to the idea of constructing a film from small, complete pieces. The only problem is that this often works against me because of another of my obsessions, of slightly neglecting the importance of story line. I’m obsessed with the idea that in reality, the story isn’t very important.” (26) Still not willing to discuss Wind, Sand and Stars, Zanuck countered Renoir’s historically relevant idea with noir-ish fluff in I Wake Up Screaming and action/adventure in Venezuela. Not only did these scripts have settings devoid of current events, they also had the most important ingredient for American box-office success—exciting plot twists (courtesy of a murder mystery and a volcanic eruption, respectively), often to the detriment of narrative coherence. Undeterred, Renoir tried to convince his agent and his boss that though unconventional by Hollywood’s standards, Wind, Sand and Stars had value precisely because of its different narrative approach that only he could render on film. He explained it to Saint-Exupéry:
A week ago, I think I found a way to present Wind, Sand and Stars to a producer. The way is to take your adventure in the Libyan desert as the basis of the screenplay. The audience will simultaneously follow the progress of [the hero’s] thirst while intercutting with other episodes in the book that will be exciting because each one will in itself be a complete mini-drama. (27)
Zanuck did not apparently accept episodic films either, no matter how complete each “mini-drama” was; he continued to ignore Renoir’s entreaties on behalf of Wind, Sand and Stars.
As weeks passed, Renoir tuned into the larger opposition thwarting his efforts behind the story versus character conflict:
It will soon be three months that I have been here, and several weeks since I joined your Company. During this time I have done my utmost to learn a little English, and I have put on paper the story about France of which I believe you have already heard [Flight South] […] Mr. Milton Sperling has submitted to me the story “I Wake Up Screaming”, and I have read the little note that you had attached to it […] I am ready to devote my time and energy to it. But I take the liberty of asking you to consider whether the public might not ask what was the point of my making so long a voyage to do a job which many of my American fellow-directors could have done at least as well as I. (28)
Renoir’s distinction between “American fellow-directors” and himself is telling: it reveals, I believe, the conflict between “American” and “French” projects to be the crux of the discord between Renoir and his American producers. In 1941, Renoir was still very much a French director in exile; he still believed that he would wait out the war in America, make a couple of films, then return to France. He had not seriously considered long-term residency, let alone the prospect of U.S. citizenship. Surprisingly, he writes in his memoirs that Zanuck “proposed to get me to film French stories, which was the very last thing I wanted.” (29) Letters to France from 1941 reveal a nearly the opposite to be true. Renoir’s ceaseless worrying about the impact of the war on loved ones back home:
“I know that once I’ve done everything here I need to do, I’ll go back to France and all of my friends.” (30)
“I believe that now we must abandon the hope of seeing our friends come here. Dare I admit to you that I regret being here?” (31)
“Sometimes I’m filled with despair when I think that my son and my brother are so far from me.” (32)
Though Renoir would eventually adapt to his new surroundings, the painful memory of France’s recent occupation was too vivid to ignore in the winter of 1941; consequently, he wanted to make films set in partially or totally in France—Flight South and Wind, Sand and Stars—that would reflect his deeply felt concerns about the situation.
After having failed to directly communicate Wind, Sand and Stars’ importance to Zanuck, Renoir appealed to one of his agents, Charles Feldman, to see if he could put in a good word:
And while I’m making these two films [Venezuela and I Wake Up Screaming] I would like you to really look into the question of Wind, Sand and Stars and persuade either Mr. Zanuck or some other independent producer to consider this idea, the only one for the moment that seems capable of putting me in the top tier of directors in Hollywood and giving me the place in America that I had in France. (33)
O’Shaughnessy astutely defines Renoir’s place in France, pointing out the “historical scope” of Renoir’s films of the 1930s, and demonstrating that they are “attempts to rebuild community and renew the social contract; efforts to deal with a difficult present or uncertain future by linking with a rewritten past; struggles to find certainty in times of extreme uncertainty […].” (34) He interprets Renoir’s major French films as broad attempts to interpret evolving national identity and gender roles rather than as Frontist allegories, as has commonly been done. Film historian Dudley Andrew’s theory of the optique similarly insists through the example of poetic realism that films “are thoroughly cultural and historical phenomena, even when what they express repudiates culture and history.” (35) This hypothesis that most French films of the 1930s should be analyzed in relation to political and social upheaval is crucial to understanding the context of Renoir’s films. How could a man who was so acutely in tune with France’s shifting moods have been expected to ignore it all and happily shoot murder mysteries? He was still very much a French director in 1941.
Flight South and Wind, Sand and Stars originate from similar inquiries of his French films of the previous decade. As he had in all of his films of the 1930s, Renoir wanted to present his audience with his take on French society. In light of current events, what did it now mean to Renoir to be French? How could he interpret the reasons for France’s quick defeat in a fiction film? Renoir shared his thoughts on the filmmaker’s role vis-à-vis such historical events:
We always think that an event is immediately and universally noticed. We even think that it is immediately and universally understood. That’s not true. The event remains underground or isolated for a long time and emerges only little by little, and only after the fact does it take on meaning. History with a capital H is a product of historians. They are very useful, because they present a synthesis without which we wouldn’t understand it. But in a film one can try to make people understand this choppy, irregular aspect that life takes on during great events. (36)
With either of these two projects, Renoir believed he could create a synthesis of the issues of Occupation-era French national identity while including enough general themes to make it appealing to an American audience largely unfamiliar with French daily life. He would later attempt this in 1943, to mixed reviews, in This Land is Mine. Another letter to Zanuck reinforces an argument in favor of the director’s desire to contribute in a very specific, not “American,” way:
I don’t tell you this with the hidden intent of not doing Venezuela, this film would be an interesting and without a doubt excellent school of adaptation to the American spirit. But I suppose that you hired Jean Renoir so that he would make Jean Renoir films. And, in this case, I believe that Wind Sand and Stars gives me the ideal pretext. (37)
“The ideal pretext” is the opportunity to create a film that deals with a French history, but by virtue of its loose narrative simultaneously allows Renoir to manipulate the themes to appeal to a large audience. A film like Wind, Sand and Stars could be a way for Renoir to contribute to the war effort while fulfilling his Fox contract. French audiences would be reminded of their patrie’s foundation on the shoulders of ordinary people achieving the extraordinary by virtue of their persistent pursuit of a national cause (i.e. opening up French airmail routes). On the other hand, Americans would identify with the film’s general valorization of duty and camaraderie while perhaps gaining a bit more respect for the French along the way. Had it been realized, the film might have become an allegory of the resistance and helped stem the tide of rising anti-French sentiment in America through the portrayal of brave, sympathetic French characters. Renoir’s goal of uniting different national audiences through common themes reappears in another memo that Zanuck disregarded: “Claude Tillier’s novel, My Uncle Benjamin [is about] the birth of democratic ideas in my country. The worth of this book lies in a kind of shrewdness and peasant common-sense, closely related to a type of wit that is very popular in America. For several years I have dreamed of making a film of this book.” (38) Tillier’s novel, like Wind, Sand and Stars, allows for the horizontality Renoir valued so much through its subject, the origins of modern democracy.
Under the unwavering Fox directive of a tightly structured story as the first principle of moviemaking, Renoir eventually realized that Saint-Exupéry’s book combined with his film methods would not be a successful candidate. Readers who are only familiar with Le Petit Prince still know that Saint-Exupéry is a writer of episodes rather than stories with strong plots. Terre des hommes is no exception. “It was not a book written over the course of eight years, but a book into which eight years of writing were hurriedly stitched,” writes Stacy Schiff. (39) Part memoir, part essay, the book is everything but a linear story. Renoir had spent enough time with Zanuck to write Saint-Exupéry in early April 1941 that “no producer would ever consent to let me have a story what wasn’t “constructed” as they say” (40) Furthermore, he was a political writer: Terre des hommes was a collage of Saint-Exupéry’s journalistic writings on aviation as well as the developing tensions in Europe during the 1930s, especially the Spanish Civil War. Since the eve of World War II, Hollywood had taken steps to censor any potentially scandalous political content from its films. Walter Wanger, an independent producer who turned down Wind, Sand and Stars, had actually made a film about the Spanish Civil War in 1938. Entitled Blockade, the movie elicited immediate controversy and was “boycotted and picketed by Catholic organizations throughout the United States.” (41) He had already learned the lesson Renoir was currently discovering: “The experiences with Blockade suggested how difficult it would be for the industry to portray events in Europe.” (42)
Within the larger scope of Europe, the public had a particularly negative perception of France that compounded Zanuck’s aversion to Renoir’s already weak stories. He repeatedly insisted on keeping Renoir and Jean Gabin, who had also fled France, apart for their first couple of films, presumably to avoid the creation of a film that was too French-oriented and thus destined for low box-office receipts. Although Zanuck approved of Venezuela’s story, he did not trust that a Renoir/Gabin collaboration would produce a sufficiently American result, no matter how tight the story:
I have postponed talking to you about Venezuela because I first wanted to wait and see whether Jean Gabin liked the story for his first American picture.
I have come to the conclusion that you should not direct his first American film—that you should direct and American cast in your first film, and that he should have an American director for his first American film. You can probably get together on the second or third production. When you think this over I believe you will agree with me that this is psychologically correct.
Have you finished the original story that you were writing- the story of France after the Armistice? I would like to read this story if you have completed it.
I am going ahead with Milton Sperling on developing I WAKE UP SCREAMING. When we have the first rough continuity finished, I will have you in for the conference, as this may be the ideal subject for you to do as your first American film. On the other hand, if Gabin does not do VENZUELA as his first American film and if I decide to use some other well-known player, then I may have you direct it for your first picture, as I have great faith in the story. (43)
It is interesting to note that Zanuck reiterates his faith in the story, rather than in his accomplished director. Finally getting the hint, Renoir’s answer was capitulatory in tone: “Thank you for your letter.” […]I agree with you entirely on the question of Gabin. I am sure that later, when he and I have become more Americanized, our collaboration will bring you everything you have the right to hope from us. (44) Perhaps Renoir realized that he had made a misstep in offering Flight South as his first idea. “Americanization” had not been on his mind when he penned the treatment in early 1941. It was so overtly historical and passionately political that it is possible that Zanuck did not want to risk letting Renoir film or come into contact with anything or anyone remotely French after having read the treatment. Dialogue such as “You’d sell every soul in France for gold” leveled at shopkeepers by Parisian refugees as well as a final scene of two young lovers killed by the same bullet from an Italian warplane would have justifiably repelled even the most enlightened of producers. Renoir acknowledged the situation in Hollywood in June:
I’ve been back here for three days [in Hollywood from Georgia]. I received a note from Wanger that talks about Wind, Sand and Stars in a nice way, but without saying anything precise. I should’ve seen Al Lewin today, but I ran out of time. I did eat lunch with one of Selznick’s assistants and it gave me the impression that, for their part, anything touching on France is a no-go for the moment. (45)
Due to American intolerance toward its perceived cowardly surrender to the Germans, France, along with Central and South America, was to be avoided on the silver screen. As Koppes and Black explain: “Few films were made about the French resistance, perhaps because of the public’s suspicions about the collapse of this supposedly decadent nation, and the continuing ambiguities about relations with the Vichy government.” (46) Jean Renoir, one of the few directors who could do justice to the situation was ironically kept out of the fray for fear of exacerbating public opinion that could not have gotten much worse.
In June, Renoir made a final attempt to sell Wind, Sand and Stars. His growing awareness of the workings of the American film industry, Zanuck’s agenda, and anti-French popular sentiment had lowered his expectations. Skeptical of his agents’ enthusiasm for the project to the point of mild paranoia, he wrote Saint-Ex:
Nevertheless, I’m wary, since nothing tells me that this isn’t play in order to get me to do some other film that they really want to do. They are easily capable of buying the rights to Wind, Sand and Stars and then putting it aside or even giving it to some other newcomer who knows who to get his way with Zanuck better than I. But this risk is minimal, because Zanuck is very intelligent and will understand that I’m probably the only one at the moment here in Hollywood who could make something of this book that I love with all my heart […] I hope to have a rapid response and to know in a week or two whether or not Fox wants me to do the picture. (47)
Wind, Sand and Stars would be shelved indefinitely. Renoir’s writing style, usually measured and clever, becomes more bluntly irate as the spring of 1941 ends, peppered with exclamation points: “I really truly miss the good old days of Crime de M Lange. It was perhaps a crazy time, our ideas weren’t very stable, but what a beautiful production! We certainly couldn’t make a film like that in goddamned Hollywood!” (48) Swamp Water had gone into production by this point, and Renoir was coping badly with Zanuck’s daily assault on his technique. The director’s fatigue and hopelessness were no doubt compounded by the constant stream of memos from his boss, for example: “You will note that the new script on Swamp Water has been cut to 137 pages. Over 45 pages have been removed from the script. There should be no nonsense about shooting schedules or budgets.” (49) At this point Renoir appears tired of fighting a losing battle, replying, “I like the screenplay because it has gained a lot in tempo. I regret the loss of certain things in the old screenplay, but am unable just now to make any suggestions as to how to keep them and at the same time retain the good tempo we now have. JR” (50)
Nevertheless, Renoir remained hopeful that circumstances would soon change, and Wind, Sand and Stars would be made:
I’ve received negative responses from most of the people to whom I’ve give the Wind, Sand and Stars synopsis. But that doesn’t mean anything. We are going through a time when everything French interests very few people in Hollywood. This feeling will certainly change and that will be the time to recommence a new offensive. But let me to tell you that it will be better to go about it differently and to try to have direct contact only with two or three big producers that it might interest. This subject is too special and too beautiful to be understood by the studio script readers. The producer who will do this film will do it because he loves the book and because he believes in it completely. It is only under these conditions that he will make a beautiful film. (51)
Renoir’s experience with Wind, Sand and Stars was his introduction to the American film industry. He learned in 1941 that his methods were anathema to Hollywood studios. Formally, Renoir’s preference for character over story was the opposite of Zanuck’s mandate. Thematically, Hollywood producers saw the socio-political content of his unproduced film treatments as unmarketable due to the level of anti-French sentiment in the United States during WWII. Though Zanuck localized the conflict around Renoir’s outwardly “story-less” film treatments, Flight South and Wind, Sand and Stars, it is more likely that this excuse was easier to explain to the Frenchman than America’s contempt for France and its effect on Hollywood’s self-censorship. More importantly, the content of these unproduced treatments illustrates that Renoir had originally intended keep making films in the spirit of La Grande Illusion and La règle du jeu in Hollywood. In an ironic coda, Zanuck moved to Europe to become an independent producer in 1956 as a protest against the changing studio system:
I just got well fed up with being an executive and no longer being a producer. That’s what the job became. Actors are now directing, writing, producing. Actors have taken over Hollywood completely with their agents. They want approval of everything—script, stars, still pictures. The producer hasn’t got a chance to exercise any authority! [...] What the hell, I’m not going to work for them. (52)
Just when he would have had a better opportunity to make Wind, Sand and Stars in Hollywood, Renoir had already returned to work in Europe; he had arrived with his ideas a decade too soon in 1941.
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- Undated handwritten letter, 1941in English to Robert Flaherty. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Telegram from Eric von Stroheim to Jean Renoir, January 15, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers. Translations are my own unless otherwise noted.
- Alexander Sesonske’s production history of Swamp Water plainly shows that it wasn’t really a Renoir picture at all, but rather edited to Zanuck’s exacting Hollywood formula. Cf. Alexander Sesonske, “Jean Renoir in Georgia: Swamp Water” (The Georgia Review. Spring 1982: 24-66).
- The English title is Flight South. I will use the English title in this paper since it is the title appearing on all formal treatments of the story
- The title was later changed to The Night the World Shook. The film was never made, although Zanuck continued to try up until 1954.
- Renoir on Renoir : Interviews, Essays, and Remarks. Trans. Carol Volk. (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 1989)16. Interview published in Cahiers du cinéma April-May 1954.
- Letter to Claude Renoir, July 20, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Letter from Jean Renoir to Claude Renoir, Februrary 16, 1925. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Not only was it a huge success in France, but the English translation that appeared in 1939 sold 150,000 copies in the U.S. alone by August 1939. It was voted best work of nonfiction for 1939 by the American Booksellers Association as well. Cf. Stacy Schiff, Saint-Exupéry: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1994.) 311.
- 25 page version of Wind, Sand and Stars treatment written by Renoir and Maxmilian Becker, Saint-Exupéry’s literary agent in New York. Undated, assumed to be written between March-May of 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Becker treatment, 21. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Becker treatment, 24. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Becker treatment 25. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Martin O’Shaughnessy, “Nation, History and Gender in the Films of Jean Renoir.” France in Focus: Film and National Identity. Eds. Elizabeth Ezra and Sue Harris ( Oxford: Berg-Oxford International Publishers, Ltd., 2000) 129.
- David O. Selznick, Alexander Korda, Walter Wanger, and Al Lewin were some of the more notable studio and independent producers who passed on the Wind, Sand and Stars idea. Cf. Saint-Exupéry“Cher Renoir”: Projet de film enregistré en 1941 d’après Terre des hommes (Paris : Gallimard-Cahiers de la NRF, 1999) 128.
- Letter to André Daven, January 21, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (Berkeley: UC Pres, 1990) 3.
- Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films trans. Norman Denny (New York: Plenum Publishing-Da Capo Press, 1974) 193.
- Undated treatment of Flight South by Jean Renoir, probably January-February 1941. Fox Unproduced Scripts. Arts Library-Special Collections. University Research Library, UCLA.
- When the original title was changed to The Night the World Shook, the setting was also changed to a nameless tropical locale after Zanuck was advised “by the State Department to avoid these areas as apparently they are very sensitive no matter how we treat them.” “This may save us some trouble with our good-neighbor policy,” he concluded in a memo on April 2, 1941. Twentieth Century-Fox Unproduced Scripts.
- Ruth Vasey, “Foreign Parts”, Movie Censorship and American Culture, Francis G. Couvares, Ed. (Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1996) 232.
- Jean Renoir to Darryl F. Zanuck, March 24, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Koppes and Black 26.
- Darryl F. Zanuck to Andre Daven and Jean Renoir, January 24, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Renoir on Renoir, 82. December 1957 interview.
- Jean Renoir to Saint-Exupéry, April 2, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Jean Renoir to Zanuck, March 24, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Jean Renoir, My Life and My Films, 193.
- Jean Renoir to Pierre Fighiera, June 20, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Jean Renoir to Lucien Vogel, May 26, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers
- Je an Renoir to Eugène Lourié, May 12, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Jean Renoir to Charles Feldman, April 9, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- O’Shaughnessy, 128.
- Dudley Andrew, Mists of Regret : Culture and Sensibility in Classic French Film (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1995) 332.
- Renoir on Renoir 141. December 1967 interview.
- Jean Renoir to Claude Renoir, April 16, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Jean Renoir to Darryl F. Zanuck, Marck 24, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Schiff, 305.
- Jean Renoir to Saint-Exupery, April 2, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Koppes and Black, 26.
- Koppes and Black, 26.
- Darryl F. Zanuck to Jean Renoir, April 7 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Letter from Renoir to Zanuck, April 8, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers
- Jean Renoir to Saint-Exupéry, June 11, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers
- Koppes and Black, 295.
- Jean Renoir to Saint-Exupery, April 2, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Jean Renoir to Desfontaines, June 13, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Darryl F. Zanuck to Jean Renoir, June 19, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Memo to Darryl F. Zanuck from Jean Renoir, June 20, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Letter to Maximilian Becker July 9, 1941. Jean Renoir Papers.
- Darryl F. Zanuck. Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years at Twentith Century-Fox, Rudy Behlmer, ed. (New York: New Grove Press, 1993) 259.
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