It all started just before WW2 when the German Chancellor, Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini pressured the jury members of the Venice Film Festival (Mostra Internazionale d’Arte Cinematografica di Venezia) in July 1938 so they have changed the award winners a few hours before announcing the official results in favour of the Nazi-Propaganda documentary “Olympiad” (about the 1936 Summer Olympics held in Berlin, written, directed and produced by Leni Riefensthal) and Goffredo Alessandrini’s war drama film “Luciano Serra, Pilot”.
Shocked by these events, American, British and French representatives decided not to take part in any further “Nazi-competition” and the French diplomat and historian Philippe Erlanger knew he had to do something to create a “Free Film Festival” with no pressure nor constraints. His idea became official when the French Ministry of Education and Fine Arts of that time, Jean Zay approved it. A new International Film Festival will take place in France. The only thing missing was the right location. A place that could host the event and turn it into a success. Out of a dozen nominated cities, only two were finally selected because they were able to match the splendour and glamour of Venice but also able to build in time all the infrastructure needed in just a few months. Philippe Erlanger’s finalists were Biarritz and Cannes. We all know who actually won. As Biarritz was already a well-known luxury seaside resort since the Second Empire as Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie loved to spend a lot of time there, it was decided this should be the right city. The “Basque’s prestige” won: The new Film Festival will be held every year in Biarritz.
Nevertheless, Cannes never gave up and, using their image of a luxury seaside resort since the 19th century loved by royalty and celebrities from all over Europe, the city decided to heavily invest in order to upgrade all the leisure and hospitality infrastructures. Cannes’ gamble paid as Biarritz was unable to match and finally decided to withdraw its candidacy by the end of May 1939, leaving Cannes as the effective choice for the French International Film Festival. The first edition was set to take place starting on 1st of September that same year with Louis Lumiere as president of the jury, the very same day as the opening of the 7th edition of the Mostra di Venezia.
Everything was on track and it was supposed to be a grandiose day until German troops invaded Poland on 1 September and two days later, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany pushing Europe into turmoil. The festival was initially postponed for 10 days, but as the situation dramatically worsened as a general mobilisation was declared, it became impossible for the festival to go ahead. Only a single screening was however privately organised. It was William Dieter’s film Quasimodo, for whose promotion a cardboard replica of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris was built on the beach. Once the war ended the French State and the city of Cannes could no longer afford the costly expenses of a Film Festival so Philippe Erlanger raised the necessary funds through a public subscription and this is how the first Cannes Film Festival took finally place in 1946.
On 20 September and for the following 3 weeks, Cannes became the capital of cinema. Everything was just magnificent. American actresses arrived by seaplanes just on the bay and even an American submarine came.
There were flower parades, popular dances everywhere and fireworks, lots of fireworks lightening Cannes' streets.
The joyful atmosphere was everywhere and a television report of that time tells about am utterly drunken American who almost felt off the top of a building, a French prefect who had his kepi robed. But perhaps the sensation of that first edition of the Cannes Film Festival was a new “provocative” outfit every woman was wearing: the bikini. But not everything went according to the plan, far from it. As there was only a single person to project the movies municipal gardeners were hired to help and, as none of them knew anything about films and even less about foreign languages, they ended up mixing up all the film reels and projected everything in the wrong order.
As the audience was entering the premises through the curtains behind the stage there was a constant backlight. The management team was overwhelmed, guests ignored rules and nobody was really respecting anything, not even the numbered seats leading to embarrassing situations like when a con man, coming in through the kitchens, took the seat of the British ambassador; or when the French Minister of the Armed Forced was barred from entry by a butler who had no idea who he was.
In the end, almost every film in the competition won, preserving all national delegations' egos. Eleven movies were rewarded but the legend of the Cannes Film Festival was born and, since then, year after year, the Croisette has been hosting one of the most important film festivals in the world. Year after year, movies from all over the world compete for the famous Palme d’Or awarded to the best movie by an international jury.