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Film still from Midnight in Paris, production companies Gravier Productions, Mediapro, Televisió de Catalunya (TV3) and Versátil Cinema
Film still from Midnight in Paris, production companies Gravier Productions, Mediapro, Televisió de Catalunya (TV3) and Versátil Cinema

10 Best Films Based In Paris In The 1920s And 1930s

Picture of Subarna Ganguly
Updated: 15 November 2016
Paris has long been a favorite backdrop on celluloid with its timeless charm. The architecture is grandiose and the boulevards lined with cafés and chic restaurants, enchanting. The fashion is glamorous and the iconic Eiffel tower shimmering over the glistening seine is a starry-eyed lovers paradise. The city entices and arouses hedonistic instincts and quenches the wanderlust. It is, as beautifully described by Ernest Hemingway ‘a movable feast’. Here is our list of the best films that capture the beautiful city of lights in the 1920s and 1930s.

Midnight In Paris (2011)

This Woody Allen romantic comedy is a delightful celebration of Paris. The central character of this romantic comedy, Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson is enamored with Paris and the 1920s. He fantasizes about leaving his lucrative career in Hollywood screenwriting and writing real literature. He dreams of being a writer in Paris during the 1920s much like his literary idols Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, at a time when artists, painters, writers all flocked to Paris for inspiration. As Owen Wilson is transported back in time, the anneés folles come alive with its costumes, music, great artists and intellectual fervor.

Midnight In Paris movie poster © Wolf Gang/Flickur

Paris Qui Dort (1925)

The first film written and directed by René Clair, the avant-garde French filmmaker, this is a silent comedy about a mad scientist who invents a ray that puts the city to sleep. With advanced techniques, René succeeds in manipulating and restructuring time. The film is surrealistic, lyrical and poetic. It gives the audience a panoramic view of Paris from the dizzying heights of the Eiffel Tower, which is an important pivot and character in the film. The audience is treated to magnificent shots of the city on a magical day in 1920s Paris when it stood still with all its fashions and vintage cars galore.

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009)

This French film is based on a 2002 fictional novel Coco & Igor by Chris Greenhalgh. It explores the alleged affair between the most famous French fashion designer Coco Chanel and Russian composer, Igor Stravinsky. It is based mostly in Paris and its suburbs in 1920 when Chanel launched her famous perfume Chanel No.5. The movie captures the fashions of the time, Chanel’s personal style statement, the theaters, ballet performances, music and Chanel’s home in Paris on 31, Rue Chambon.

L’Argent (1928)

A French silent masterpiece by Marcel L’ Herbier, this film is based on the 1891 novel by Emile Zola. It explores the great obsessions of the anneés folles, the stock market, aviation, opulence, decadence, high life, seduction, corruption and greed. It is one of the best silent films based in Paris with its dazzling art deco extravaganza, lavish costumes, complex characters and the beautiful Brigette Helm shimmering at the center of it all decked in golden satin, furs and pearls. The scenes at the Paris Stock exchange were actually shot on location with a crew of 18 cameramen. This film is a classic.

A Woman of Paris (1923)

An American silent feature by the genius Charles Chaplin who wrote, directed, produced and composed the score for this film. However, he does not act in the film which centers around Edna Purviance’s character Marie St. Clair, her love story, journey to Paris, trials and tribulations torn between her old lover from the countryside and her new wealthy Parisienne partner. The movie is filmed during the 1920s in Paris, giving the audience ample satisfying visuals of the era, the spirit, the manners, fashions and sensibilities. The story itself is quiet, dramatic and very different from Chaplin’s earlier works.

Chaplin Charlie © WikiCommons

Anastasia (1956)

Anastasia, starring Ingrid Bergman and Yul Bryner, is an American semi-historical drama, based on the play by Guy Bolton and Marcelle Maurette. The film opens in 1928 Paris. Anna, a recovering amnesiac, played by Ingrid Berman, attempting to commit suicide is saved by Bryner. He is struck by her striking resemblance to the lost princess and uses her in his plot to swindle the Romanov inheritance by training her to pose as Anastasia, daughter of the last Tsar of Russia, Nicolas II. Against the setting of Paris mostly, the viewer joins Anna in her quest to find her true identity.

Sous les toits de Paris/Under the roofs of Paris (1930)

Another of René Claire’s classics, it explores the flamboyant atmosphere of Paris with its web of apartments and the story of a street singer and a gangster fighting for the attention of a beautiful young woman. The film is witty, has amazing visuals and uses the newest technology in cinema-sound, portrayed through charming songs. It was an instant success upon release both in France and abroad and one of the most beloved of René Claire’s films. It can be regarded as the first successful musical comedy of French cinema.

Hugo (2011)

This Martin Scorsese film is based on the novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick. It is his first movie in 3D, a heart-warming story of a young orphan boy who lives alone in the walls of the Montparnasse station in Paris in the 1930s with his only companion, an amazing automaton. Interwoven with the story of Hugo is the story of the great filmmaker George Méliès. The film has amazing visuals of Paris, the trains, the Eiffel Tower, cinemas and libraries. It captures the humdrum of the station and the people both working there and traveling through.

Hugo | © Universal Pictures

Hugo | © Universal Pictures

Hotel du Nord (1938)

Hotel du Nord is a drama film by Marcel Carné. The story revolves around a run-down hotel by the Canal Saint-Martin of Paris, the queer occupants of the hotel and Renee and Pierre, a young couple who having lost all hope in life, have decided to commit suicide together. The film explores diverse characters from the underbelly of the city – criminals, vagabonds and prostitutes and their sentimentality. Largely shot on elaborate sets, the film embodies the city and the era well. The ending sequence is the visual highlight with Paris presented at night enrobed in the festivities of the Bastille Day celebrations.

Paris 36 (2009)

Paris 36 is written and directed by Christophe Barratier. It is an old fashioned movie centering around a cinema hall in a district known simply as ‘Faubourg’. It was shot actually on a set in Prague but depicts a Paris of social upheaval, when the left wing has taken power and Hitler’s rise to power is stirring up the political scene. The film is a melodramatic look at a time of mass unemployment, factory strikes and rising fascism. There is plenty of accordion music, baguettes, cafe and fashions to recreate the feel of the late 1930s in Paris.

Still from film Paris 36, production companies France 3 Cinéma, Constantin Film, Canal+ and TPS Star, distributed by Sony Films

Still from film Paris 36, production companies France 3 Cinéma, Constantin Film, Canal+ and TPS Star, distributed by Sony Films