The Story of Cannes and its wee festival – The History Show, 5 May.


Since the Cannes Film Festival first started in the 1930s, it has become the major annual meeting place for the international film industry as billionaire actors, porn stars and art house directors throw shapes and sell their wares on the coastline of this glamorous French city.


I’ll be talking to film lecturer and History Show regular, Steven Benedict, about Cannes and the movies.


Of course, Cannes was around for a long time before the festival itself and joining us to give us a potted history of the city will be Trinity College historian, Laura O’Brien.


Up to the early part of the nineteenth century Cannes was just a small town that was best known for only for two things: fishing, and a large prison on a nearby off-shore island. This had once paid host to the infamous ‘Man in the Iron Mask’ during the late 17th century.


Cannes owes its popularity as a tourist destination to the deadly disease of cholera and to a Scot! In 1834 Henry Brougham, the British Lord Chancellor and erstwhile campaigner against the slave trade, was bringing his daughter Eleanor-Louise to Italy. However, because of a cholera outbreak the Italian border was temporarily closed. Brougham had no choice but to remain in France and spent the night in Cannes. So enchanted was he with the town that he built a holiday home in the area. His house-warming party attracted the great and the good of fashionable London and Cannes was on its way.



Brougham, or 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux to give him his full title, died in Cannes in 1868 and is buried there. He has a street named after him and merits a large statue near the Palais des Festivals. He also has a type of carriage named after him, which he either designed or, more likely, inspired.


The further development of Cannes as a resort was aided by an influx of Russian aristocrats, not to be confused with the new 21st century Russian aristocracy which tends to favour the Costa del Sol. But it was the spread of the railway system that finally turned Cannes into one of the premier resorts in Europe. As the French network spread to the south of the country and to the Cote d’Azur you could travel there from France by the early 1860s in a rapid twenty-two hours. Unacceptable today but lightning fast in 1863. Sadly, this also had the effect of making Cannes accessible to the Parisian hoi polloi, a serious blow to the aristocrats who had been having a hard time from the sans culottes since the invention of the guillotine. Ah Quel dommage!


Cannes overtook Nice as a chic holiday destination in the 1920s and 30s when many American movie stars like Fairbanks, Chaplin and Valentino were drawn to the city.  The Film Festival was, in part at least, a response to the awarding of the Grand Prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1938, to the Leni Riefenstahl Nazi-fest film of the Berlin Olympics of 1936, Olympia and an Italian film produced by Mussolini’s son. In the process Jean Renoir’s La Grande Illusion was ignored by the jury. The first Cannes Film Festival was to have taken place on 1 September 1939. Many major American filmmakers were due to attend. But Hitler had other ideas. The German invasion of Poland forced the cancellation of the Festival after one night, so 1946 is the official start date.


The sequence of Cannes festivals has not been unbroken, however, since that date. There were no events in 1948 or 1950. The 1968 festival was closed down as ‘les evenments’ (political riots to you and me) proceeded in Paris.


With a budget of over €20m the Festival is now one of a number of film and TV events staged annually in Cannes, but for glamour and regular controversy it generally leaves local and international rivals and pretenders in the shade.