Hôtel du Nord, the film: the birth of a legend

Hôtel du Nord, the book

In 1938, Marcel Carné adapted to the screen the novel « Hôtel du Nord », by Eugène Dabit, winner of the populist prize of 1929. Eugène Dabit was the son of the owners of the Hôtel du Nord, along the Canal Saint-Martin. At that time, the Hôtel du Nord was an inspiration for the novel, which recounts the ordinary lives of ordinary Parisians, but in greater colour. Unfortunately, Eugene Dabit died of scarlet fever in 1936, without ever seeing the screen adaptation of his work..

The synopsis of the movie

It’s Paris, 1938. In a hotel near the Canal Saint-Martin, a communion is being celebrated. The hotel guests and patrons are enjoying a meal. As this is taking place, a young couple rent a room in order to commit suicide. During the night, gunshots ring out; the young woman is injured and the young man dies. The owners offer the young woman a place to stay as she recuperates – eventually taking her on as a waitress. Her life becomes entwined with life at the Hôtel du Nord and, oddly, with another colourful couple – a young woman and her pimp ...

Hôtel du Nord, preparing for the film

Riding on the success of his film Quai des Brumes, Marcel Carné cast Annabella, a virginal beauty and rising star of French cinema. The films in which she appeared did particularly well in Central Europe – and she had been suggested by Sedif Joseph Lucachevitch, the president of the production company. Carné wanted to have his friend Jacques Prévert adapt and write the script, but scheduling conflicts prevented this. So Carné instead relied on Jean Aurenche and Henri Jeanson for the script and the dialogue. They were thrilled to be working on the project. Jeanson made the characters of the young lovers, played by Arletty and Louis Jouvet, appear poorer in order to boost their charm and audience appeal. Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia at the time the film was being made, which added to pressure to shoot the scenes quickly. 

At the same time, Carné and his flatmate Maurice Bessy (editor of the weekly Cinémonde) went to the Hôtel du Nord to soak up the atmosphere. Cinémonde published an article about this visit, signed by Bessy on August 25, 1938.

Hôtel du Nord, the film’s legendary sets

At first, Carné and his producer thought it would be impossible to shoot the film on location on the Canal Saint-Martin. They decided to use a set in the Billancourt studios. The set models were 70 metres deep, and in addition to the hotel itself, they needed to provide the setting of the Canal Saint-Martin, so we needed to dig a hole in the ground and fill it with water. A decision was made to build the set outside the studio, on land that belonged to the Billancourt cemetery. The producer (Joseph Lucachevitch) soon realised the gorgeous scenery could also be used for the film’s promotion. During the summer of 1938, the faithful set recreations were completed by Alexandre Trauner, at the Paris Cinema Studios, in Billancourt. As the set designer, Alexandre Trauner, recounted, Lucachevitch had even invited all of Paris to a massive reception on the illuminated set.

Hôtel du Nord wins recognition

Arletty (real name Léonie Bathiat) could not have imagined the impact her now famous retort: « Atmosphere, atmosphere ... Does this face look like atmosphere? » would have for years to come.

Critics applauded the film’s « sunny » nature, and the direction of Marcel Carné – but it was Arletty who won the most accolades.

Hôtel du Nord, the film by Marcel Carné stands as a testament to French cinema of the 30s, set in working-class Paris, where the social reality and folklore convey the poetry of pre-war Paris.

 

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