Movies that Matter: The Grand Illusion (1937)

The Kansas City Public Library kicks off the film series Movies that Matter: The Sequel, with a screening of the 1937 film The Grand Illusion on Sunday, September 29, 2013, at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.

This celebrated film from director Jean Renoir follows a handful of French POWs who during World War I try to escape their German captors. Here are 10 fascinating facts about this landmark picture:

  • In virtually every poll by film scholars and critics over the last six decades, The Grand Illusion has been named one of the top ten movies of all time.
  • Director Jean Renoir was the son of famed Impressionist artist August Renoir and as a boy often posed for his father’s paintings. In fact, the young Renoir wanted to be a potter, not a moviemaker.
  • The Grand Illusion was Renoir’s first international hit, but hardly his first movie. It was his 21st feature film.
  • It’s an anti-war film in which combat is never depicted.
  • The Nazis hated the movie because it so effectively dissects the nationalism behind virtually every war. Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, declared The Grand Illusion “Cinematic Public Enemy No. 1.” When the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, one of their first orders of business was to organize S.S. teams to find and destroy every print of the movie. They did such an effective job that a complete print was not discovered until 1958.
  • Jean Gabin, who played the everyman POW Marechal, was the most popular actor in France in the 1930s, with a following that rivaled that of Clark Gable in the United States. It was only when Gabin signed on that the producers were able to raise enough money to get The Grand Illusion made.
  • The uniform worn by Gabin throughout the filming was the same one worn by Renoir during the war.
  • Erich von Stroheim, who portrayed the German commandant at a prisoner-of-war camp, had been one of the most talented directors in Silent-Era Hollywood. He fell out of favor for his profligate spending, unreasonable demands, and defiance of studio authority. During World War II he specialized in “evil Hun” roles, playing sadistic Nazi officers and earning the nickname “The Man You Love to Hate.” This was ironic, given that he was a German Jew. One of his final film roles was Max, Norma Desmond’s obedient butler, in Sunset Boulevard.
  • Marcel Dalio, who played the Jewish POW Rosenthal, went on to have a major role in Renoir’s follow-up film, The Rules of the Game, which many critics believe superior to The Grand Illusion. Dalio, a Jew, spent the war in Hollywood where he appeared in 19 films and, as the nightclub croupier in Casablanca, delivered one of the movies’ most memorable lines.

    It comes in the scene in which the corrupt police chief Louis Renault (Claude Rains) is shutting down the nightclub.

    “I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here.” Renault fumes. At that point Dalio’s character approaches, gives Renault a handful of money, and says, “Your winnings, Sir.”

    Meanwhile, in German-occupied France the Nazis used Dalio’s picture on propaganda posters as representative of "a typical Jew."

  • The Grand Illusion was the first foreign language film to be nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. President Franklin Roosevelt screened it in the White House and declared, “Everyone who believes in democracy should see this film.” It played at a New York theater for six months – this at a time when theaters routinely changed movies every week.


Other films in the series “Movies That Matter: The Sequel”

Sundays at 1:30 p.m. in the Truman Forum at the Plaza Branch, 4801 Main St.:

September 29, 2013: The Grand Illusion (1937) Not Rated
October 27, 2013: The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) Not Rated
November 17, 2013: Breathless (1960) Not Rated
December 1, 2013: Pinocchio (1940) Not Rated
January 19, 2014: Sunrise (1928) Not Rated
February 16, 2014: An American in Paris (1951) Not Rated
March 9, 2014: The Grapes of Wrath (1940) Not Rated
April 27, 2014: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) Not Rated
May 18, 2014: The Lady Eve (1941) Not Rated
June 1, 2014: The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) Not Rated

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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