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A Brief History of the Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or

A.k.a. the sometime Grand Prix du Festival International du Film.
Cannes 2021 Lineup Breakdown
By  · Published on July 14th, 2021

Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks at the history of the Palme d’Or, the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

The film world is abuzz with news from the ongoing Cannes Film Festival. This year marks the seventy-fourth edition of the event and includes a number of notable films, including Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, Leos Carax’s Annette, and Mia Hansen-Løve’s Bergman Island.

Followers of the festival will know that the top prize at Cannes is the Palme d’Or, which in English translates to the Golden Palm. The award has been given out in one form or another almost every year since 1946. As we await the results of this year’s competition, set to be announced on Saturday, July 17th, here is a brief history of the award and its many variations.

The First Palme d’Or Winners

The Cannes Film Festival had an inauspicious start. The inaugural edition of the festival was set to take place in September 1939 but was canceled due to the onset of World War II. In fact, the intended first full day of the festival, September 1st, was when the Nazis invaded Poland. Not until 1946 could it finally be held. According to the festival:

“The tone of the event was pacifist, based on the ideal of understanding between the countries taking part, and whose regulations echoed those laid down in 1939.”

In the spirit of unity, the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film, the precursor to the Palme d’Or, was awarded in 1946 to one film from each of the participating countries:

The Turning Point, from the USSR; The Read Meadows, from Denmark; The Last Chance, from Switzerland; The Lost Weekend, from the US; Men Without Wings, from Czechoslovakia; Torment, from Sweden; Portrait of Maria, from Mexico; Rome, Open City, from Italy; Brief Encounter, from the UK; Neecha Nagar, from India; and Pastoral Symphony, from France.

While that first event was deemed a success, there were a few snafus.Alfred Hitchcock has met his match,” the French critic Robert Chazal said of one hiccup. “The projectionist added to the suspense of Notorious by missing out an entire film reel.”

According to the Cannes website, “Proceedings had been overlooked in the preparations and the projectionist’s assistants recruited from among the city’s gardeners.”

(Note: if anyone wants to have some fun and stage a screening of Notorious: The 1946 Cannes Cut, I’ll be there!)

Nearly sixty years later, in 2002, the Cannes Film Festival recognized the 1939 event that never was by unanimously awarding the top prize, now called the Palme d’Or, to Cecil B. DeMille‘s Union Pacific. The title, jurors said, “echoed the Festival’s original vision: ‘to create a spirit of collaboration between all film-producing countries.'”

From Grand Prix to Palme d’Or

In 1948 and 1950, the Cannes Film Festival was not held, due to a “lack of funds.” But in the year in between, Carol Reed‘s masterpiece The Third Man became the first solo winner of the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film.

Six years later, Teinosuke Kinugasa‘s Gates of Hell became the final film to win the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film before it became known as the Palme d’Or in 1955.

At the end of the 1954 edition of Cannes, the festival invited jewelers to “submit designs for a Palme, a tribute to the coat of arms of the City of Cannes.” Lucienne Lazon won the bid and a trophy was made.

Until that point, only French celebrities comprised the festival’s jury. With the arrival of the Palme d’Or, it became an international group comprised of film industry professionals and celebrities from around the world.

The first-ever Palme d’Or went to Delbert Mann for Marty. It stars Ernest Borgnine in the titular role of a bachelor living with his mother. One day, he finds a woman who, like himself, is without love. And naturally, they fall for one another.

In 2019, the film ranked sixty-second on IndieWire’s list of best Palme d’Or winners. “Marty’s climactic soliloquy conveys a universe of human desire in just a few short sentences,” wrote David Ehrlich. “In other words, Mann’s film still has more to offer than just being a fateful answer in Quiz Show.”

Mann’s Marty, Billy Wilder‘s 1946 co-winner The Lost Weekend, and Bong Joon-ho‘s 2019 winner Parasite (the last awarded before this year), are the only three movies to win both the Palme d’Or and the Academy Award for Best Picture.

From Palme to Prix and Back Again

From 1955 to 1963, Cannes awarded ten films the Palme d’Or. But then in 1964, the festival reverted back to the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film. This era is bookended by Jacques Demy‘s 1964 Palme d’Or winner, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, and Francis Ford Coppola‘s 1974 Grand Prix winner, The Conversation.

The following year, the Palme d’Or made its permanent return, when the Algerian film Chronicle of the Years of Firedirected by Mohammed Lakhdar-Hamina, won the top prize.

Each year since 1975, the award has gone to the director of the Best Feature Film of the Official Competition. And it is “presented in a case of pure red Morocco leather, lined with white suede.”

In 1979, Francis Ford Coppola won for Apocalypse Now, sharing the award with Volker Schlöndorff, for The Tin Drum, in a tie. The win made Coppola the only director to win both the Palme d’Or and the Grand Prix.

Five years later, the award itself physically changed again. This time to a small pyramid made of hand-cut crystal with the Palme, redesigned by Thierry de Bourqueney, placed in the center.

One of the more notable awards was given in 1993: Jane Campion became the first woman to win the prize, for The Piano, sharing the honor with Chen Kaige for Farewell My Concubine in another tie. Campion remains the only woman ever to win the Palme d’Or.

Four years later, the first honorary Palme d’Or, the “Palme of Palmes,” was given to Ingmar Bergman, who did not attend. Since then, fourteen others have received an honorary award, including Agnès Varda, Jane Fonda, and Clint Eastwood.

The Palme d’Or Today

The Palme d’Or went through another — and, as of now, final — redesign in 1998. According to the festival website, the award is now “made of 24-carat gold, is hand-cast into a wax mold, then affixed to a cushion of a single piece of cut crystal and is now presented in a case of blue Morocco leather.” Fancy.

The first winner of the new award was Theo Angelopoulos, for Eternity and a Day.

It has been more than two years since the Cannes Film Festival last awarded the Palme d’Or. Bong Joon-ho, who won for Parasite, became the first filmmaker from South Korea to receive the prize.

I don’t usually follow the news out of Cannes. I like surprises! But this year feels different. In many ways, the return of the festival feels like the return of the movies. Or, at least some semblance of moviegoing normalcy.

As we await the news of this year’s winner of the Palme d’Or, follow along with FSR’s coverage from the Cannes Film Festival.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.