Monday, September 26, 2016

Reeling Backward: "The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954)

I admit I had a hard time even getting through "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

It represents exactly the sort of Golden Age filmmaking that so turned me off as a youth: melodramatic, slowly paced, maudlin to the point of groan-inducing. It's a romantic film that starts off as a joyful scamp, turns into a drama and soon a tragedy. It's what was known in the old days as a "weepie" -- I laughed, I cried, I couldn't wait for it to end.

I chose to feature it mostly because of the presence of Van Johnson, a largely forgotten performer whose career I've been wanting to explore further. During the filming of "A Guy Named Joe" he nearly had his scalp torn off in a horrible car accident, resulting in deep scars on his forehead that Hollywood makeup and lighting couldn't fully hide.

He was held out of the military as a result of his injuries, while many big stars of the era served (often in morale-boosting roles far from the danger). So for a brief moment in time, Johnson was arguably the biggest American film star. Though, like Rosie the Riveter, he soon relinquished his title when the boys came home.

Tall, freckled and strawberry blond, Johnson was a song-and-dance man whose charismatic, amiable onscreen persona left many to underestimate his talents as an actor. MGM, facing financial trouble, dropped his contract after this movie came out, but he segued into a busy career on television, and ended up doing summer stock and dinner theater into the 1970s and '80s.

The pairing with Elizabeth Taylor is an electric one. Just 21 years old, she plays Helen, a vampy seductress who pursues Charles, a Stars and Stripes correspondent, in the aftermath of the war. Her family is not wealthy but lives like they are, scraping up champagne and evening wear for a never-ending party with her father, James (an agreeable Walter Pidgeon), as the emcee and raconteur.

As Charles segues into a job as a correspondent for the Europa News Service while dreaming of writing novels, James advises him to stock his stories with the good stuff: "Riches, ruffians and rape."

Alas, his novelist career never takes off and Charles, inundated with rejections from publishers, soon turns his frustration on Helen, who withdraws back into her role as the most famous American in Paris -- noted for dancing in fountains and the like.

Neither of them are particularly good parents, with Charles off drinking and Helen socializing. This, despite the presence of an adorable moppet, Vicki (Sandy Descher). Things only compound when they become suddenly wealthy, the result of some "worthless" oil fields in Texas that yield a gusher.

Very loosely based on a semi-autobiographical short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, the film has a very episodic feel, with distinct movements as judged by the changes in Helen and Charles' relationship. Director Richard Brooks ("Blackboard Jungle") co-wrote the screenplay with the Epstein twins, Julius J. and Philip G.

The title comes from a song that was already a golden oldie when the movie came out. It actually won the Academy Award for Best Song for 1941's "Lady Be Good."

The film moves in slow waves and eddies, undulating toward a sad denouement and an uplifting finale. This is the sort of movie where a perfectly healthy woman in her 20s can fall deathly hill just be being exposed to some cold weather for a few minutes. It was either that, or somebody was going to get run over by a car and crippled.

The most interesting aspect of the film is underplayed criminally. Charles does not first meet Helen, but her older sister, Marion (Donna Reed). She clearly is smitten with him, but after arriving at the party she invited him to Charles is snatched up by Helen, whom he had briefly kissed as strangers during the VE celebration in the street.

Marion is very cold to Charles the rest of the movie, even after she marries a kindly French attorney. For his part, Charles is completely ignorant of her feelings. She despises him for never returning her love. But this is all kept very much in the background, until literally the second-to-last scene, where her husband chastises Marion and urges her not to let her contempt for Charles color her actions.

To me, the story of a love triangle that goes on for years, with a man reviled for loving the wrong sister, is much more interesting than the movie we get. Marion sort of flits in and out of the background, so her emotions never really have time to register. The whole movie seems like an overlong wasted opportunity.

A couple of other stars have notable but small supporting roles. Eva Gabor plays Lorraine, a professional divorcee who marries and casts aside rich men. Charles is assigned to profile her for his news service, and the two start up a chaste companionship. Meanwhile, Helen falls into the arms of Paul, an itinerant tennis pro played by Roger Moore in one of his very first screen roles.

Hopefully, I'll find more to like about Van Johnson's career than "The Last Time I Saw Paris."

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