The Last Time I Saw Paris

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THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS —-the 1954 update of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s 1931 short story “Babylon Revisited” boasts a good cast & director, some decent writing, attractive settings, and several renditions of the beloved title tune on the soundtrack. Reviews were indifferent (critics almost never like adaptations of Fitzgerald: it’s in their contract), but it made a profit with receptive audiences. A goof in copyright renewal allowed it to fall into the dreaded ‘Public Domain’, so decent prints became & remain hard to come by, its Technicolor sadly washed out. The director and one of the stars later dismissed it, and the sentimental drama has become what I like to refer to as an Orphan Movie, unfairly abused and oddly neglected. With a few caveats, it’s deserving of a better history. *

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The celebrated author’s story was set in the early 30s, but the adaptation moves it up to Paris in the years after Liberation, figuring to cash in on a more recent generations government-insisted visit to France. The Coen Brothers of their day, the Epsteins, identical twins Julius J. & Philip G., are credited, but director Brooks rewrote most of their work to suit the wishes of MGM studio boss Dore Schary.

An American correspondent for “Stars and Stripes” (Van Johnson) meets two sisters, also from the States (Elizabeth Taylor & Donna Reed—this is a guy God likes), who’ve been living under the occupation with their happily hedonistic father (Walter Pidgeon). Van & Liz fall for each other, Walter drops witty bon bons, Donna is embittered over losing out. Money ebbs & flows, partying continues, a child arrives, booze and self-pity wrecks Johnson’s novel-writing and life with wife. Tragedy lines up for a wintry reckoning.

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Johnson was having a strong year at 38, headlining five films, including Brigadoon and the smash The Caine Mutiny; he does decently by the frustrated novelist (some trademark Fitzgerald self-portrait anguish at work in the character). Taylor, basically drop-dead gorgeous at 22, was also much displayed in ’54, and she draws some viable spirit out of her ill-fated mate role. Pidgeon gets much of the best dialogue, and drolly covers likable wastrel territory that could have once suited William Powell. Poor Reed is served least-well, both by her characters written coldness and the diminished size of the role. Put Donna next to Liz, though and it’s hard to say which was more beautiful (who to marry is a no-brainer).

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Elsewhere, in a neat sally as a social gadfly is the Gabor sister who could actually act, Eva, plus Kurt Kaszner, Roger Moore (27, his first notable part in the States, as a tennis cad) and the cute tot from Them!, the wide-eyed, charming and talented Sandy Descher, all of eight.

With the exception of the strange casting choice of George Dolenz (father of future ‘Monkee’ Micky) as Reed’s husband—he’s about as animate as a sack—the actors are all fine, but the script structure wobbles eventually when Johnson spirals too suddenly into despair, and the behavior of these rather selfish and indulgent folks ultimately doesn’t generate more than surface sympathy.

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Some location work was done in Paris, Cannes and Monte Carlo, with the rest back in Hollywood. Running 116 minutes, with small parts for Peter Leeds, John Doucette, Celia Lovsky and Odette. Conrad Salinger arranged the score, which does overplay the theme song. Even so, it’s hard to resist: the classic was written by Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein II back in 1941, for Lady Be Good, copping an Oscar.

Produced for $1,960,000, the film’s take and relative post in the money firmament depends on which source you pick. Wikipedia has it 16th place for the year, grossing $4,000,000. MGM listed it taking $4,940,000, coming out $980,000 in profit. Cogerson puts it 39th place with $7,500,000!  These accounting discrepancies make a person writing about it (1) pull hair, (2) want to go to Paris and get hazed on Pernod, then (3) be forced to choose between Liz Taylor and Donna Reed. Life can be Hell, for those who choose to live it. Exemple de citation de Francaise insérée dans un son de fantaisie.

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* An Orphan Movie. For her part Liz told an interviewer, a decade later, it was “a rather curiously not-so-good picture” that “convinced me I wanted to be an actress instead of yawning my way through parts.” Her other outings the same year: Rhapsody, Beau Brummell and the silly but fun Elephant Walk, which she really didn’t like—and was the biggest hit of the four. Director Brooks later guided one of her best performances, and an Oscar nomination, in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof.  His observation on The Last Time I Saw Paris was “It’s true that the picture fails, even in the middle. It doesn’t hold together. The sentimentality just bogs it down.”   Maybe, but there are plenty worse ways to spend a few hours than listening to Jerome Kern and gazing at Elizabeth Taylor and Donna Reed.

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