BOOTLEG FILES 226: “The Last Time I Saw Paris” (1954 MGM weepie starring Elizabeth Taylor, Van Johnson and a very young Roger Moore).
LAST SEEN: Available online at Google Video.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: One of the most duped public domain titles of all time.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A lapsed copyright.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Too late, it is stuck in public domain hell forever.
For no clear reason, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing was never properly adapted into motion pictures. There have been four film versions of “The Great Gatsby” (one is lost, the other three should be lost), while cinematic translations of “Tender is the Night” and “The Last Tycoon” are widely regarded to be major disappointments.
And then there’s the case of his classic short story “Babylon Revisited.” No, that’s not about Iraq – it is a dissection of the lives of aimless, perhaps hopeless Americans lost in their own haze amidst the tumult of post-World War I Paris. Almost immediately after its initial publication back in the Roaring Twenties, producer Samuel Goldwyn scooped up the movie rights. Alas, nothing came of that.
“Babylon Revisited” was revisited by Paramount Pictures in the 1940s, with the announced plans of William Wyler directing a film version. That, too, came to naught.
Oddly enough, the property was acquired by MGM, where Fitzgerald toiled disastrously as a screenwriter during his liquor-rich/cash-poor years in the 1930s. However, the studio decided that the original story was too dark, too sad and too dated. Thus, a new happy version of the Fitzgerald story was cranked out called “The Last Time I Saw Paris.”
Actually, the title makes no sense in connection to the story, which takes places almost entirely in Paris (there’s a scenic trip to Monte Carlo about two-thirds of the way into the plot). But the title made sense to moviegoers in 1954 – it was a popular, if schmaltzy, love song that pulled the heartstrings and generated smiles among those who get teary-eyed over tunes. MGM, more controversially, updated the story from the early 1920s into the post-World War II period. Clearly this was meant for audiences of the time to connect with the actions on screen – and, of course, it saved the studio a fortune on period clothing, props, set design, etc. It also enabled a continuous playing of the title song, which didn’t exist back in the 1920s.
Then came the real problem: casting the roles of the troubled, alcoholic writer and his glamorous but equally agitated wife. The first mistake came in giving the male lead to Van Johnson, MGM’s fair-haired leading man. Johnson was an adequate presence in light comedy, but complex dramatic roles were clearly not his forte and the requirements of this role (with its deep psychological anxiety and rough patches of jealousy and shame) were far beyond his abilities.
The second mistake came in casting Elizabeth Taylor as the leading lady. She had no problem meeting the role’s glamour needs, but at this stage of her career she was literally sleepwalking her way through monochromatic roles that existed solely to highlight her beauty.
But if Taylor’s acting was monochromatic, the film stock wasn’t: MGM shot the works with both Technicolor cinematography and extensive location shooting in France. If audiences were being shortchanged on substance in “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” at least they were getting their fix of style.
As the film unwinds, Johnson plays Charles Willis, an American soldier at the liberation of Paris. He’s a journalist by trade and is assigned to the Army’s Stars & Stripes newspaper. During the liberation celebrations, he meets a pair of sisters: the pretty but reserved Marion (Donna Reed, fresh off her “From Here to Eternity” Oscar) and the gorgeous free spirit Helen (Taylor). Yes, they’re Americans and somehow they survived living in wartime Europe with their aristocratic father James Ellswirth (Walter Pidgeon). The circumstances of the Ellswirth family’s stability is never entirely clear – Ellswirth is supposedly near-broke, but the family has a gorgeous villa and Helen was able to spend the war years at an exclusive Swiss school.
Charles is smitten with Helen, which irks Marion since she is smitten with Charles. Charles and Helen wed and he takes a job with the Paris bureau of an American news service. Marion marries one Claude Matine (played by George Dolenz, real-life father of future Monkee Micky Dolenz).
The good news for Charles and Helen: they have a darling baby girl and Helen gets rich when one of her father’s supposedly dormant oil wells in Texas turns gusher The bad news for the couple: Charles’ attempts at getting a novel published are crashing failures, which drives him to alcoholism.
The marriage of Charles and Helen begins to fray and they each entertain would-be lovers. He spends time with a husband-hunting socialite (Eva Gabor). Helen, in turn, spends a lot of time with an oleaginous tennis player (a very young Roger Moore). Although neither Charles and Helen actually commit adultery, they come close.
I’d prefer not to give away too much more, since anyone who would wish to see this film may not be aware of what becomes of the troubled couple. Although the film is actually told in flashback from Charles’ perspective with a foreshadowing of things to come, the actual course of events isn’t entirely predictable. I will say that there is a yippie-skippie ending that completely contradicts the harsh moral of Fitzgerald’s story.
But, quite frankly, one shouldn’t approach “The Last Time I Saw Paris” looking for art. This was clearly designed as diversion, albeit with a classier-than-usual pedigree, and as fluff it has plenty going for it. Taylor, for her part, carries the film based on her designer wardrobe and her flawless photogenic beauty. Even Taylor seems aware of what’s expected of her – she races through her lines, keeping emotion tightly tucked in, while she luxuriates in leisure across every inch of the screen. She puts on quite a show, even if she doesn’t give a performance.
Also, the film has a few treats: Eva Gabor, surprisingly, plays her role straight and avoids the camp trappings that one normally associates with her (and her more famous sister Zsa Zsa). She actually gives a decent performance, capturing the Fitzgerald blend of cynicism and exasperation that is lacking throughout the film. And Roger Moore – egad, he picks up for Gabor’s lack of camp and clearly shows all the vices that one associates with his acting. In case you’re wondering where it all began for him, this is the place.
Folk music fans will also need to pay very close attention for a rare and too-brief appearance by Odetta, playing a singer (at least MGM had the brains not to cast her as a maid!).
Critics weren’t particularly impressed with “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” but audiences enjoyed the star power and travelogue aspects of the flick. The film, however, marked the end of Van Johnson’s MGM career – the studio cut him loose and his movie career waned considerably. Donna Reed also saw her second lead status here as a warning that her film career was not going where it should have been. Instead, she retreated to television and became a major star of her own long-running series.
MGM neglected to renew the copyright for “The Last Time I Saw Paris” and the film lapsed into the public domain. The presence of Elizabeth Taylor ensured it would be a highly visible duped title, and for many years it has been among the most popular films offered by labels specializing in public domain titles. The whole film is also available online (in an okay dupe print) at Google Video.
Okay, this isn’t a great film. Maybe it’s not even a good film. But for 1954, “The Last Time I Saw Paris” filled the bill with enough mindless silliness to keep people amused for two hours. Even today, it’s good for a cynical laugh. Though if you hear a strange whirring sound while watching the film, that’s okay – it’s only F. Scott Fitzgerald spinning in his grave!
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