Looking through the blog posts I’ve published over the past few months, I realized what a long time it’s been since I reviewed one of those Hollywood classics, the type of film that people tend to recognize the name of, even if they’ve never seen it, or even if the film didn’t win any awards. Or wasn’t, eventually, as in this case, all that great after all. But I wanted to watch The Last Time I Saw Paris for two reasons: one, it stars Elizabeth Taylor, one of the most mesmerizing faces in 50s’ Hollywood.
Two, it is about a writer—and, since I am a writer myself, there’s that element of fellow feeling.
After a brief first scene, in which we see Charlie Wills (Van Johnson) arriving in Paris and going into a bar—where the bartender/owner greets him with joy, saying that it has been two years, has it not, since Wills was last in Paris?—we move to a flashback.
World War II has just ended on the continent, and all of Paris is rejoicing with the American troops now in the city. Charlie Wills, a lieutenant who is a reporter in the military press corps, has gone out on to the streets to join in the celebrations. Everybody’s hugging and kissing everybody else, and a gorgeous stranger (Elizabeth Taylor) comes by, laughing, and kisses Charlie fervently. Then she’s gone, leaving behind a bedazzled Charlie.
Charlie goes on to one of his favourite haunts, the bar in which we had seen him in the first scene. Here, while having a drink, his attention is drawn to an attractive woman (Donna Reed) sitting with a man. Charlie’s friend, the barkeep, whispers to him that the woman’s definitely looking Charlie over. Charlie, on a whim, decides to go and make her acquaintance—and, in the process, realizes that he knows the man she’s with: Claude (George Dolenz).
Claude introduces the woman—and American—as Marion Ellswirth, and over the course of the next few minutes, Marion (who is obviously interested in Charlie) invites Charlie home for a party. Her father, she says, is the one person in town who can always be depended upon to have a lot of liquor on hand, and he’s more or less spearheading the celebrations (he’s been celebrating since the end of World War I).
At Marion’s home, Charlie is introduced to her father, the happy-go-lucky Mr Ellswirth (Walter Pidgeon)—and, surprise, surprise!—the beauty who had kissed Charlie earlier in the day. This, it emerges, is Marion’s younger sister Helen. She had been at finishing school in Switzerland, but now that Paris has been liberated, Helen has, on a whim, left school and come back home. Marion’s sour expression reveals her displeasure; she does not approve of this flightiness.
As the party progresses, Marion becomes even less approving. Helen and Charlie get chatting immediately, and Charlie’s interest in Helen is quite apparent (even more so, perhaps, to Marion?) Marion is acutely aware of how attracted Charlie is to Helen, yet she makes one final attempt to draw him back: she tells him to phone her, and that they’ll meet up.
Charlie, no matter his feelings for Helen, is politeness itself. He phones Marion, therefore, only to have Helen receive the call. Helen tells Charlie that Marion isn’t around, so Charlie leaves a message: he’ll meet Marion that night at the Arc du Triomphe, when the lights finally come on again after all the long years of war-enforced darkness.
And who should turn up there to share in this moment of Parisian celebration, but Helen? She hasn’t told Marion, of course, and has snaffled Marion’s date for herself. This doesn’t seem to bother Charlie much, and before the night is over, he and Helen are quite besotted with each other.
Their romance progresses swiftly. Mr Ellswirth, Charlie realizes, lives extravagantly and flamboyantly, but is actually pretty broke. Whatever finances come his way seem to be the result of fluke, optimism, and some shameless borrowing.
(There’s a telling episode in which Mr Ellswirth gives Charlie a hot tip for the races, naming a horse which just can’t lose. He even manages to convince Charlie to put up all his savings and borrow some from colleagues—and Charlie discovers, only when the race starts, that the horse was just a name Mr Ellswirth picked on a whim. He knows nothing of its form. But it wins, and all is joy for Ellswirth and Helen: Charlie is the only one who’s sprouted a few grey hairs in the process).
Helen is probably far more like her father in her somewhat flippant, devil may care attitude towards life. Her belief is that life is to be lived, and where better than in post-war Paris, which is as gay and carefree as ever? The joie de vivre of Paris is exemplified in Helen’s own life, and in her father’s. Not a reprehensible attitude—it is just too diametrically opposite to Charlie’s own relatively serious view of life.
But Charlie loves Helen too much to care, and after she catches a flu—because he forgot her umbrella and she ended up going out in the rain—Charlie proposes to her. Helen is ecstatic, and says yes. They get married, and as a wedding present, Mr Ellswirth gives Charlie the deeds to the family’s only bit of supposed wealth: some land which is believed to harbour oil, but which has not yielded a drop so far. And never will, Helen adds.
Simultaneously, Marion announces that she is going to be marrying Claude.
The two marriages take place, and we next see see Charlie, now working as a reporter with the Paris office of a newspaper. He’s ended up having to support not just Helen, but her father as well: Charlie and Helen stay with Mr Ellswirth, and Charlie finds his father-in-law borrowing money from him every other day.
Time passes. Charlie spends his evenings writing what he hopes will be The Great American Novel. It gets rejected. Helen becomes pregnant, and little Vicky is born. Charlie, by now, is in such financially dire straits that he barely manages to scrape together the money to pay the hospital bills for Helen’s delivery. But the family—Mr Ellswirth, Helen, and Charlie, when he’s in their company—don’t seem to acknowledge the gravity of the situation: they behave as if they do have the money to afford a maid for the baby, parties, jaunts, and so on. There’s an odd air of ‘if I do not accept that we’re facing destitution, it will not happen.’
Helen, in particular, seems to be completely oblivious to the realities of life; she is as much of a gadabout as she ever was. One day, to Charlie’s embarrassment, his boss gives him an assignment: to report on a woman who was arrested that afternoon for jumping into a fountain. The woman? Mrs Helen Wills. Helen, when Charlie bails her out and talks to her about this latest exploit, admits that it had seemed like a fun thing to do—then admits, too, that she didn’t actually derive much fun out of it.
That, in fact, seems to be the essence of Helen’s life: every madcap thing she does, everything impulsive and unwise and just-for-kicks, is done in a desperate attempt to have fun. But that fun is elusive, and Helen, as she grows older, does begin to realize it.
Meanwhile, one day, Charlie is given another assignment that will prove pivotal in his life: a colleague, supposed to interview a wealthy socialite, passes on the interview to Charlie. Charlie goes to meet the woman, the beautiful, many-times-divorced Lorraine Quarl (Eva Gabor). She is surprised to find Charlie non-judgmental, and invites him to have dinner with her.
So much so that they’re meandering arm in arm along the streets, pleasantly tipsy, when they run into Claude and Marion. Marion is immediately suspicious of her brother-in-law’s association with this woman, and passes a remark to the effect that she, Marion, will be phoning Helen sometime the following morning. Charlie, half-befuddled with drink and yet aware that by gallivanting about with Lorraine he’s been, in some way, unfaithful to Helen, is convinced that Marion is going to indulge in some backbiting. He goes home, goes to bed, wakes up with a hangover…
…and discovers that he’s suddenly rich. Because, when he awakes, it’s to the news that those oil wells Mr Ellswirth had given him have actually yielded oil. And not a little trickle, either. Suddenly, Charlie has no worries: no job worries, no money worries. He chucks up his job to focus on his writing, relieved and happy that he can now do what he wants to, not what circumstances force him to do.
Will their newfound wealth bring Charlie and Helen the contentment, the joy they’ve been chasing so long, but which has always seemed to elude them? Or will it drive a further wedge between two people who were perhaps not very compatible from the beginning itself?
The Last Time I Saw Paris is very loosely based on Babylon Revisited, a short story by F Scott Fitzgerald. So loosely based, in fact, that you might not realize it if you didn’t look closely, and if it weren’t for the credits. True, like the story, the film too is set in Paris and is about a romance soured as a result of wealth which has gone to people’s heads.
But Babylon Revisited is set all in the present, when Charlie Wales (not Wills, as in the film) returns to Paris after a gap of ten months or so. It has no flashbacks; whatever we, as readers, get to know of the past is through snatches of conversation, allusions now and then to what had happened. We never learn the details; we never know how poor Charlie was, or how he suddenly had enough money for him and Helen to go throwing it all about Europe. We do encounter Lorraine, but her once-relationship with Charlie is not spelled out in black-and-white: we can only surmise how far it went, and what effect it had on Charlie’s marriage.
The Last Time I Saw Paris, by contrast, is of course a film (and a full-length one at that, clocking in at close to two hours), and necessarily needs more action. So instead of references to the past, we have most of the story being set in the past, with Charlie’s and Helen’s lives unfolding (or unravelling) right before us. In that sense, I think the film and the story managed to be, respectively, good examples of the same tale being told in two different media, each requiring its own treatment. Otherwise… well, read on.
What I liked about this film:
Elizabeth Taylor, who has always been for me one of the most beautiful women in Hollywood. She was the main reason I watched The Last Time I Saw Paris, and she didn’t disappoint: she was gorgeous as ever.
The basic story, which I found poignant: the very human, very natural desire to reach for what seems promising as a means of happiness, only to find that it does not, after all, bring the joy one had hoped for. Helen’s mad search for something that will be ‘fun’ leads her (and later, others in the story) to many reckless escapades, none of which eventually are able to bring her—or the others—any lasting happiness. All that remains is perhaps just those few moments of thrill, followed by some regrets that will (in some cases) last a lifetime.
That was what struck a chord with me: this is, to some extent, the story of most people. We all make mistakes in our pursuit of happiness. Some people’s mistakes are graver than those of others. Some have more serious—even tragic—outcomes; others may never suffer the consequences of their mistakes (and, therefore, may never realize, till the very end, that something was a mistake). Whether or not we will revisit our Babylon, the site of our carousing and of our shame—and whether we will recognize it as shame—is up to us.
What I didn’t like:
The melodrama in the second half of the film. It isn’t unceasing; it just comes forth in some of the scenes, especially Van Johnson’s. The last twenty minutes of the film, especially, were rather more melodramatic than I’d expected of a Hollywood film. Worse, this part didn’t fit in well—tone-wise—with the rest of the film. It had started off well, it had progressed well, and then, suddenly, it became almost embarrassing in its weepiness.
Helen’s deathbed scene is one of the most unconvincing I have seen in cinema, Hollywood or otherwise. Women who die after catching a cold from getting wet in the rain should look as if they’re dying, not as if they stepped off the ramp. Elizabeth Taylor looked perfectly made up, with not even a hint of pallor to make her passing away seem credible (to be honest, I didn’t realize Helen had actually died until a nurse entered the room and pulled the sheet up over Helen’s head).