A couple of things Van Johnson told me about himself have stuck in my mind for more than 30 years. One was that he had a lifelong ambition to ride an elephant during the opening of a Ringling Brothers & Barnum and Bailey Circus performance. The other was that he was disappointed that living in a Manhattan apartment meant that children would never come to his door on Halloween.

VAN JOHNSON

I’ve been thinking about those things today because last night we watched Van Johnson in the 1954 film The Last Time I Saw Paris. He co-starred with Elizabeth Taylor. Others in the cast were Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, Eva Gabor, George Dolenz, and Sandy Descher.

This film, which was loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited,” is a long flashback to Paris at the end of World War II in Europe. Johnson plays Charlie Wills, a soldier and aspiring novelist who works as a reporter for the military newspaper Stars and Stripes. At the beginning of the tale, he has returned to Paris from the United States, and he reminisces about the bitter circumstances under which he had left the City of Light: During the celebratory bedlam in Paris when the war ended, Charlie winds up at a party at the home of James Elwirth (Pidgeon), an impecunious American chancer who believes in living high even if one can’t afford it.  Charlie is invited to the home by Elwirth’s quite proper daughter Marion (Reed), but is quickly infatuated with Marion’s ne’er-do-well sibling, Helen (Taylor).

Charlie and Helen marry and have a daughter, Vicki, played by Descher. Marion — who is broken-hearted over losing Charlie to the sister of whom she disapproves, settles on a rebound match with a thoughtful Frenchman, Claude Matine (Dolenz).

ELIZABETH TAYLOR

The marriage of Charlie and Helen goes well, even while they’re living from hand to mouth, but Charlie is gradually losing confidence in himself as one publisher after another rejects his novels. Then their world is permanently altered as oil is discovered on Texas land, thought to be barren, that Elwirth jokingly gave the couple as a wedding gift. While Helen struggles to maintain stability in the family, Charlie sinks further and further into a morass of depression and decadence.

When this movie was released, some critics savaged it. It is true that the story is implausible and that some of the acting is either arch or wooden. Eva Gabor, as socialite Lorraine Quarl, who plays a supporting role in Charlie’s decline, gives exactly the kind of performance one expected of the Gabors. Descher, who was only nine years old, is gag-me cute in the role of Vicki –and she inexplicably never ages as the years roll by.

SANDY DESCHER

Van Johnson’s light comedy is entertaining, but his drunk scenes are simply unbelievable. I once heard from a stage veteran that an actor who can’t play a convincing drunk is no actor at all. That might be too harsh a judgment on Johnson, but this film suggests that faux inebriation was not his strong suit.

WALTER PIDGEON

Elizabeth Taylor and Donna Reed did passably well as the sisters, although a scene in which Taylor’s character is mortally ill is so unconvincing as to be ludicrous. Walter Pidgeon, on the other hand, is delightful as the irresponsible but  charismatic Ellswirth and Dolenz plays Claude as the most realistic figure in the film.

I don’t know if this is true, but I have read that the producers didn’t use the title of Fitzgerald’s story because they were afraid movie-goers would think the film had a biblical theme. I wondered about the title they did use, particularly because its lyrics express sentiments exactly opposite of those in this film. The song “The Last Time I Saw Paris” is heard in the background throughout the movie. It turns out that song was written in 1940 by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein, and it was sung by Ann Sothern in the 1941 film Lady be Good. It won the Oscar for best song. The song was composed in the aftermath of the German occupation of France. There were six versions of the song on the hit charts by the end of 1940, and Kate Smith bought the exclusive right to sing it on the radio for six months.

As is often the case with movies, the shortcomings of The Last Time I Saw Paris do not add up to a failure. The film is nicely photographed — much of it in Paris, it captures the mood and mores of the early ‘fifties, and it is entertaining. It’s also an inoffensive opportunity to spend a couple of hours indulging oneself  in the  kind of escapism provided by “golden-age” stars such as Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor.

You can hear the title song, presented in the mood in which it was written, by clicking HERE. The performance is by Anne Shelton, a fine British vocalist who devoted a lot of time and energy to entertaining troops via radio and in person.

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United States presidents and baseball players have at least this in common: They can alter the record books just by showing up.

A case in point is William Henry Harrison, the ninth president and the subject of a book by the same name — one of the Times Books series of short biographies of the presidents. The author is New York Times columnist Gail Collins.

Harrison was in office hardly a month, but he still made his marks. He was the first presidential candidate to personally campaign for the office. He was the last president born before the Declaration of Independence. He gave the longest inaugural address. He was the first president to be photographed while in office. He was the first president to die in office. He was the first president to die in office of natural causes. He served the shortest term — 31 days. He was part of one of two sets of three presidents who served in the same year — 1841 and 1881. He was the only president whose grandson was president.

As Gail Collins recounts with a lot of good humor, the campaign of 1840, in which the Whig Harrison defeated the incumbent Democrat Martin Van Buren, was a first of its kind, too, in the sense that it was the first really populist election in the United States, the first one that wasn’t dominated by a political and economic elite.

Harrison had unsuccessfully challenged Van Buren in 1836 when the fractious Whigs ran two candidates — basically a northern and a southern. But in 1840, the party got behind Harrison and he far out paced Van Buren in electoral votes, although the popular vote was much closer. More than 80 percent of the eligible voters participated — a statistic that must be filtered through the fact that women and a great many men did not have the franchise in those days.

As Collins describes it, the Whig campaign was like a three-ring circus, with literally thousands of stump speakers going from town to town, parades, rallies, and dinners with plenty of alcohol.

MARTIN VAN BUREN

The campaign was further distinguished by the Whigs’ successful effort to sell the public a candidate whom they could appreciate — a kind of frontiersman, one of the common folks, whose idea of a good time was flopping down in his log cabin and swilling hard cider.

In actual fact, Harrison was born on a Virginia plantation, was well educated and very mannerly, drank only in moderation and disapproved of drunkenness, and lived in a 16-room farmhouse in Ohio.

The 21st century voter may not be surprised to hear that the facts didn’t matter. The public bought the lie, which was encouraged with all kinds of “log cabin” events, images, songs, and verses, and other Whig politicians were happy to let some of the backwoods shading rub off on them.

TECUMSEH

This was also the campaign of “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” — the “Tyler” being a reference to vice-presidential candidate John Tyler. Harrison had served in the army before retiring to his farm, and he was involved in several fights with the Indians and British in the struggle over the Northwest Territories. In one of those battles, near the juncture of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers in the Indiana Territory, Harrison, who was governor of the territory, routed a settlement being built by the brothers and Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (“the Prophet). Harrison had far more men, and he took far more casualties, and the battle wasn’t really decisive in the long run. He had a couple of much greater successes under his military belt. But, hey, “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” rhymes, and the alliteration was irresistible.

It is well known that Harrison was inaugurated on a bitter winter day, and that he foolishly appeared at the outdoor event — including his two-hour speech — without a hat or coat. Gail Collins explains further that the amiable president-elect arrived in Washington already exhausted from both celebratory events and sieges by office-seekers, and that the pressure didn’t let up in the capital.

The author writes that Harrison was 67 years old when he campaigned for the office, and that the Democrats dismissed him as a feeble old man — not a far-fetched idea in 1840, when a man of that age frequently was in his dotage. Collins says Harrison’s recklessness might have been his attempt to refute the Democrats’ claims. In any case, shortly after the inauguration, he came down with what was probably pneumonia. He died on April 4, 1841.

KATE SMITH

During World War II, the popular radio star Kate Smith used to end her daily broadcasts by saying, “And remember … if you don’t write, you’re wrong!” Kate Smith, who was a major supporter of the war effort in general and of American troops in particular, was prodding those at home to send letters to soldiers and sailors. I don’t know whether Kate Smith introduced that expression, and that inspired a songwriter, or the other way around. I do know that a writer named Olive Kriser wrote a song by that title in 1943, and it, too, urged families and friends to write to the troops.

For me, that phrase has always evoked what I imagine was a melancholy aspect of the war years: young men and women suddenly separated from their families, friends, neighbors, familiar surroundings, everyday routines, and hurled into the maelstrom, wondering about the folks, about ever seeing them again, longing for a mundane conversation around the kitchen table, a cheese sandwich made by Mom. And yearning, yearning, for a word from home.

That was the real-life experience of tens of thousands of young people, including Joseph Farris of Danbury, Connecticut, who was drafted, trained, and shipped off to the fighting fields of France and Germany shortly after leaving high school.

Farris, who has become a very successful cartoonist and illustrator, has recreated his experience in A Soldier’s Sketchbook, an elegant volume published by National Geographic. Farris got lots of letters, but in this book, he reproduces many of the letters that he wrote to his parents and two brothers during the three years, beginning in May 1943, that he spent in the United States Army. The book also contains facsimiles of some of those letters and of other documents, photographs of Farris and some of his colleagues, and watercolors and drawings that he did while he was in service.

Farris provides a narrative in which he demonstrates how he pulled his punches in his letters home, both because military censorship sharply restricted what combatants could write about and because he didn’t want to worry his family. The folks wouldn’t know until it was well over that Farris — who wound up heading a heavy machine-gun platoon — came under heavy fire, watched his fellows soldiers being blown away, shivered in the cold and wet of the foxhole, and confronted the fact that any hour could the last in his brief life.

By the time Farris got into combat, Italy had surrendered, Athens had been liberated, France had been invaded, and the German siege of Leningrad had been broken. The jig was up for the Third Reich. So although he experienced the worst of the war, he also had some less lethal duty, moving through towns in France and Germany and temporarily occupying houses that were far more comfortable than a hole in the ground.

A touching aspect of this book is the writer’s lack of self pity and his consistent concern for the well being of his parents and brothers. While he was still in harm’s way, he wrote to his younger brother George, “Dad, Mom, & I are exceedingly grateful, kid, that you are around to help out. Mom & Dad depend a helluva lot on you, so don’t let them down. You may work a little harder than many other fellows your age but in the long run it’s going to pay. You don’t know how thankful I am for the training I got in the store” — a reference to his family’s Danbury Confectionery — “not only the business experience but the systematic method necessary. You’re fortunate in having the swellest folks possible. If I can treat my future children half as good as Mom & Dad have treated us I’ll feel that (I) have done my job well.”

Throughout his military service, Farris thought about his plans for a career in art, and often asked his family to send him supplies. His work has appeared in the New Yorker and in other major publications. You can see many of his cartoons and illustrations by clicking HERE.

For another interesting aspect of World War II, click HERE to read about the Women’s Land Army. The site includes many letters written home by Genevieve Wolfe, who was one of a group of 40 young women from West Virginia who traveled to a camp in Ohio to provide labor needed on farms in the northern part of the state.