January 29, 2012
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.