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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HAROLD PINTER

A friend told me last night that on Saturday he saw a play by Harold Pinter, “No Man’s Land.” My friend posed a question: “Did Pinter always write like that?” I am not an expert on Pinter, and I have never seen “No Man’s Land,” so I could have escaped this conversation save for the fact that while my friend was watching “No Man’s Land” on a stage, my wife and I were watching “The Last Tycoon” on a Netflix DVD. The 1979 film, directed by Elia Kazan, had a screenplay written by Pinter based on an unfinished novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

I asked my friend what he meant by his allusion to Pinter’s writing, and he said that while the play was literate and funny, and the performances were engaging, the experience left him with a feeling of ambiguity. I have since learned that while “No Man’s Land” was well received when it first appeared in 1975, it left critic Michael Coveney, writing, “Yes, but what does it all mean?”

F. SCOTT FITZGERALD

I was in no position to sort that out, but I did tell my friend that while “The Last Tycoon” is a worthwhile diversion for some reasons — including excellent performances by an impressive cast — the movie, too, raises questions that it doesn’t answer. It has been said that Pinter liked to lead his audiences somewhere between reality and dream, and that is the effect of this film.

“The Last Tycoon” is Monroe Stahr, a Hollywood producer whose demanding personality, at least, Fitzgerald ostensibly based on MGM’s “boy genius,” Irving Thalberg. The premise of the film is that Stahr’s wife, who was a major star at the same studio, died suddenly and at an early age, and that Stahr has not gotten over it. In the meantime, he is engaged in a power struggle with studio executive Pat Brady, whose young daughter is in love with Stahr. In the aftermath of a minor earthquake, Stahr notices a young woman — Kathleen Moore — who strongly resembles his late wife. He becomes obsessed with Kathleen, pursues her, seduces her, loses her. As he unravels emotionally, he also runs afoul of his employer, allowing Brady to push him aside.

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr

Stahr is played by a 36-year-old Robert De Niro in a performance so devoid of emotion that the audience gets no help in determining what this character’s reactions to people and situations really mean. Kathleen is played by Ingrid Boulting, a South African-born actress who is now an artist and yoga instructor in California. Her performance is much more interesting, but — thanks to the writing and direction — her character is inscrutable. Does she resent the fact that Stahr was attracted to her because of her resemblance to his lost love? Does she love him? Is she a woman easily used by men, is she a tease, or is she an opportunist — even a prostitute? What becomes of her? What becomes of Stahr?

INGRID BOULTING

It’s not the worst experience in the world — this not knowing; in fact, maybe it’s more like life than the movies usually are. At any rate, flawed or not, the story is well told by a cast that includes Robert Mitchum as Pat Brady; Jack Nicholson as a Communist who is trying to organize the studio’s writers; Dana Andrews as a director who incurs Stahr’s dissatisfaction; Ray Milland as a studio attorney; Tony Curtis as a top leading man; Donald Pleasance as a writer, and John Carradine in a brief but charming turn as a studio tour guide.

TONY CURTIS

A scene between De Niro and Curtis provides one of the best examples of Pinter’s approach. The leading man, Rodriguez confides in Stahr: the actor is in love with his wife but has become impotent, and not only with her. Stahr’s reaction to the inexplicable fact that the actor has come to him with this problem is, like the rest of De Niro’s performance, difficult to plumb. More than that, the scene ends abruptly — with no resolution– but when Rodriguez and his wife encounter Stahr later in the film, they appear deliriously happy with each other, and the change is never explained.

Ray Milland and Donald Pleasence

To give credit where it is deserved, I should mention that De Niro has one scene in this film that I could watch again and again. Stahr is having a confrontation with a British writer, Boxley, played by the great character actor Donald Pleasence. Boxley is complaining about the “hack” writers he’s working with, and he’s complaining about the story line on the film he has been assigned. In an attempt — fruitless, as it turns out — to get Boxley off the schneid, Stahr fabricates the fragment of a story line that has no beginning or end — a mysterious vignette about a girl who comes into a room, unaware that she’s being observed, with two dimes and  a nickel and a box of matches, and a pair of black gloves that she burns in a wood stove. De Niro tells this story with such skill, with such a teasing air of mystery, that he make the story irresistible and the desire to know the rest of it palpable.

If you don’t mind scrolling through the whole script, you can read that story at THIS LINK. It begins with Monroe Stahr’s words: “Listen … has your office got a stove in it that lights with a match?” See if you can read that without thirsting for the rest of the story.

Robert De Niro as Monroe Stahr