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Last Time I Saw Paris, The (DVD Review)

21 Nov, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Elizabeth Taylor, Van Johnson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed.

As soon as I come out and trumpet that this ubiquitously home-distributed screen version of an F. Scott Fitzgerald story gets a much belated 1.85:1 premiere here, someone will tell me I’m wrong. But perhaps aside from Turner Classic Movie showings, I’m pretty sure I’m right: even the image on MGM’s old Paris laserdisc wasn’t nearly as horizontal as what we get here (though, truth to tell, IMDb.com says the film was officially 1.75:1). In any event (and putting the fairly handsome laserdisc rendering aside), past VHS and DVD prints of the film have looked like hell — because Public Domain Hell is where Paris long ago descended, apparently due to some sort of un-renewed copyright over the famed original Fitzgerald source: Babylon Revisited.

That child-custody story, spun off a personal incident involving the author, was a product of the Jazz Age — and one of many knocks on this movie is that the material really belongs to that rowdier era than to the immediately post-World War II time frame, which is where director/co-scripter Richard Brooks and two of Casablanca‘s creators (Epstein brothers Julius J. and Philip G.) transported it. Another is that male lead Van Johnson never quite captures the alcoholic “writer’s angst” — though if you like Johnson (who at one time was MGM’s biggest male star of the immediately post-Gable/Tracy generation), you’ll probably feel the same about him here.

Within severe limitations, I’ve always had a reasonable sweet spot for a movie that begins with an irresistible hook. Which is, that you’re a Paris-based Stars and Stripes reporter in 1944 rejoicing in the V-E Day street hubbub — when out of the blue, a stranger played by Elizabeth Taylor (who’s been kissing everybody) kisses you on the street. This is what happens to Johnson, who then almost immediately meets another more instantly smitten looker (Donna Reed), who turns out to be the kisser’s sister. What follows is a passionate Taylor-Johnson love affair/marriage full of boozing — followed by publisher rejection of Johnson’s novels and more boozing, then infidelities and more boozing. Then it gets worse as the Reed character stews — a rejected woman who knows how to hold a grudge.

Paris came out at an interesting time in the careers of its principals, which has always been part of its appeal to me. It was the last of four Taylor movies from 1954 just before Giant put her into a true superstar league: three of them at home studio MGM plus Paramount’s Elephant Walk (after the originally cast Vivien Leigh had to be replaced in an emergency). And putting aside the negligible Action of the Tiger three years later, it was Johnson’s last MGM movie before being released from his studio contract, whereupon his career didn’t take very long to zoom into permanent decline. As the sisters’ fiscally irresponsible father who’s never seen a horse race he didn’t like, longtime lead actor Walter Pidgeon (by now into character parts) had one of the few “what, me worry?” roles of his long screen tenure. And with this November release, Reed was just coming off the From Here to Eternity Oscar she had won eight months earlier — though the end of her big-screen career was only four years away. As for director Brooks (at this point, kind of middling), this was his final picture before really hitting the big time the following with (“duck that flying eraser, Glenn”) Blackboard Jungle.

Cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg (four Oscars) gives it all a gloss, though much of the Paris here is from the studio back lot (with what sometimes looks to be an assist from An American in Paris stock footage). Before the story plops into suds during the final half hour, Taylor fanatics will enjoy tracking her changing hairstyles (as her character’s life gets more complicated, the cuts get increasingly shorter). The actress is further showcased in several outfits and gowns that don’t exactly shortchange her figure, though I’ve always been intrigued here by how the movie exploits the coldness (though a sometimes smoldering coldness) that Reed always projected despite her warm performances in It’s a Wonderful Life and on her very popular TV show of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. My best friend in high school/college used to laud the actress as a kind of sexual sleeper and fantasized about sneaking a taboo shower with her ABC show’s Donna Stone character while pediatrician husband (Carl Betz) was preoccupied with some kid’s adenoids. Such is the way male-adolescent minds work (though I think we were in our ‘30s when we had the conversation).

The on-demand print here is a relief from the myriad Paris public domain jobs, whose prints have usually looked as if they were pulled out of some 7-11 dumpster otherwise full of used Slurpee containers. Often they were part of borderline bogus “Elizabeth Taylor Film Festival” two-fers along with Father’s Little Dividend, perhaps the flattest-looking movie Vincente Minnelli ever directed and another p.d. victim. As these releases go, however, the gonzo p.d. duo has to go to various Frank Sinatra fests that have managed to pair Till the Clouds Roll By (where the singer “sweats and strains” in a white tuxedo to Ol’ Man River) with 1954’s Suddenly! — where Frank plays a psychotic attempting to assassinate the president. Studio lawyers who forget to renew copyright are not always the best programmers.

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