Saturday, December 31, 2011

THE LAST TIME I SAW PARIS (MGM 1954) Warner Archive Collection

Lost opportunities and the haunted remembrances they conjure to mind are the focus of Richard Brooks' The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's Babylon Revisited, the film is a rather turgid melodrama about an absolutely luscious wartime romance that turns toxic after the big guns have stopped firing. The script by Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein and Brooks lacks the tender luster and exuberant punch necessary to sustain the characters beyond a few well-placed scenes. But it positively and interminably drags during the last act where all the characters succumb to insipid wallowing as they drown in their own self-pity and regret.
Our story opens in the present with Charles Wills (Van Johnson) revisiting all the old haunts he once knew so well in Paris. Charles panged expression tells us we are in for a bittersweet reminiscence. (Aside: although the film's credits suggest the entire movie was shot on location in France, only these opening scenes and a few inserts peppered throughout the film were actually photographed in Paris. The rest was photographed on MGM's back lot in Culver City.)
After reuniting with old friend and barkeep, Maurice (Kurt Kasznar) inside the Cafe Dhingo, Charles attentions are drawn to a rather gaudy caricature of Helen Ellswirth (Elizabeth Taylor) painted on the wall. We regress in flashback to the Armistice. Charles is a returning solider caught in the heady street celebration that has devoured Paris. He is impulsively kissed by Helen, who wastes no time disappearing into the crowd. Charles makes his way to the Cafe Dhingo where he is reunited with French soldier, Claude Matine (George Dolenz) who is having a drink with girlfriend, Marion Ellswirth (Donna Reed). Marion takes an immediate shine to Charles, inviting him back to her father's home for a liberation party. Charles happily complies and is amazed to discover Helen at the party too.
Much to Marion's chagrin, Charles and Helen quickly become lovers. Helen's father, James (Walter Pigeon) is an irreprehensible and penniless scamp; loveably sponging off Charles to place a bet on a long shot at a horse race. He warns Charles that the qualities of solidity and permanence that other women would value in a husband will not be enough to sustain Helen's affections. She is her father's daughter, used to the good life and parties and dabbling in art and music with artists and musicians who would rather spend their days drinking at the Cafe Dhingo than work.
Undaunted Charles marries Helen. James bequeaths them some 'useless' deeds to land in Texas that James is convinced will yield oil someday. In the meantime, Charles begins to work for the Europa News Outlet, quietly beginning his first novel in his spare time. Charles and Helen have a daughter, Vicki (Sandra Descher). But even the prospect of motherhood isn't enough to quell Helen's desire for nightlife. She frequently leaves Charles to tend to the girl while she stays out all night.
Meanwhile, Charles succumbs to a growing depression because of his lack of initial success in the publishing world. His mental darkness is compounded when Helen catches cold and has to be hospitalized for pneumonia. Gradually, Charles turns to drink. A chance meeting with notorious socialite, Lorraine Quarl (Ava Gabor) leads to a superficial romance at approximately the same time Helen decides to take up with tennis playboy, Paul (Roger Moore in his MGM debut). News arrives that the oil wells have come in. The family is rich. But this only compounds their troubles. Charles takes up racing and even more drink and Helen plunges into her affair with Paul.
Although Charles continues to see Lorraine he desperately wants Helen back. But it's no use. The two are at cross purposes and never the twain shall meet. After a particularly embarrassing scene at a social gathering Charles stumbles home in a drunken stupor. He angrily bolts the door from the inside, then collapses on the stairs. Helen returns home, contrite and hoping to reconcile once and for all. But, unable to open the door she retreats to her sister's home in a rainstorm where she collapses from another bout of pneumonia and dies.
Marion, who has married Claude, petitions the courts for custody of Vicki and wins. Charles retreats to America where he finally gets a handle on his alcoholism. Returning to France, presumably some years later, he finds James paralyzed and in a wheel chair after suffering a stroke. Charles begs Marion for custody of Vicki but she bitterly refuses him. Only after Claude confides in his wife that he has known all along how much she still loves Charles does Marion's heart soften. Marion brings Vicki to the Cafe Dhingo where Charles is waiting and father and daughter are reunited with the promise of starting their lives anew.
The Last Time I Saw Paris is a mostly maudlin affair that might have been helped along if the film had actually been shot entirely in the city of light. But the differences between the inserted location photography and the rest of the film shot at MGM are painfully obvious, the back lot entirely unconvincing as a substitute for the real thing. The assemblage of talent in the film is impressive. But the screenplay relies too heavily on every 'American in Paris' cliché, offering nothing fresh or revitalizing to a formula all too familiar.
Elizabeth Taylor is supremely gorgeous throughout the film. But her performance is fairly dull for long stretches. Van Johnson is appropriately bitter. But the bite in his contempt for Helen is so brutal one wonders how a fickle creature such as she ever clung to the hope that one day they would reconcile. Walter Pigeon's smarmy patriarch is refreshing. But Ava Gabor and Roger Moore make no impression whatsoever, particularly Moore who gets limited mileage from his Cheshire grin and dashingly youthful good looks. In the final analysis, The Last Time I Saw Paris is a tragedy of its storytelling rather than a tragic romantic story.
The film has long been in public domain and there are numerous editions available on DVD. None offer satisfactory image quality. To my knowledge Warner Home Video's resurrection of this title as part of their Archive Collection represents the first widescreen presentation of the film on home video. This is the preferred edition. Buyer beware - all others are bootlegs. Color fidelity is much improved over other editions. But there is still a considerable amount of age related debris, nicks, chips and scratches to wade through. Flesh tones are slightly too pink and occasionally the overall color spectrum is muddier than anticipated. During a few sequences contrast levels appear slightly boosted. Otherwise, the transfer is vaguely consistent with fine detail visible in medium and close ups. The audio is mono and adequate for this presentation. There are NO extras.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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