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Sunday, February 12, 2012

Americans in Paris (originally published 5/95)

With the release of "French Kiss" and "Forget Paris," Hollywood seems to have decided that this will be the summer of the American in Paris. This is, as you may imagine, far from a new idea. The City of Light has always been a popular movie location. Cinematographers love it because it is so photogenic, and writers love it because its spicy reputation for cheerful naughtiness adds welcome seasoning to any love story. For a look at how earlier filmmakers have treated the premise of Americans in Paris, here are some titles to look for on video.

"An American in Paris" (1951). The obvious place to start is with director Vincente Minnelli's classic musical. Gene Kelly stars as Jerry Mulligan, a struggling American artist living in Paris. In the time it takes to dance to a few irresistible Gershwin tunes, Jerry's love life goes from nonexistent to overly complicated. His main romantic interest, however, is a charming young woman played by Leslie Caron, who was making her film debut. The highlight of the film is the concluding 17-minute ballet, danced to the Gershwin piece from which the film takes its name.

"Paris Blues" (1961). When you think of Americans in Paris, you just naturally think of jazz. This Martin Ritt film exploits that connection by casting Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman as a couple of American jazz musicians in Paris. We follow their romantic interludes with a couple of tourists (Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll), but the story line is almost incidental. The richness of the film lies in its atmosphere, which is enhanced by a Louis Armstrong performance and by the Duke Ellington soundtrack.

"The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954). This sentimental picture is loosely based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited." Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor play a star-crossed couple whose wedded bliss degenerates into tragedy. Fitzgerald's original story is updated from the '20s to the mid-'40s so that Johnson's character can be portrayed as an American G.I. settling in Paris after V-E Day. He hopes to become a novelist, but as the rejection slips pile up and his self-image declines, he increasingly turns to the bottle for solace rather than to his wife.

"Paris Holiday" (1958). Bob Hope made this film largely as an excuse to work with a French comic called Fernandel. The premise is that Hope is an American entertainer visiting Paris to purchase the rights to a French play. The story line is fleshed out by having Hope get unwittingly involved in international espionage, a plot device that had served him well in "My Favorite Blonde" (1942) and "They Got Me Covered" (1943).

"Midnight" (1939). As a writer-director, the immortal Billy Wilder has given the American cinema some of its most enduring classics, including "Double Indemnity," "The Lost Weekend," and "Sunset Boulevard." But before his credits acquired a hyphen he wrote scripts for other directors, usually in collaboration with Charles Brackett. "Midnight," frequently cited as a model of movie comedy writing, was one of the best of the Wilder/Brackett screenplays. Claudette Colbert stars as Eve Peabody, an American chorus girl who has fallen on hard times. She arrives in Paris penniless, but hopeful of better prospects. Things begin to look up immediately, as she manages to crash a posh society party, where she seems to be accepted as a peer by the Parisian upper crust. Actually, she's spotted as a phony almost immediately by a crusty old fellow named George Flammarion (John Barrymore), but he elects not to expose her. In fact, he supports and even bankrolls her pretense at being an aristocrat. In return, he asks her help in luring a certain gigolo away from his wife, Madame Flammarion. This is one of those cinematic miracles in which everything works. The inventive and clever script and the uniformly excellent performances seem to reinforce each other synergistically.

[2012 UPDATE: The allure of Americans in Paris seems to have lost none of its box office luster, as witness the recent success of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris." I can't help wondering if the title is meant as a tip of the hat to Wilder and Brackett's immortal "Midnight."]