The film, a dissection of a doomed marriage, deals with some grim issues, such as depression, alcoholism, and – at the risk of sounding glib – writer’s block.
Van Johnson plays an American journalist working in Paris during the 1944 Liberation, a jet-fuelled time of elation where, according to the movie, young women kiss every man in sight. This is where Johnson meets Elizabeth Taylor, an American ex-pat freshly expelled from university.
He’s immediately smitten, and who could blame him? Taylor’s free-spirited character is the most beautiful person in the film.
Although Taylor proves she can seduce any man she wants, she falls in love with Johnson, and they begin a relationship that isn’t what either of them expected. Taylor’s character seems to have one foot outside of the marriage, and Johnson, Gritting His Teeth, accepts it until he can’t.
In addition to being a frustrated journalist, Johnson is also a frustrated novelist, always working on manuscripts that will be rejected by publishers.
Sounds like peak Fitzgerald, doesn’t it?
The Last Time I Saw Paris is one of those soapy 1950s melodramas that take place in an exotic locale. Filmmakers included actual street footage of Paris, and the luxe set design makes interior shots feel Parisian.
Despite the aesthetics, the film nearly collapses on itself due to its heavy themes. Not even screenwriters Julius and Philip Epstein could infuse the film with enough cheekiness to keep it aloft. (However, we love the scene where Pidgeon lays on the sofa, drinking to the engagement of both his daughters. “A father abandoned in middle age,” he says. “What man could ask for more?”)
Some critics say Johnson didn’t have the Acting Chops for the lead. We disagree. In some ways, the screenplay seems to be written for Johnson and his brand of charm.
For example, watch Johnson’s face when his editor tells him – in front of his colleagues – that Taylor has been arrested for jumping into a fountain. In a brief few seconds, he gives us striken emotions including shock, embarrassment, and anger. But he smothers it with a Van Johnson smile and quips, “That’s my girl!”
It’s a good thing this film has a fabulous cast, because each actor must carry his/her share of the weight to keep the thing from dragging on the ground.
The Last Time I Saw Paris netted a nice profit of $980,000 US (approx. $9.9M US today).
It’s a notable film for a few reasons. It was Van Johnson’s final film for MGM, and it would be the last film, ever, for screenwriter Julius Epstein, who died before it was released.
Also, it’s said there’s a mistake in the copyright date. The Roman numerals at the beginning of the film apparently read 1944, instead of 1954, which means the copyright expired 10 years early. Our version of the film is too blurry to verify, but a failure to renew the copyright – whatever the reason – would explain why there are so many poor copies on DVD and YouTube.
Some critics – then and now – have complained about the film, such as the New York Times Bosley Crowther. “The story is trite,” he wrote. “The motivations are thin. The writing is glossy and pedestrian. The acting is pretty much forced.” (Let it out, Bosley. Let it all out.)
Is the The Last Time I Saw Paris a worthwhile film? We think so, as long as you know you’re in for the long haul of a Doomed Relationship.
This post is part of the The Fifth Annual Van Johnson Blogathon, presented by Love Letters to Old Hollywood.
The Last Time I Saw Paris starring Elizabeth Taylor, Van Johnson, Walter Pidgeon. Directed by Richard Brooks. Written by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Richard Brooks. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1954, Technicolor, 116 mins.