We all know The Great Gatsby. It is rooted in a variety of its author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s experiences. Fitzgerald’s writing in general revolves mostly around the rich, decadence, and insanity.
“He wrote what he knew,” my wife noted as we discussed him. He had also lived for years in France, and had naturally once been an aspiring author. In Babylon Revisited we encounter essentially still more Fitzgerald autobiography wrapped up as fiction.
After his death, “Babylon” was adapted into the 1954 film, The Last Time I Saw Paris. We happen to have bought “The Last Time” among others in a DVD old film series, but had never actually watched the movie. Last night, on impulse, my wife suggested with a grin, “We need to, in honour of my mum and aunt.” So, at long last, we did.
A personal observation on U.S. expat stories. I find solid non-American characters are vital when a tale is set outside of the U.S. Otherwise what is the point?
Again, though, we have to remember this is based on Fitzgerald’s life, and I am not an authority on that. What we do see on screen is that this film is almost all Americans – except for brief appearances by Eva Gabor and Roger Moore (yes, really). Although it’s Paris, the French seem mostly for background. They hardly register as actual people, doing little other than uttering a few French words and providing necessary “local color” to remind us it isn’t London, or…. Sacramento. Save for George Dolenz, who plays the thoughtful, French brother-in-law, and the bartender (it’s a Fitzgerald adaptation so there is drinking throughout) and some individuals doing their jobs (doctors, nurses), there don’t seem all that many French in Paris.
So this film didn’t have to be set in Paris really. It could’ve been most anywhere. That said, here’s the crux of the tale, including certain of my own, uh, personal “margin notes.” Who needs Wikipedia?
***** WARNING: SPOILERS *****
Okay, the film’s mostly flashback. Returned to Paris, sitting in his favorite bar two years after events, Van Johnson remembers the last time he saw Paris….
….when, as an American uniformed war reporter he first, uh, bumped into a beautiful woman who kisses him during the August 1944 Paris liberation street celebrations where everyone is kissing everyone else. She seems a fun-loving gal. He later encounters her again, and discovers she is gorgeous American Elizabeth Taylor. He is immediately smitten. (Quelle surprise.)
Her family – her father, sister, and herself – had been living in France throughout the Occupation, and she went to school in Switzerland, and she is now back in Paris. (I don’t think it’s ever explained how she managed that.) Her father has no money, but they do manage to have some money. (I don’t fully understand that either. It seems he’s lucky occasionally at playing the horses.) After the various introductions, and suitable romance (and required accordion music), in August 1945 WWII ends. Walking out into heavy rain as they leave the bar where they’d been celebrating, Van laments (while wearing an army cap) that he’s lost Liz’s umbrella. Headed a different direction toward her father’s house, (hatless) Liz gets drenched and catches “flu.”
She is hospitalized, but recovers. Van and Liz get married. But Donna Reed, her sister, is obviously also in love with Van; but he never catches on. (And he’s an eagle-eyed reporter, you understand.) At some point, she marries stable French lawyer George Dolenz.
The war over, bored with the Paris beat, Van’s burning to write novels. (Of course he is.) He produces manuscripts, but can’t find a publisher. (No one else knows what that feels like.) Eventually he starts drinking heavily. (Which, fortunately, not everyone else does when they get rejection letters.) Before it all goes totally downhill, Van and Elizabeth have a little girl.
Slowly, though, Van despairs of writing. (There’s a fireplace and pages thrown around and desperate unhappiness voiced. You know what I mean. To be blunt, she is far more supportive of his dream than he appears to merit.) But Liz’s father’s property in Texas turns out to have some oil, so now they’re rich. Yet Van still wants to write successful novels, so is still feeling unfulfilled. (Elizabeth Taylor loves him, and he has a lovely daughter with her, and a job, in Paris; but he’s “unfulfilled.”)
Increasingly so is Liz. (Why did it take so long?) Van had started out in their relationship as “the serious one,” and gradually loses it. But, now rich, she becomes the serious one.
As they drift apart somewhat, Liz develops eyes for Roger Moore (cue posh English tennis playboy), but after a spell Liz tells Roger to get lost when she discovers he’s only interested in her because she’s married. (His precursor to James Bond?) Meanwhile, Van meets Eva Gabor, a rich socialite divorced several times, and of unclear nationality. (But, wow, what an accent!) However, it’s pretty clear they are ultimately going nowhere. (When Van’s drunk – which he seems much of the time – he’s absolutely ridiculous and unbearable. Why Eva would be interested in him is another life question that will never be answered. As we know, eventually she meets Eddie Albert and gets married and moves to Green Acres…. wait, wait, sorry.)
Things are becoming really tense. Liz catches “flu” (again) after (again) being caught umbrella-less while trudging drenched (and freezing this time, because it snowed too) to her sister’s house after a drunken Van had accidentally locked her out of their house following an umpteenth night out imbibing at his favorite Paris watering hole. In the hospital, Liz, this time clearly fading, announces from her sick bed that she still loves him and asks him to look after their daughter. He in turns reminds her how much he loves her, and they hug each other tightly. (If you still had any doubt once she got soaked again, you’re in no doubt now how this must end.) She promptly dies.
However, there’s a semi-happy ending. (It’s Hollywood in 1954.) Van finally gets his daughter back from Donna and George, who had been the seven year old’s guardians since Liz’s death. George – sensible Frenchman he is – suggests to Donna that in keeping Van from his daughter she is now just taking her bitterness out on him for his marrying Liz. (Although I suspect most actual women would by now also be thinking, “Whew, I dodged a real bullet with him.”)
After all, Van’s already told Donna he’s cleaned himself up and wants his daughter back badly. (Only one drink a day, he asserts, and sometimes he forgets to have that one.) So at George’s urging, Donna relents. Reunited at last, Van and his young daughter walk off happily hand in hand into the Paris night.
The End. 😉
Happy Monday. [Grumble, grumble.]