“Wouldn’t that be nice, a lifetime full of last days?”

The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) is based on a 1931 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald called “Babylon Revisited.” Fitzgerald’s often-anthologized story, with its dark themes of disillusionment and self-imposed alienation, is  a seminal work of American modernism. However, it loses something in its translation to the screen. As with many literary adaptations in Production Code-controlled Hollywood, the story’s rather bleak message is lost in the wake of multiple changes to the original material, resulting in a generally ineffective film.

The bulk of the film is structured as a flashback, framed by two relatively short scenes in the present day. As the movie begins, Charles Wills (Van Johnson), an American writer, has traveled to Paris to see his daughter, Vicki. We are then transported back to 1945, as Charles, then a journalist and aspiring novelist, joins in the celebrations of V-E Day. He meets a young American woman, Marion Elliswirth (Donna Reed), who instantly falls in love with him. She takes him to a party at her home, hosted by her gregarious father, James (Walter Pidgeon). There, he meets Helen (Elizabeth Taylor), Marion’s beautiful younger sister, and much to Marion’s jealous displeasure, Charles and Helen become smitten with one another, eventually marrying. But their marriage is fraught with difficulty—initially, Charles wants to return to America, but Helen revels in the Parisian lifestyle and insists on staying. As the years pass, both Charles and Helen flirt with the idea of engaging in affairs on the side, and their attitudes reverse: Helen slowly becomes disillusioned with the frivolity of their lives, while Charles becomes more enmeshed in the decadence. Inevitably, tragedy follows, as Charles’ irresponsibility leads to his losing the most important people in his life.

I first saw this movie in an American lit class as an undergrad. Honestly, I think the professor’s reason for showing the film was merely an excuse to get out of lecturing for a couple of days, because the transfer from story to film is clunky, at best, and adds little to an understanding of the story’s broader themes. In large part, this is due to the filmmakers’ decision to move the action from the early 1930s to the 1950s. Fitzgerald’s story is awash in the post-Jazz Age period, and part of the story involves Charles’ rejection and repudiation of the excesses of that time period—excesses in which he and Helen indulged wholeheartedly. In that respect, Charles is a stand-in for the author, who uses the story to reflect on the irreparable damage of self-indulgent behavior.

But moving the film ahead two decades tempers the impact of Fitzgerald’s message. In general, the post-World War II era was a relatively hopeful time, in sharp contrast to the ennui that defined the post-World War I time period. The characters’ actions and lifestyle seem out of place as they are situated in the film. Additionally, the change to the ending marks an abrupt shift in tone. Whereas the story ends with Charles being stymied yet again in his attempt to gain custody of his daughter (called “Honoria” in Fitzgerald’s work), the movie tacks on a happy ending that belies the despairing tone of “Babylon Revisited.”

The cast is, by and large, better than the material they have been given. Johnson, who is not a particularly strong dramatic actor, nonetheless handles himself relatively well as Charles, ably capturing the character’s bitterness and self-destructive qualities (though his best scenes are the lighter ones, particularly during his early romance with Helen). But though Charles is the protagonist and ostensibly the central figure of the story, Taylor is the undisputed focus of the film. Only twenty-two at the time, she had already been a prominent figure in Hollywood for a decade, successfully graduating from childhood roles such as her breakthrough performance in 1944’s National Velvet, and moving into adult parts with the popularity of 1950’s Father of the Bride and 1951’s A Place in the Sun. As Helen, Taylor perfectly portrays the character’s growth throughout the film, from her vivacious and charming youth through her development into a despairing and world-weary woman. It’s a solid performance from the young actress, who reveled in the chance to further separate herself from the innocent roles of her early career.

The supporting cast is just as solid. Reed is quietly effective in her underwritten role as the jealous Marion, giving yet another moving, dramatic performance in the vein of her Oscar-winning role in the previous year’s From Here to Eternity. Pidgeon, in the midst of a long career that had begun in silent film, is a welcome authoritative presence. And look for Eva Gabor and Roger Moore in supporting roles as Charles’ and Helen’s would-be lovers.

In the end, despite the best efforts of a talented cast, the movie adaptation simply does not capture the hopeless verve of Fitzgerald’s brilliant story. And it’s a shame, considering that the film treatment was penned by Julius and Philip Epstein, who were responsible for one of the best scripts ever written (1942’s Casablanca). The sense of futility and despondency that permeates “Babylon Revisited” is replaced by pure sentiment, marked by the addition of a feel-good, Hollywood-crafted happily-ever-after, and ultimately, this watered-down story of loss and redemption just rings false.

This movie is in the public domain, which means that a multitude of cheaply-produced DVD versions of this film are floating around out there. My own copy comes from an inexpensive collection of other public domain films including 1934’s Of Human Bondage and 1936’s My Man Godfrey (the collection was a gift, and I don’t really recommend it—the quality of each DVD print is not all that great). Paris is also available for download for free on several sites including the Internet Archive, so if you’re interested in seeing this film for yourself, it’s readily available!

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