Classic Woman-centric Movie Review: The Last Time I Saw Paris

Well, Persephoneers, it’s an F. Scott Fitzgerald weekend: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gastby premieres this Friday, and I’m rather excited to see it, but I’m going to wait until some of the furor dies down. Meanwhile, I’ve got a movie pick that all of you might like, The Last Time I Saw Paris, which was released in 1954 and is based on Fitzgerald’s short story “Babylon Revisited.” It stars Van Johnson, Elizabeth Taylor, and Donna Reed.

Charles Wills (Johnson), who works for the Stars and Stripes magazine, is covering the celebrations commemorating the end of World War II in Paris. Suddenly, a young woman he doesn’t know runs up to him, kisses him, and disappears into the crowd. Charles, curious to see who the young woman is, follows the crowd to a café, where they’re celebrating the end of the war. Here he meets the woman who kissed him, Helen Ellsworth (Taylor) and her sister Marion (Reed) and Marion’s boyfriend, the French-born Claude. But Charles is taken with Helen even though both sisters are attracted to him. Their father, a World War I veteran, became an expatriate in Europe and dragged his daughters along with them. Out of the two, Helen is more like her father, whereas Marion is more practical.

The Last Time I Saw Paris poster
Poster for the film. Image via Wikipedia.

Helen and Charles get married and decide to remain in Paris, and Helen’s father, James, soon moves in with them. Helen soon bears Charles a daughter, Vicki. Charles spends the first years of their marriage trying to get his work published while still trying to support Helen’s and James’s lavish lifestyle, which they can’t afford, until James’s investments in some oil fields soon pay off. The couple change overnight; Helen becomes a more responsible housewife, while Charles loses himself in alcoholism. Soon, the discontented pair drift apart, and the marriage slowly begins to crumble. Charles finds himself distanced from his daughter.

Elizabeth Taylor as Helen.
Elizabeth Taylor as Helen, from the film trailer. Image via Wikipedia.

Many of the situations and events from Fitzgerald novels such as The Beautiful and Damned and Tender is the Night show up in this film, particularly the ideas of the destructive force that money and finances can have on a couple, in times of both poverty and prosperity, and the idea of a marriage starting on a high note and gradually becoming a miserable condition. Helen, with her giddy whims and her adoration of parties and attention, is reminiscent of Zelda, while Charles,with his descent into alcoholism, is much like Fitzgerald himself. The film is more or less a retelling of their marriage and how it fell apart, but unlike Fitzgerald, Charles is able to find his way back to his daughter and realize what is most important to him. However, Fitzgerald’s bitterness toward Zelda is also apparent here; while Helen is off partying and enjoying the good life in Paris, Charles, the noble husband, is working hard on his novels and his journalistic career while taking care of their daughter. It’s a peek into what their marriage may have been like, and his own feelings toward the end of it.

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