Paris in reel life

Posted: Nov 28, 2005 12:05 AM

Maybe the best comment on the French Intifada came from French Tourism Minister Leon Bertrand: "You get the impression that France is awash with flames and blood, which is not at all the case," he said. "You cannot deny the images, but there are images and images."

What's French for "huh"?

Then again, maybe there are images and images. For example, once it was Crepes Suzette; now it's Roasting Renault. Once it was Hermes; now it's hijab. Used to be, the Frenchman was always named Francois; now he might well be called Muhammad. And so what if "Vive La Secularisation" has now given way to "Let's Fund French Islam"? Monsieur Bertrand doesn't care because the banlieues are back under control -- back to the "normal" rate of burning about 100 cars per night. As much as anything else, this tells us France -- the historic image of La Belle France -- has gone up in smoke.

This has more than geopolitical ramifications; it's an American cultural loss. That's because France, as an American muse, has long inspired some of the best of American arts and letters. From the Doughboy bravura of "How Are You Going to Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)," to the disaffection of Hemingway and the Lost Generation; from the 1928 exuberance of George Gershwin in Paris writing "An American in Paris," to the 1940 regret of Jerome Kern writing "The Last Time I Saw Paris" after the Nazi takeover, France, particularly Paris, has occupied a place in the American imagination that no other European country has. In its disappearance, a living link to that culture disappears also.

And I haven't even mentioned movies. In the days before Americans traveled to France to see Paris, they went to the movies to see Paris. There, on the screen, they very often saw themselves: brash New Worlders alternately clashing with, embracing, or sacrificing themselves to an always glamorous, cynically decadent or elegantly troubled Old World.

Below is a not-quite random list of movies that fixed the 20th-century-image of Paris in the American imagination.

"Love Me Tonight" (1932): Unforgettable opening in which the homely sounds and sights of waking Paris (a sweeping broom, a clanking chimney pot, a snoring tramp, etc.) inventively build into a Rodgers and Hart number sung by Maurice Chevalier. Quintessential Paris -- via Paramount Pictures.

"Desire" (1936): A gem of a caper with jewel thief Marlene Dietrich and her gang roping in wide-eyed auto engineer Gary Cooper -- who sets them and their continental decadence straight as an American arrow.

"That Girl from Paris" (1936): Parisian opera star Lily Pons sneaks into the United States for American bandleader (Gene Raymond) and -- incredible as it seems -- runs afoul of immigration laws. Charming.

"Dodsworth" (1936): American auto magnate (amazing Walter Huston) and wife (amazing Ruth Chatterton) set out to discover how to "live" in the Old World, starting in Paris. Should be on everyone's Top Ten List.

"Midnight" (1939): Another Top Ten Listee. With effortless wit, easy sophistication, and a scene-stealing John Barrymore, Claudette Colbert can't give in to European decadence, no matter how hard she tries (Don Ameche and scriptwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder don't let her). Directed by Mitchell Leisen.

"Ninotchka" (1939): Greta Garbo as the communist official who can't resist Paris or Melvyn Douglas. Another Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder comedy classic, this one directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

"Arise My Love" (1940): Claudette Colbert again; Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder again; Mitchell Leisen again. Romantic comedy about Claudette Colbert the syndicated columnist chasing the story of Europe on the brink of World War II, and Ray Milland the Spanish Civil War vet chasing Miss Colbert. A big boost for American interventionism. 

"Casablanca" (1942): The most famous of them all. "We'll always have Paris," Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman in this World War II drama written by Julius J. and Phillip G. Epstein. Not to be forgotten is the vocal battle between "Die Wacht am Rhein" and "La Marseillaise."

"An American in Paris" (1951): Lush American celluloid canvas of Paris, with Gershwin score, Vincente Minelli direction and Gene Kelly ballet.

"The Last Time I Saw Paris" (1954): With Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor and also written by the Epstein brothers, this one's a soap opera, but it's also powerfully evocative of the postwar Paris that enthralled so many Americans.

These movies, these images, may or may not have reflected reality -- it was always said that Ernst Lubitsch's Paris surpassed the real thing -- but they were artistic perceptions of a time and place. Today, they seem more like figments of imagination. Thankfully, they're figments preserved on DVD.