Friday, August 27, 2010

Paris on film, Part Two: American style

Images of Paris filling our heads are usually made in Hollywood.

America’s fascination with Paris has existed for generations. It’s inferiority – we looked askance at a longer-lived if not more mature culture. Likewise, Puritan stays have always been strained with a kind of hateful yearning with its more openly sensual, morally ambiguous delights.

Paris means prestige, too, ostentation. The gap between rich and poor in France was naked and steep, in sharp contrast to the egalitarian conformities of American society. These Yankee dreams of French life accelerated exponentially after the exposure of American troops to naughty, mysterious and – foreign -- European society during World War I.

These elements came together to create Hollywood-Paris. Whether shot in the studio or on location, they stamp American preconceptions onto the city, its history and its inhabitants. These are the best examples of their kind – for better or worse, they frame our vision.

The first "Hollywood" constructions of Paris were actually staged back East, before the movie industry had firmly made the transition to California. Director Frank Lloyd adapted both "A Tale of Two Cities" and "Les Miserables" with then-heartthrob William Farnum in the title roles, and filmed them at Fox Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey in 1917.

Orphans of the Storm
Dir: D.W. Griffith

The first genius of American filmmaking adapted a venerable melodrama and transported it to the time of the French Revolution (and filmed it all in Mamaroneck, New York). Lillian and Dorothy Gish star in Griffith's last hit movie. Many critics feel that the director was trying to draw parallels between the recent Bolshevik Revolution and the Terror; however, he doesn't let the pseudohistorical episdoes of the costume epic get in the way of the tear-jerking, nor the last-minute, rapidly cross-cut race to save one of our two heroines from the Chopping Spree.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame
Dir: Wallace Worsley, Sr.

The Phantom of the Opera
Dir: Rupert Julian

Lon Chaney, Sr.’s classic performances stand in relief against their Gallic backdrop in these two masterpieces. The extensive and expensive set construction would be redressed and used over and over again through the years, forming a template. Much like the “Transylvanian village” created for 1932’s “Frankenstein” and used in almost every Universal mystery and horror film after that, it has stuck to our minds.

The Beloved Rogue
Dir: Alan Crosland

The first of many adaptations of the 1901 stage hit “If I Were King,” this romantic rendering of the life of fifteenth-century poet and scamp Francois Villon has served as a showcase for charismatic leading men. Here the central role is taken up by John Barrymore; later on it became the operetta “The Vagabond King” as well as a winning vehicle for Ronald Colman, under its original title. (Villon’s antagonist is none else than Louis XI, played to the hilt in those versions by two great screen villains, Conrad Veidt and Basil Rathbone.) In all the versions, the cobbled streets, crooked roofs and looming towers of medieval Paris play a scenic part.

Love Me Tonight
Dir: Rouben Mamoulien

Who could be more French than Maurice Chevalier? Here’s the film’s great opening sequence, in which Paris wakes up and bursts into a song of love:

The bubbly high spirits of these continental musical romantic comedies owe a lot more to 19th-centuryViennese sensibilities, but somehow Paris caught the cachet instead.

A Tale of Two Cities
Dir: Jack Conway

Here’s a re-release trailer:

Those peasants are revolting. Ronald Colman is the center of a full-on epic adaptation of Dickens’ epic novel gets the full-on epic treatment here. Dramas of the Revolution serve as tonics for overblown actors, who get to shake their fists and cackle lines like, “Madame Guillotine is thirsty today!”

Les Miserables
Dir: Richard Bowleslawski

Another classic, one that has been made and remade close to two dozen times. With Frederic March as Jean Valjean and Charles Laughton burning with cold fire as the implacable Javert. (Javert is most easily and nearly always referred to as implacable.)

Other good outings Valjean pairings include Richard Jordan/Anthony Perkins, 1978; Gerard Depardieu/John Malkovich, 2000; and an interesting 20th-century paraphrase by Claude LeLouch, with Jean-Paul Belmondo as the Valjean figure.

Mad Love
Dir: Karl W. Freund

This remake of Robert Wiene’s 1925 horror classic “The Hands of Orlac” was directed by one of the greatest black-and-white cinematographers, Freund. Of his 150-plus screen credits, only 11 are as director. He filmed the Lugosi “Dracula” for Tod Browning, and he directed the Karloff “Mummy.” This was his final film as a director.

Here, Paris is a dark, disturbing place, shot in high relief. The heroine is an actress at the Grand Guignol – a graphic and disturbing horror theater in Paris popular during the first half of the 20th century. The villain’s sexual, obsessive reaction to torture and death is whispered with calm insanity by Peter Lorre:

Dir: George Cukor

The story of the gay, consumptive courtesan who sacrifices her love and happiness and life for the sake of her beloved has been a huge hit since it was written in 1852. Verdi made “La Traviata” out of it, and Greta Garbo reigns here, resignedly, floating amid her enormous blank soulfulness. Another re-release trailer:

Dir: Ernst Lubitsch

Garbo laughs! Her first comedy. Her dour Soviet ambassadress is overwhelmed by the vivacity of the city, and that of Melvyn Douglass. She loosens up. It’s Lubitsch.

The Life of Emile Zola
Dir: William Dieterle, Irving Rapper

“When did you come to Paris?” “A hundred years ago – when I was 17.” Life, she is so sad. Paris is a backdrop for the heroic acting of Paul Muni. A gifted actor with a talent for makeup, like Chaney, and a penchant for over-the-top characterizations. He was a high-wire artist, stunting in wildly divergent parts. His work was the epitome of early-talkie Acting: he was clear, forceful and vivid, gifts from extensive stage work:

Dir: Mitchell Leisen

The last screwball gasp before the shadow of Hitler fell over France. (In contrast, Jean Renoir’s “Rules of the Game,” made at the same time, is a death knell disguised as a comedy.) Paris is a bubble, a radiant beacon of light and love and comic misapprehension. Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s script drives briskly and adroitly down the plot. Audiences hadn’t seen the darkness yet.

Next: “Casablanca” and the post-war period

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