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Hollywood and Paris – A Love Affair – Part III

American in Paris – Hollywood Ties The Knot With Paris

While Casablanca’s image of Paris also had its fair share of clichés – the wind in Ingrid Bergman’s hair down the Champs Elysees, the riverboat waiter with his striped sweater and beret, the statuette of the Eiffel Tower on the bar in Bogart’s restaurant – the street scenes are actually fairly matter of fact. The images say: this is a street in Paris, it’s a little foreign and may look somewhat different from your local main street in Dayton, Ohio,or Peru, Indiana, but that’s all there is to say about it. Nowhere is it implied that this street was better than a street anywhere else in the world.

But this is exactly what the street scene in An American in Paris tells us. Almost the first thing we learn about Paris – introduced by a kaleidoscope of her main sights, accompanied by jaunty music and a Gene Kelly voiceover – is that it is “a Mecca for the arts”. It’s magnificent, inspiring, beautiful – and that is only the beginning.

"Paris street scene in the movie An American in Paris - Hollywood and Paris, a love affair part 3"

Because it is also, as we learn on our little tour of Kelly’s residential quarter,”urban” in the best sense of the word, a place where dissimilar elements meet and merge into a symphony of diversity, like different colors on a canvas: the young couple in their passionate embrace and the priest on his bicycle, the street cleaner and the bourgeois, the nuns and the kids, the tailor’s atelier and the book shop. It is also the place of a thriving and well-functioning community. Everybody is friends with everybody else, just like Gene Kelly is friends with the  street urchins who are waving to him from the pavement.

Everything, in one word, is the negative mirror image of suburban America where you are only ever likely to meet somebody who is a lot like yourself.

Finally, to top it all, the scene where the music hall singer enters the bar. Everybody is happy to see him, loud voices are being raised: “Come and see who’s here!” This is clearly more Italy than France. Not that such a scene would be any more likely to occur in Rome than in Paris or anywhere else, but this is not an issue of reality but one of cinematic cliché: the mother figure coming straight from the kitchen, wiping her hands on the apron, the embrace – that is Sophia Loren, not Brigitte Bardot.

But this has ceased to matter. This is a Paris of the mind, a fantasy, a mythical place that appears to stand in for everything that America never had or once may have had only to lose it on its way. A place into which Americans project their collective longings.

"Paris street scene in An American in Paris - Hollywood and Paris, a love affair part 3"

By this time, Hollywood had clearly lost its critical bearings for its beloved, and more such Parisian love stories were to follow throughout the 1950s. After An American in Paris, Sabrina was shot in 1954, FunnyFace in 1955 and Gigi in 1958.

These four films – not the only, but the most important Hollywood movies of the period that were set in Paris – tell essentially the same story. The protagonist is always a young person who is taken out of his or her normal context – American or, in the case of Gigi, domestic – and travels to Paris (“society Paris” for Gigi) where he or she acquires sophistication and finds romance, in this order, though not as a consequence of it. This is an important point: the real reason why the protagonists find love and romance is always the purity of their hearts

Have you recognized the plot? You will have if you are familiar with the theory according to which all stories reflect one of a certain number of narrative archetypes. Because this is, in essence, the story of Cinderella, of “virtue rewarded”.

Now, all theories and all points can be overstretched to the point of caricature, and neither this theory nor this point are an exception. Nevertheless, it appears that America, the virtuous ingénue, has met the world, played in this Hollywood movie by Paris, fallen in love and “tied the knot” – to live happily ever after.

Only, of course, that she would not. But that is a story for another article.

Read Part I of Hollywood’s Love Affair with Paris here…

Read Part II  of Hollywood’s Love Affair with Paris here…

5 comments to Hollywood and Paris – A Love Affair – Part III

  • Marion Carter

    I always loved the story about Madeline, the orphan. I saw a scene in an old movie that had an actual scene in Paris of a nun and a group of orphan girls in yellow coats walking down the street. I hope to find it again but so far I haven’t found it. It might have been even on a TV Show like Green Acres when they went to Paris. I just don’t know.

    • Movies

      Would you know the year this movie/show made, Marion? Do you have any more details about the movie or show?

    • Movies

      After a bit of digging, I think the scene you are talking about may be from a movie called Madeline, although it is not really that old (made in 1998), and the girls’ coats appear to be green rather than yellow (as they are in the cartoon series that is based on the same book). Thanks for bringing this to my attention, by the way, I had never heard about this film.
      If you want to watch it, you can do so on YouTube under http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nh3XxX7ZAs8. When you find the scene you were mentioning, tell me all about it, and I will see whether I can help you.

      • Marion Carter

        You are right in assuming my interest relates to Madeline, but it’s not the movie they made in 1988. The footage I saw was really old and in color, it was like background stock footage they use in movies to overlap a scene of the actor doing something in the foreground. That’s all I remember but it was sometime in the 1950’s or 1960’s when the film was made.

    • Marion Carter

      The movie was definitely in the 1950’s because of the grainy film stock. It was in color and I can’t remember anything specific about the plot or actors. I do know that I saw it somewhere. I’ve watched Funny Face (similar scene but not the one I saw), An American in Paris, Man on the Eiffel Tower, and Green Acres. Nothing was ever seen in it. As I say, it could have been an old TV show like Hogan’s Heroes but so far I haven’t found the episode if it was that. If this was something you might have seen, please leave a comment.

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