'The Last Time I Saw Paris' in Classic Cool Context

This Saturday at 9 p.m., KCET brings you "The Last Time I Saw Paris," a romantic drama that follows the tumultuous love affair between two American expats who meet in Paris on V.E. Day. Van Johnson and Elizabeth Taylor star in the MGM film that also features the first on-screen appearance of Roger Moore, who would go on to play perhaps the studio's most iconic character: James Bond. This is the latest entry in KCET's "Classic, Cool Theater" series, which aims to give you not only a great film but also a vintage cartoon, two newsreels and an of-the-era musical number. All those extras add up to what makes "Classic Cool Theater" so special: context. In the spirit of this unique package, we're offering you a peek at the America -- and the Los Angeles -- that received "The Last Time I Saw Paris" on November 18, 1954.

The romantic misadventures of Americans in Paris have featured in many a cinematic narrative. From the dark and violent "Last Tango in Paris," to the frothy intellectualism of Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," there are countless examples of Americans who just can't seem to get a handle on romance in the "City of Lights" -- unless, you're Gene Kelly, of course.

It must be the tap shoes. (Watch this video.)

But writers like Van Johnson's Charles Willis character in "The Last Time I Saw Paris" seem to have it particularly bad when it comes to finding true love in the French capitol.

Take a closer look back

Perhaps this archetype can be explained by the imposing historical figure of Ernest Hemingway. No one fits the mold of brooding, boozing American expat more than the legendary author.

A veteran of World War I, Hemingway worked as a reporter in Paris in the 1920s while writing "The Sun Also Rises." He associated with other expatriate artists he dubbed the "Lost Generation" including Gertrude Stein, Pablo Picasso, and Ezra Pound.

But his love life suffered while his work blossomed. A year after publishing "The Sun Also Rises" in 1926, Hemingway divorced his first wife, Hadley Richardson, after she discovered he was having an affair with Pauline Pfeiffer. Hemingway married Pfeiffer soon after, and the couple moved out of Paris. They remained together until 1940 when an affair between Hemingway and journalist Martha Gellhorn led to another divorce.

Here's a photo of the couple together in Paris in 1927:

Photo: The Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, and Museum, Boston via Wikimedia Commons

Johnson's co-star, Elizabeth Taylor, was no stranger to the rollercoaster of marriage herself. By the time "The Last Time I Saw Paris" was released in 1954, the 22-year-old actress was already on to her second husband -- British screen-veteran Michael Wilding. Her first marriage to Conrad Hilton ended after eight reportedly unhappy months due to Hilton's alcoholism and abuse.

Here's a photo of Taylor and Hilton in Long Beach in 1950 after the plane they were travelling on crashed through a fence at the city's airport:

In the film, Willis and Taylor's Helen character believe they've made a fortune when an oil lease they received as a wedding gift has supposedly come good. During World War II, the U.S. consumed six billion barrels of oil and domestic supply was depleted. Oil wells sprung up across the country after the war, including in Southern California, as the popularity of automobiles grew.

Here's a rare 1950 appearance by Marilyn Monroe hawking Royal Triton gas:

Speaking of automobiles, while Willis' marriage disintegrates in "The Last Time I Saw Paris," he whisks socialite Lorraine Quarl, played by Eva Gabor, to Monte Carlo for the annual car rally. Here's footage of the Monte Carlo Rally from 1954.


(Narration in Finnish)

The film was directed by Richard Brooks and also features Donna Reed, Walter Pidgeon and Kurt Kasznar.


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