The Magic that is Paris: the Hollywood Lens

We’ll always have Paris.

Remember that famous line from Bogey to Bergman (Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, in case you’re too young to know) in the film classic Casablanca? Done in black and white, it’s vintage Hollywood. A must-see for film lovers. Here’s a short trailer.

 Paris fascinates Hollywood. Hollywood fascinates Paris, by far the foreign city most frequently portrayed in Hollywood cinema, with over 800 films shot there or in a Paris reconstructed in film studios.

This mutual fascination was once depicted in Paris Seen By Hollywood, a free exposition at the Paris Hotel de Ville (city government office) using excerpts of American films, artistic renderings of scenes for particular movies, production charts and records, costumes and maquettes. All in the collection of the French Cinematheque. For me, it was something of a revelation. I came away from it with a freshened appreciation for the industry and artistry of past Hollywood films.

I’m not a big fan of most contemporary Hollywood films, with their formulaic plots and often gratuitous sex or gratuitous violence. Hollywood seems generally more about making money than making good films. That’s not to say, good films are not being made. They are. By serious and thoughtful filmmakers more concerned about the film than the money it will make them: Terence Malick, Gus Van Sant, Michael Moore, Ang Lee, Angelina Jolie. It’s a short list. There are a few others but they are often non-American directors making films in Hollywood.

A film need not be serious nor thoughtful to be good, you say. What Hollywood does, after all, is entertain. The problem is, after trite and/or mindless plots, countless chases, stand-up sex scenes, and self-conscious delivery of self-consciously smart dialogue, I can’t help dozing off.

Ironically, this exhibit helped me appreciate Hollywood. But this was mostly Paris of the old movies. The Paris of Ernst Lubitsch who acknowledged that the real Paris in his films is the Paramount Paris and the MGM Paris, all shot in California film studios: Paris as a reconstruction, a nostalgic one, as it were, when you consider the choices made by the curator of the exhibit. It is the historic Paris of silent films. The sophisticated Paris of street songs and poetic alleyways, such as you’d see in the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and the Three Musketeers. And of Cancan films that peaked in the 1950s with legendary director Jean Renoir’s French Cancan (1954).

The picture of a bygone bohemian, lively and artistic Paris captured American imaginations. John Houston made Moulin Rouge and Vincente Minelli, An American in Paris, which showcased the remarkable grace and agility of an athletic Gene Kelly. Has there ever been a comparable French figure of such phenomenal dancing talent?

More recent films capitalized on the image of Paris as a frivolous and decadent city, a city of pleasure. Marie Antoinette, of the ancien regime, fascinated many directors including Sofia Coppola.

In the 1960s, American film crews took to the Parisian streets with some thriller/action films. Quick and elegant films that may be a bit absurd for more modern tastes, such as Stanley Donen’s Funny Face and Charade, and William Wyler’s How to Steal a Million, all of which featured Audrey Hepburn.

Charade’s Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn on the Seine

Later, a Paris, no longer sparkling and elegant, continued to be a setting for chases, investigations, and stunts as in Roman Polanski’s Frantic, Ron Howard’s Da Vinci code, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Perhaps, this reflected what Hollywood saw as good box office bets.

For many, though, Paris remains a place of nostalgia closer to the old Paris than the modern reality. Nostalgia depicted in fantasy films like Disney Studios’ animated film Ratatouille and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo in which the main character is a Parisian boy who lived by the train station Gare Montparnasse.

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