According to NPR, France is the most visited tourist attraction in the world, and one of the reasons is its capital city Paris. The City of Light has been celebrated in fiction and film as much as any capital for many reasons. Loaded with historical sites, artistic treasures, incredible food and wine opportunities, architectural masterpieces (and a few disasters), Paris is a never-ending wonder. In 1985, my wife and I took our three daughters, 17, 15, and 7 to Paris for a month's stay in a rented apartment in the sixth arrondisement. Each day we ventured into the city to explore some of its many treasures. It remains the most memorable and happiest trip I have ever taken.
Of course, Paris is a part of our consciousness through films that usually feature the city as a major character. No other film resonates Paris as much as Michael Curtiz's
Casablanca, a film that was shot entirely at or near Warner Brothers studio in Hollywood. For the Paris scenes, he used stock footage from before the war; we see Bogart and Bergman tooling down the Champs Elysees in a convertible with the Arc du Triomphe in the background, cruising down the Seine, and sitting in a typical French cafe with wine and checkered table cloths. All of this is imagined, but we buy it just as our parents and grandparents did, because we cannot believe that such happiness and beauty could be despoiled by something as morally repugnant as Nazism. But that is what happened several years before the film was made, and that was a major reason for its success in America.
Casablanca is in beautiful black and white, giving the cinematographer opportunities for film noir shadows and suspenseful tracking shots. But in the 1950's Paris bloomed in color with three classic musicals. First there was Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli's frothy concoction An American in Paris, which won the Oscar as Best Film of 1951. Why? It wasn't because of the plot or the acting or the writing, all of which were serviceable. No, it was the film's stunning conclusion, a dream ballet in which our hero Kelly pursues Leslie Caron through colorful sets based on paintings by Renoir, Rousseau, and Lautrec, among others, all set to George Gershwin's famed piece An American in Paris. The choreography, the zest, the color, the set design all coalesed into a perfect mini-movie.
In 1957 Paris received the fashion treatment in Stanley Donen's Funny Face, which took some George and Ira treasures and inventively refreshed them. He also added several delightful non-Gershwin numbers, especially the parody of fashion magazines called "Think Pink," led by the evervescent Kay Thompson. But the film as a whole belongs to the Gershwins, Fred Astaire, Audrey Hepburn, and Paris. The thin plot throws Hepburn and Astaire into various fashion shoots in picturesque spots throughout the city. Sheathed in Parisian haute coutre, Hepburn transforms from a drab philosophy student into a fashionista butterfly, thanks to Gershwin music, Astaire's charm and dancing, and Paris. Although not a natural singer or dancer, Hepburn gives an enchanting performance, especially about the wonderment of falling in love in "How Long Has This Been Going On." But the real show-stopper is the pair's rendition of "S' Wonderful," set in a church yard outside Paris with a stream, doves, swans, and Hepburn in a white wedding dress. Astaire, 30 years Hepburn's senior (a pattern in her male co-stars) removes the age distinction when he sings and dances. It's magic.
At the end of the decade, Vincent Minnelli directed another Best Film winner, M-G-M's production of Lerner and Lowe's Gigi, an original musical coming fast on the heels of their smash hit My Fair Lady. This time, the movie takes place in the Paris of the late 19th century, where the belle monde was expressed with fashion, manners, and mistresses. Gigi, played by Leslie Caron, is being raised by made her mother and aunts to be a courtesan. Louis Jordan is a wealthy young man of leisure who knows her family well and is stunned to find himself falling in love with the blossoming young lady. This is beautifully shown in the montage of the song ''Gigi," in which Jordan romps through the gardens and fountains of Paris declaring his adoration. Maurice Chevalier brings his timeless charm to "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" and "The Night They Invented Champagne." Although Funny Face and An American in Paris are delightful films, Gigi is a classic film, made with care, grace, artistry, and the best talents of Broadway and Hollywood.