Babylon Revisited into The Last Time I Saw Paris: Appropriative Dream

The Last Time I Saw Paris is an odd movie even when taken on its own – it functions as an off-key MGM spectacle full of familiar faces (Elizabeth Taylor, Van Johnson, Walter Pidgeon, Donna Reed, and even Eva Gabor). It can’t seem decide if it wants to be a tragedy or a farce. Taken as an adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s celebrated short story “Babylon Revisited,” it’s even stranger. I’d like to argue that the word adaptation doesn’t apply to what this movie does to this story. Rather, it’s an extended dream sequence that uses Fitzgerald’s basic plot as a jumping-off point, along the way losing the pathos and the elegance of the original text. Along the lines of Sanders, perhaps appropriation is a better word. As we discussed in class, the addition of other associations, though not enough to justify the use of a new word (as in a case like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead and its Becketian roots), I think the violence metaphor is an apt one. I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that the creative team behind Paris does enough violence to Fitzgerald’s story to render it almost unrecognizable, and the imported associations (including some to Fitzgerald himself) don’t make up for it.

The story isn’t attributed by name (the beginning credits’ citation is “based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald”). Rather than working as an adaptation, the film is a filling in of lots of information behind a fictional facade. The New York Times‘ 1954 review of the film pulls no punches: “For what has actually occurred is that Mr. Fitzgerald’s cryptic story of a man’s return to the scene of his wantonness—to Paris, that is—in the tense hope of recovering his child by his late wife has excited the picture-makers to an orgy of turning up the past and constructing a whole lurid flashback on the loving and lushing of the man and his wife before she died” (Crowther N.p.).

Fitzgerald writes that Charles “believed in character; he wanted to jump back a whole generation and trust in character again as the eternally valuable ele­ment. Everything else wore out” (N.p.). The film does the opposite, jumping forward from 1930 to 1945 (in fictive time) and glossing it with values of an even further future time (1954, when the film was made). Because of its timing, the film plays on (American) viewers’ recent nostalgia for the end of the war rather than their recent trauma at the hands of the Depression (something I imagine might have come into play for readers of the original story).

The movie imagines a past for Charles, Marion, and Helen. It uses the original story as an outline, pulling out the possible reasons behind the characters’ actions in the Fitzgerald story. The temporal shift plays deeply into this. Emotions run high in Paris after the war, as the film depicts. We are made to wonder if Charles and Helen would have gotten so close otherwise. Cf the dramatic hug at 19:00, coming after Helen’s plea for continued celebration (because, she says, she’s sick of war). The location of the bar and the person of Maurice links the post-war period to the flashback. We learn that Charles met Taylor then — but he meets Marion first, interjecting a level of complexity into the sisters’ relationship with him. Later, at the party (8:00 mark), we learn the degree of Marion’s distaste for Helen.

Up to this point, I was intrigued at the idea of using the framing of the story as an outline for a broader narrative. However, it doesn’t live up to the possibility. All of the characters are shifted off-kilter from Fitzgerald’s templates, as well as the time period. In the story, Helen only appears as a benevolent ghost: “She said she was glad he was being good and doing better. She said a lot of other things – very friendly things – but she was in a swing in a white dress, and swinging faster and faster all the time, so that at the end he could not hear clearly all that she said” (12). In the film, she’s characterized by her preoccupation with hedonism: “but you don’t need money to have fun in Paris!” (30:00) and “The last nine months I’ve devoted to you, sweetheart. Now I’m going to have fun” (38:00). In the story, the child Honoria is shown to love her father. Her counterpart in the movie, barely referred to by name, is mainly present to be shushed and told to speak English rather than French (despite knowing only a Parisian context).

Brian Sutton argues that “Babylon” both presages Tender is the Night and echoes Gatsby (164): winning back a woman, importance of money. The film goes further in making edits and drawing parallels. It changes Charles’ context almost completely, until the encounter with his daughter at the end. He is now a writer, alluding to Fitzgerald, perhaps, with his attempts (albeit failed ones) to write the Great American Novel. We watch Charles turning inward as his novel receives rejection after rejection. It’s written all over the twists of Van Johnson’s frowns of anxiety. (I have to wonder if Johnson’s slight resemblance to Fitzgerald, though likely coincidental, was of interest to the film makers.) (See Figs. 1 and 2) Both Charles and Helen drink (and fight) enough to remind audiences of Scott and Zelda. There’s even a Gabor (who, at least superficially, with her blondness, evokes Zelda). Oddly, with the windfall of oil money, the film becomes a parodic prefiguration of Taylor’s Giant, released in 1956 (a windfall that, somewhat ironically, prevents his failure by removing the economic component of his writing).

Even the title of the film is confusing. “Babylon Revisited” makes sense (Charles is returning to the scene of his personal tragedy, trying to make something functional and loving out of it by working to get his daughter back). Who is the “I,” though, in Last Time? It is most likely Charles, but since he doesn’t leave never to return, the title promises something it doesn’t deliver. The movie’s indecision extends to modern marketing via the different covers of the DVDs. The movie’s post-publicity can’t decide what kind of film it’s trying to market — is it dramatic or adorable? (see Fig. 3 and 4). This points to the movie’s own indecision (since the images come from the film): is it, as the Times calls it, a “florid rush of warm romance” or, like Fitzgerald’s story, a bittersweet tragedy?

Donna Reed saves the film at the bitter end. Marion’s face and stance in the scene where Charles asks for Vicky back is underlaid with what we know of her earlier love for him (51:00). This is the only place where, for me, the story that the film adds to the Fitzgerald actually bolstered it rather than undercutting it. It’s also one of the few places where the film allows subtlety to rule in the place of florid rushing, sighing, and cheek pressing. Sadly, the moment is fleeting. Returning the child because, as Marion says, “I don’t think Helen would’ve wanted you to be alone” seems much less interesting than having Charles have to work, as he does in the story, to earn her back. What we’ve seen of his parenting in earlier scenes is twee and adorable, but I’m not sure he’s equipped to be a single father. Were there an added ending, I’d worry that they’d trot out Eva Gabor to be the child’s new mother. While not a violent act, it certainly would add to the case for calling this an appropriation. Even without that, the film is, though not a nightmare, certainly an odd dream.

Fig. 1.

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 4

Works Cited

Crowther, Bosley. “The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954). Capitol’s Film Inspired by Fitzgerald Story.” New York Times (November 19, 1954). Web.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. “Babylon Revisited.” Saturday Evening Post (February 21, 1931). Project Gutenberg Australia.

The Last Time I Saw Paris. Dir. Richard Brooks. MGM, 1954. Film.

Sanders, Julie. Adaptation and Appropriation. In The New Critical Idiom (series). London: Routledge, 2005.

Sutton, Brian. “Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and Babylon Revisited.” Explicator 65, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 164-167.

2 thoughts on “Babylon Revisited into The Last Time I Saw Paris: Appropriative Dream

  1. Thanks Hilarie,

    Now you’ve hooked us, with appending the entire movie (even though it’s Elizabeth Taylor again). As you say, violence (and appropriation) as the presiding metaphor(s).

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