Paris Blues (1961)
Starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Sidney Poitier, Diahann Carroll and Louis Armstrong. Directed by Martin Ritt. From United Artists.
Paris, 1961. Expatriate jazz musicians Ram Bowen (Newman) and Eddie Cook (Poitier) are living the dream, with a residency at a hot jazz club where they are adored by all the patrons. Jazz legend Wild Man Moore (Armstrong) has come to town and Ram goes to meet him at the train. While there, he runs into two American girls arriving for a two-week holiday. Ram looks them up and down and invites them down to the club.
The girls show up and dig what Ram and Eddie are putting down and the four go out, Ram pairing with Lillian Corning (Woodward) and Eddie with Connie Lampson (Carroll). Lillian falls for Ram hard and he for her but it is clear that the music and taking the next step as a musician are his first priority. Lillian makes her feelings clear but Ram hedges.
Meanwhile, Eddie and Connie have fallen in love and Connie is ready to start a life with him – in the States, she says. Here in Paris, says he. Eddie came to Paris five years ago to escape the growing racism of his home country. Both couples, then, have fallen in love but the Paris boys are unwilling to change and/or go back to the States. The girls decide to cut their losses and go home early. When Eddie hears this, he decides his love for Connie is strong enough and with her by his side he can face the situation back home.
Ram suffers a setback when a music publisher tells him his composition is not great. Frustrated, Ram seeks Lillian out at her hotel and says he’s ready to go with her. Ram and Eddie blow with the Wild Man at the club and it is clear that Ram is good; does he stay and work on his music? Or will he go home with Lillian and try his luck in New York?
Paris Blues is one of my “autumn movies”. There are a lot of movies that are not only set in the fall but also seem to attain their whole vibe from this soulful season. Paris Blues goes one step further, however, in that it is also a “jazz movie” and jazz – as I reported earlier this fall – goes hand-in-hand with the mood of the autumn. I bought this movie on VHS many years ago at a garage sale. The person having the sale worked at the place where the tapes were made and had loads for sale. I bought lots that day and every one would have “Screening Copy” come up on the screen every now and then. To this day I haven’t upgraded and bought Paris Blues on DVD. Lame, I know.
Author Harold Flender wrote the novel Paris Blues but nothing else of lasting import. He wrote for television in the 1950’s alongside Woody Allen – who almost 70 years later cast Flender’s grandson in a film. Timothée Chalamat, an Oscar-nominated actor, starred in Allen’s A Rainy Day in New York (2019). Significantly, Flender wrote Paris Blues about Eddie, a “Negro sax player” who’s “anti-Americanism” is challenged when he meets Connie, a schoolteacher on vacation from the US. So, while there is much interracial goings-on in the novel, there is not two couples, but one; Eddie and Connie. Is Connie white in the novel? I confess, I’m not sure. It should come as no surprise, though, that United Artists wanted certain race-related aspects of the novel tempered when translated to the big screen. Sidney Poitier has said that the studio “chickened out” which “took the spark” out of the story.
Martin Ritt was an Academy Award-nominated director who worked often with Paul Newman and directed both Mr. and Mrs. Newman in The Long, Hot Summer (1958). Paris Blues was the fourth of ten pairings of Newman and Joanne Woodward. Newman is typically brilliant as Ram. Perhaps his greatest achievement here is his work with the trombone. Newman had studied the instrument with Billy Byers and you could swear Newman is actually playing on screen. This, for me, is something that can make or break a film in which the principals are musicians. So often the actor has taken little or no time studying what it looks like to play the piano, for example. Speaking of the piano, in one scene it appears that Newman is actually playing the instrument.
I’m growing in my admiration for Joanne Woodward. As she was in Winning (1969), which I watched and reported on earlier this year, Joanne’s character is sexy; meaning that she knows what she wants and gets after it. She is no shrinking violet. It suits Woodward and she pulls it off well. Poitier, like Newman, is his typical excellent self. He has a lot of heavy lifting to do as Eddie who cannot be blamed for wanting to live where he is accepted as a human being. Even though in Paris he is called “Mr. Black” by neighbourhood children, it is without malice. Life in France is presented as the best case scenario for Eddie; his race is still a part of his identity but his colour is in no way a hindrance. He is free to be who he wants to be in Paris.
“Remember all the places we could’ve gone? We should’ve gone there.”
Eddie is challenged by Connie who argues that you must engage the enemy if he is to be vanquished. Nothing will change in the States if men like Eddie leave. Connie apparently feels that Eddie as a talented musician in the US could be a beacon for equality and an inspiration to the younger generation. Seems like a lot of work to Eddie and he makes it plain that fighting for a cause is not his bag. In the end, Connie wins him over. Eddie loves her and that may be his biggest incentive to return home but he also seems ready to stand and be counted.
Beautiful Diahann Carroll pulls all this off fairly well especially considering that in her long and venerable show business career she at no time was a prominent film actor. She was prolific on the stage and on television but importantly she was a trailblazer. Carroll was the first black woman to win the Tony Award for Best Actress which she achieved one year after appearing in our film. In 1968, she became the first black woman to star in her own television series when Julia premiered; her work on this series earned her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Television Series, another first for an African-American. She was also the first African-American to be nominated for a Primetime Emmy. Interestingly, Carroll and Poitier began a nine-year affair in 1959, during which Poitier convinced Carroll to divorce her husband (her first of four) saying he would divorce his wife – but he didn’t. Eventually, he did but his relationship with Carroll would soon disintegrate. Carroll’s last husband was singer Vic Damone. Diahann Carroll died of breast cancer on October 4, 2019.
Paris Blues has immense credibility as a “jazz movie” because of the participation of two of the most influential artists in the history of the music. Louis Armstrong appeared in a few dozen feature films in his lifetime but Paris Blues is one of only 5 movies in which he plays a character and not himself. This is how cool Satchmo was; producers would hire him just to play himself in movies.
The soundtrack for Paris Blues is provided by the great Duke Ellington. The legendary Duke had found success with his soundtrack for 1959’s Anatomy of a Murder, a celebrated score that won three Grammys and was hailed as the first significant work by an African-American for a Hollywood film. Two years later, Duke scored our film and his music provides the appropriate backdrop for the action and the settings depicted on screen. The music, however, was received tepidly by critics. Duke would carry on with his unparalleled recording and performing career though he did not return to film scoring often, working on only three other films including Assault on a Queen (1966) with Frank Sinatra.
There are some fascinating aspects to the relationship between Ram and Lillian that we should look at. First of all, it’s pretty far-fetched for anyone to think that these two could be a couple. Connie has scored a major coup getting Eddie to go home but that would seem to be the exception rather than the rule. Besides, Lillian has told Ram that she lives in a small town with her two children. To think that Ram would leave his current set up to roll with that is nonsense. And when the two throw down over this, Ram – to his credit – is honest with Lillian saying it would never work and he’s right.
Ram is married to his music and he is in the midst of seeing where he can go with it. His first major composition is turned down and this throws him. Feeling beaten, he goes to Lillian and offers himself, basically on the rebound and Lillian knows this but is OK with it: “I’m no martyr”. This leads to Ram’s false happiness at a party thrown for him and Eddie, a party dampened by a feeling that the Americans are abandoning their Paris bandmates; particularly guitarist Gypsy, whom Ram has been trying to help kick heroin.
Eddie and the girls are waiting for Ram at the train station. Finally he shows up with a look on his face that Lillian reads immediately; Ram has to stay in Paris to see how far he can go with his music. So, jazz wins. Ram has always been truthful with Connie and now she hands him a hard truth; “you’re never gonna forget me”. I believe she’s right.
You get a lot with Paris Blues. You get a really good story about relationships and the difficulty apparent when star-crossed lovers – the often referenced ships that pass in the night – try to make it last forever. But perhaps the most this film has to offer is its great location shoot. It is an excellent portrait of Paris and jazz in the autumn of 1961.