Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Scorchers - "Paris when it Sizzles" (1964) Part 1

The first movie out of the gate on this hottest of summer months is "Paris when it Sizzles" starring William Holden and Audrey Hepburn. The two had starred together in "Sabrina" ten years earlier and hoped to recreate the success. This film was a remake of "La Fete a Henriette" (1952) which depicts two screenwriters preparing a script for a movie about Henrietta and how she spends Bastille Day weekend. Paramount's movie took its title from the Cole Porter tune “I Love Paris”. And while the song is very much a love letter to Paris, the movie itself focuses on more a cheeky mockery of movies and Hollywood. Let's look at the trailer first.

Oh now that was painful. "Go absolutely ape" is right. Let's ignore that hackneyed 60s beach party music for the moment. This trailer makes the movie look like a complete disaster. You would never guess this movie is about a screenwriter and his secretary. If I had cut the trailer I would emphasize the screenwriting aspect along with Bill's one-liners and the budding romance between him and Audrey.

We open on an aerial shot over the ocean accompanied by some swinging 60s music. We zoom in on the pool patio of some posh California hotel with extremely colourful umbrellas. Some man in a pink bathrobe is writing on the naked back of a swimsuit-clad blond. We never discover exactly what he's writing but we discover he is Alexander Myerheim, played by playwright Noel Coward who was hired for the bit role when screenwriter George Axelrod sent him the script. Coward writes that his role "is effective although tiny, but I am being paid $10,000 and all luxe expenses, so I said yes. I think it will be rather fun.”

Myerheim dictates a letter to Paramount executives with a barely clad secretary taking notes about his new production. His scriptwriter is Richard Benson, played by William Holden. Immediately the blond in the swimsuit spouts off an angry tirade directed towards Benson about Cannes, vodka, Madrid and bullfights. We'll discover exactly what Benson's been up to while writing his script a little later. Myerheim's card partner warns him that the last script he received from Benson was found stuffed in a vodka bottle floating off of Malibu. Myerheim assures him that Richard pledged that he was 'back on the wagon'.

It was well known in Hollywood that William Holden was an alcoholic and apparently his drinking was at its worst on the set of this movie. Whether this shared character trait of Benson's was a coincidence isn't known but director Richard Quine had to keep a close eye on Bill, describing him as a “punch-drunk fighter, walking on his heels, listing slightly, talking punchy. He didn’t know he was drunk.” The main reason for his instability was most likely Hepburn. The two had started an affair on the set of "Sabrina" ten years earlier and apparently Holden still held a torch for her at the time of filming, trying to rekindle the relationship despite her being married. Holden described the whole experience. "I remember the day I arrived at Orly Airport for Paris When It Sizzles. I could hear my footsteps echoing against the walls of the transit corridor, just like a condemned man walking the last mile. I realized that I had to face Audrey and I had to deal with my drinking. And I didn’t think I could handle either situation.”

From California we zoom out on a shaky aerial shot and head to Paris, centering in on the Eiffel Tower. Richard Benson, screenwriter and self-proclaimed 'famous international wit' lives only several blocks from the iconic tourist photo. But he's more focussed on getting the perfect tan than on his script. We then switch to an introduction of Audrey Hepburn as Gabrielle Simpson. She walks through a park, passing a Punch and Judy puppet theatre. This same park was used in "Charade" which started filming just two days after "Paris" was finished.

Audrey had Givenchy as her wardrobe designer and she insisted that he also receive screen credit for supplying her perfume. As with all her Givechy movies, her look was crisp, simple and sophisticated. She arrives at Benson's apartment, his front door littered with 'Keep Out' signs. The first encounter between the two becomes a battle of grammar with Benson bursting with dry wit, most likely because his glass was empty. Gabrielle responds in kind with a professional attitude, matching him point for point as he pours himself another Bloody Caesar. As she attempts to discover how long the typing job will take, she discovers that script is called "The Girl who Stole the Eiffel Tower" with Benson describing it as an "action suspense romantic melodrama with lots of comedy of course and deep down underneath a substrata of social comment", telling her and us absolutely nothing about the plot. The unfortunately also happens to exactly mirror what the movie is about; a big buildup to absolutely nothing of substance.

We discover, as she does, that there actually is no script. Benson has told Myerheim that he has 138 pages ready to be typed and that the script was purchased sight unseen because of the intriguing title. This only proves that Myerheim is dumb. We watch as Benson lays out his script, page by blank page across the apartment, describing the plot to Gabrielle, but if you listen to his description more than once you realize how repetitious and hackneyed his whole unformed idea is.

"Here with a page or two of interestingly photographed establishing shots possibly from a helicopter, the boy and the girl meet. After some chit chat, getting to know you kind of stuff, the thing I do so brilliantly, we feel an unconscious attraction between the two, an indication to the audience of the tremulous beginnings of love and then conflict! You can tell by the music how deeply fraught with danger the whole situation is and now the first switch the audience gasps at when they realize they’ve been fooled. Things are not what they seem, not at all. In fact the whole situation's completely reversed involving the magnificently ingenious switch on the switch! Amazed by the sudden turns of events the boy and girl realize how gravely they’ve misjudged each other. At that moment the music turns ominous once more as they become aware of the danger that they’re in and the chase is on, screaming tires, the cat! Now as we build step by step to the climax the music soars and they're totally oblivious of the torrential rain pouring down upon them the two fall happily and tenderly into each others arms and as the audience drools with sublimated sexual pleasure the two enormous and highly paid heads come together for that ultimate and inevitable moment the final earth-moving studio rent-paying theatre-filling popcorn-selling kiss".

It's also here that we realize how self-referential or "meta" the movie is. Myerheim dictates his letter to Paramount, the actual production company for the movie; Benson is described as an alcoholic and so is Holden; Benson mentions 'interestingly photographed establishing shots, possibly from a helicopter' which is exactly how the movie begins. These little tidbits pepper the screen and script. And did you notice how the end of his description perfectly matches "Breakfast at Tiffanys", another Hepburn movie? The cat, the rain, the kiss.

When Benson lays one on her after describing the script it marks the first crossover between the world of the movie and the world of the script within the movie. This happens more and more often throughout as Benson pulls ideas from real life to create his script and Simpson gets pulled along. She realizes how much trouble the two of them are in when she discovers the script is due in two days during Bastille Day weekend and Benson has written nothing for the past 19 and a fraction weeks.

Instead, international procrastinator extraordinaire, Benson has spent his time in Paris and his $5000 per week plus expenses water skiing in Saint-Tropez, lying in the sun in Antigua, studying Greek, etc. Apparently there was a starlet representing the Greek film industry at Cannes. He shudders as if remembering his mistake. He then spent some weeks unlearning Greek, requiring a large amount of vodka, after which he took an unpremeditated trip to Madrid to see the bullfights. We are meant to link this up to the bikini blond in the beginning and infer that she was the Greek starlet. If only Myerheim had inquired further when she berated him. Benson then spent week 17 & 18 in Monte Carlo casinos in order to win back his contract from Myerheim so that he could avoid writing the script. Obviously unsuccessful, a better picture of Benson emerges. A hedonistic playboy who procrastinates, drinks too much and makes scripting decisions at the toss of a coin. His title is interesting but the story rings hollow and we watch uncomfortably as he struggles with the writing process, trying to start in on a mysterious woman in black standing on the Eiffel tower.

He tries several other ideas before starting in on Christian Dior and a white Rolls Royce that pulls up and comes to a stop. He changes the car to a Bentley and describes a "classically glamourous star like Marlene Dietrich" emerging from the vehicle. True to form for this movie, we actually see a cameo of Marlene walking towards the entrance to Dior. Benson decides it won't work, muttering that Myerheim would have loved the story and "could have stolen the Bentley and afterwards charged it to the picture". When George Axelrod approached Marlene for the cameo, Bill was in rehab for alcoholism. Marlene was meant to help prop up a flopping film. She was supposed to emerge from a car, enter a store and choose a fur coat. The story goes that the assistant director came and spoke to Axelrod. "Miss Dietrich wants to keep the coat—and it’s a white ermine!" Axelrod said "Don’t worry, I can handle this" and he returned announcing that Marlene would be taking both the car and the coat home with her. Talk about milking a guest appearance!

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