Monday, May 14, 2012

"Paris Blues" (1961)

Ram Bowen:  "Honey, I live music.  Morning, noon, the whole night.  Everything else is just icing on the cake.  You dig?"  Ram, a young man with a horn played by Paul Newman in Paris Blues, is just too damn cool.  The same goes for his best friend and fellow jazz musician, Eddie Cook, played by Sidney Poitier.
I so dig this film.  Paris Blues was directed by Martin Ritt.  He seemed to distill the essence of Newman to make the actor a movie star (The Long, Hot Summer in 1958) and then elevate him even higher to Oscar-nominated film icon (Hud in 1963).  When discussing the top films of the individual stars, Newman and Poitier, this film usually doesn't get mentioned.  It's one of my favorite Paul Newman movies and one of my favorite Sidney Poitier movies.  The leading ladies in Paris Blues are Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll.  This movie has a demitasse of a plot.  We've got four Americans in Paris -- two jazz musicians and two girlfriends on vacation.  All four are away from the oppressive racism back home in the States, especially the two expatriate jazzmen.  Will the two ladies take their new-found love back to America?  This romantic drama is light on story but offers a new beat, a new rhythm, a new composition for the United States to consider -- like the one Ram labors to write.

Ritt sets this rhythm right at the beginning.  No opening credits.  Up comes Ram Bowen hitting a big note in his swingin' jam of Duke Ellington's "Take The 'A' Train."  Newman and Poitier are established as the dapper headliners on stage in this packed club.  This is a club where everyone is free.  The place is democratic.  The camera moves around the club to show the couples.  A white man puts his arm around his black lady friend.  There are young people.  Old people.  Slim people.  Hefty people.  There's racial diversity on the dance floor.  At the bar, a very lovely lesbian couple gets affectionate.  Near them, a gay male couple enjoys the jazz.  All are united in the love of the music.  Those opening two minutes were very bold for 1961 when segregation was still rampant.  African Americans were fighting for civil rights -- like the right to vote and the right to an education.  Interracial marriage was still illegal in some states.  Hollywood itself was still timid about racial equality.  Actress Dorothy Dandridge broke a color barrier and make Oscar history for 1954 as the first black woman to be nominated for Best Actress.  After the nomination, the talented and beautiful actress have very few film opportunities because of her race. Ram and Eddie weren't racially prejudiced convicts chained together like Poitier and Tony Curtis were in The Defiant Ones.  They were friend and artistic collaborators who could occasionally work each other's last good nerve.
As far as the gay couples in the opening, Ritt was really ahead of his time. They were shown as classy bohemians in a classy club.  That was shocking liberal filmmaking for 1961. Imagine if Martin Ritt could've been alive last week to see our black American president say that he personally supports freedom for same-sex marriage.  The single ladies on holiday in Paris are a school teacher and her divorced friend.
Again, bold.  The current HBO series, Girls, is set in today's New York and was criticized for a not having any black actors in its stories about four modern-day 20-somethings.  The writer/creator of the series, Lena Dunham, is in her 20s.  When asked about that on National Public Radio, she basically said that she didn't know any black folks.  And she was a Liberal Arts major.  Go figure.  The ABC series Pan Am, set in 1963, got a similar criticism.  It also took place in New York and hardly even had black folks as background actors in the first two episodes.  That show was whiter than Christmas at Fox News.  Carroll plays a best friend.  Not an assistant, the way Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson played an assistant to non-Oscar nominated Sarah Jessica Parker in Sex and the City.  That was the big screen version of HBO's Caucasian quartet of much older Girls in New York.  Movie audiences got another beat of Ritt's rhythm stick when Diahann Carroll makes her entrance.  Connie's French is a little rusty.  Ram helps her get a message across to the train porter.  She's waiting for her girlfriend.  When Ram replies, "Your girlfriend as pretty as you are?" -- ah, sooky sooky now!  Yes, he flirts with a black woman.  In public.  In broad daylight.  This was a new composition for a Hollywood scene.
Connie is more interested in Ram's friend and musical arranger, Eddie.  Her friend falls for Ram.  Eddie is weary of America's racism and likes the acceptance he gets in France.
Connie feels Eddie shouldn't turn his back on the U.S., especially when it's on the verge of new freedoms and changes for black people.  She's convinced of that.  Connie feels they can contribute to those changes.  She makes no demands on Eddie's career.  She just wants him to share his greatness with his homeland.  My parents loved Carroll and Poitier in Paris Blues.  Mom and Dad grew up mostly seeing black actresses as maids and black actors as porters or butlers or slaves.  These were fresh, sophisticated, upscale roles for black actors that tackled a social issue relevant to the early 1960s.  Just like Mom and Dad, I love Paris Blues for that very same thing.
That relationship gives Paris Blues a real bass line.  Lillian (Woodward) and Eddie become fast friends.  She falls for Ram but she's not quite a solo act.  She's divorced with two young kids.  She's not on spring break from college.  We like Lillian but her home life could interfere with Ram's music.  Besides, he's struggling with his new composition.  Ram's got the chops and the discipline.  But something's lacking.
Maybe a heartbreak is just what this music man needs.  For Ram, Lillian was different.  She got to him.  Sometimes a broken heart is just the thing a performer needs to become a true artist.  The memory of Lillian might have an impact on Ram's music.
Another star in this film is jazz legend Louis Armstrong.  Playing international jazz great "Wild Man" Moore, Paris Blues gave Louis Armstrong the best acting role of his film career and the first one to treat  him with the respect he deserved.  Fans, black and white, run to greet "Wild Man" as his train arrives.  Ram hopes "Wild Man" will have time to look over his new composition and tell him if it's good.
In Ken Burns marvelous and fascinating documentary film, Jazz, much time is devoted to Armstrong.  His work, talent and achievement are explained and analyzed.  He is rightfully called a genius in the art of jazz with work going back to the 1920s.  Armstrong's genius took stage here in America and on tour in Europe.
In Hollywood movie appearances from the 1930s through the 1950s, Armstrong was not treated like a jazz legend or a music genius.  He did numbers yet he was often a second-class citizen, a comic sidekick with a gravelly voice and a horn.  Even in MGM's High Society, the 1957 musical remake of The Philadelphia Story, he doesn't get quite the treatment he deserves.  Heavyweights Armstrong and Crosby perform two knock-out numbers that Cole Porter wrote for this movie.  They teamed for "Now You Has Jazz" and the sublime " I Love You, Samantha" with Bing at his best backed up by Armstrong's exquisite horn work.  In the closing credits, Armstrong is listed below supporting actor Sidney Blackmer.  (Did you just say "Who?")  Armstrong should've been grouped with Crosby, Grace Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Celeste Holm, the stars of High Society.
Paris Blues swings us with music by Duke Ellington.  The musical highlight in the film is the "Battle Royale" jam session.  "Wild Man" Moore makes a surprise appearance and a fabulous entrance at the club to musically tease his buddies into a friendly jazz challenge.  When we see Ram and Eddie's expressions, we know we're in a good time.
Director Martin Ritt showcased Louis Armstrong for what he was in the movie and in real life -- a well-loved jazz icon  He's not a sidekick here.  He's a superstar.
Duke Ellington, also highlighted in the Ken Burns documentary, did not appear in Paris Blues.  The famed musician and composer (seen on the right next to Paul Newman in the pic below) did receive an Oscar nomination for his Paris Blues music score.
Newman's Ram Bowen is what Robert De Niro's Jimmy Doyle in Scorcese's New York, New York should've been.  He's a talented hipster loner who could be a bit of dog but, basically, was vulnerable and had a heart.  A heart that could be broken.  De Niro's musician in that 1977 film was too psychotic for my taste.  Scorcese letting him act like Raging Bull with a Sax threw that musical drama off-balance.  Ultimately, I didn't care about Jimmy Doyle.  I did care about the ambitious and honest Ram Bowen.
If you're up for some good jazz and smooth performances by four leads in a romantic drama, check out Paris Blues.  Carroll has the kind of part Dorothy Dandridge should've had the opportunity to play right after her historic Oscar nomination for Carmen Jones.  It's cool to watch Paris Blues now to see how far we've all come.  Then there are some young TV execs and writers who need to see an old film like this so they can get a clue.
Martin Ritt also directed The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, The Great White Hope, Sounder, Pete 'n' Tillie and Norma Rae.  Each of those films brought a cast member an Oscar nomination.


  1. I absolutely agree with your opinions regarding this film. It is truly an ahead-of-it's-time, under appreciated Gem that is long over due for re-discovery !

  2. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Paul Newman Tuesday at

    Keep up the good work!

  3. I didn't think it was possible, but I love the movie even more after reading your article.



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