EVE GOLDBERG looks back on a "can't miss" film production that fell short of expectations:
Blues could have been a hit.It could have been a game-changer.It could have become a classic.Starring Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier as expatriate jazz musicians,
this 1961 movie was filmed in Paris, directed by Martin Ritt (Hud, Norma
Rae,) and written by Walter Bernstein (The
Front).All the ingredients for a
compelling, top-notch entertainment were in place.
But the movie misses.Despite strong performances, a fascinating
milieu, meaty subject matter, gorgeous cinematography, several unforgettable
set pieces, and a score by Duke Ellington, the whole is distinctly less than
the sum of its parts.
So, what went wrong?
The problem is the
script.How the script falters, and why, is perhaps the most intriguing aspect
of the film.
Blues is based on a 1957 same-titled novel by Harold
Flender.The book tells the story of
Eddie Cook, an African American jazz musician living and working in Paris in
The author draws on the
historical reality that throughout much of the 20th century, many
African American artists, writers, and musicians emigrated to Paris, where they
found the personal and creative freedom denied them back home.James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Josephine
Baker, Sidney Bechet, Lester Young, and Bud Powell all found refuge from racism
in the City of Light.In addition, jazz
musicians discovered that their artistry was more highly valued and appreciated
in Europe than in the United States.Miles Davis said that his time living and working in Paris was
life-altering.“It changed the way I
looked at things forever.Paris was
where I noticed that not all white people were prejudiced.”
The novel Paris Blues re-creates this vibrant
world of smoky clubs, outdoor cafes, and a creative community where the
“mixing” of everyone is the norm.In
terms of plot, saxophonist Eddie falls for an African American school teacher,
Connie, who is touring Europe with a group of educators.Eddie is torn between going back to the
racist United States with Connie or forgoing their love and staying in Paris
where he feels respected as a man and musician.
In a comedic sub-plot,
Connie’s 60-year-old white roommate, Lillian, and Eddie’s middle-aged Jewish
band mate, Benny, are thrown together for a booze-filled night on the town,
during which Lillian experiences the wild side of Paris and begins to question
her uptight, chaste lifestyle.
Some of the chapters are
written from Eddie’s point of view, others from Connie’s, so we get a nuanced
and in-depth look into both individuals.The author successfully creates a set of appealing characters with
complex emotions and conflicts.While
the novel goes flaccid in the last third — its themes have been exhausted and
now it’s a forced slog to the end of a thin plot — just the fact that a 1957
novel by a white American writer features two fully-developed black
protagonists who are dealing with important, real-life issues, is an
achievement in itself.
Then, somewhere between page
and screen, things happened.
First and most significant,
in the film version of Paris Blues,
Eddie and Connie, the book’s central characters, are relegated to the
B-story.They now take a backseat to a
pair of white folks.
In the film, Benny, who in
the book is Eddie’s middle-aged, paunchy, Jewish sidekick, has been transformed
into hunky trombonist, Paul “Ram Bowen” Newman.Ram is handsome, sexy, charming, and brooding.He yearns to be a serious composer, but fears
he may not have the chops.He is the
undisputed leader of the band and the central character of the movie, with
saxophonist Eddie now playing the lesser role of “best friend.”
In a parallel revision,
Connie’s old-maid roommate Lillian is converted into a young, attractive,
divorced mother who is amazingly uninhibited when it comes to sex.She is played by Paul Newman’s real-life
wife, Joanne Woodward.
Near the beginning of the
film, we get a taste of what this movie might have been.Ram is at the train station, waiting to greet
the famous jazz trumpeter, Wild Man Moore (played with gusto by Louis
Armstrong).While at the station, Ram
accidentally meets Connie (Diahann Carroll).He flirts with Connie who tells him she’s waiting for her traveling
“Is your girlfriend as pretty as you are?”
(pause)“She’s a white girl.”
“Might be hard to find.All you white
girls look alike.”
Connie shoots Ram a “Huh?”
look.She’s clearly taken aback that
this white guy is flirting with her….and what does he mean by that strange
comment?The audience, and Connie, know
that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Although there is no
interracial romance among the main characters in the original novel, the
filmmakers seem to be flirting with creating one in the movie.But apparently, the powers that be in
Hollywood decided America wasn’t ready for an on-screen interracial romance —
that moment would come several years later with Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? — so Ram predictably pairs off with
white Lillian, as Eddie and Connie fall in love.
Poitier later stated, “Cold
feet maneuvered to have it twisted around — lining up the colored guy with the
In his memoir, This Life, Poitier further notes, “The
script was a one-dimensional concoction of expatriate jazz musicians living and
working in Paris.…it should have been
Joanne Woodward and myself, and Paul Newman and Diahann Carroll, as love
interests; such unconventional pairings at that time would have made a
considerable impact in the business.Then, too, it was rumored…that the original idea called for exactly that
kind of imaginative casting, and that United Artists and those responsible for
the film felt it would be too revolutionary and backed off, leaving the
creative forces no way to raise the material above the level of the commonplace.”
By “creative forces” Poitier
no doubt means director Martin Ritt and writer Walter Bernstein, both of whom
had long-standing progressive credentials.After working with the Group Theatre and honing his directing chops in
the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project, Ritt had been a successful television
director.He was targeted during the
1950s anti-Communist witch-hunt by the right-wing newsletter Counterattack, and subsequently was
blacklisted from the television industry for a number of years.When the blacklist hysteria cooled off at the
end of the 1950s, Ritt began directing movies.He and Paul Newman formed their own company, Salem Productions, with the
explicit purpose of producing socially conscious movies.Ritt directed Newman in Hud, Hombre, Paris Blues, and The Long, Hot Summer.His
later films included The Great White Hope,
Sounder, and Norma Rae, all of which dealt with controversial social and
Walter Bernstein had been a
member of the Young Communist League as a youth, and had many other left-wing
affiliations.He was a writer for
Columbia Studios before being blacklisted from the film industry in 1951.Paris
Blues was the first Ritt-Bernstein collaboration.They later teamed to make The Front, starring Woody Allen in a
dramedy about the Hollywood blacklist.
In Paris Blues, Ritt and Bernstein preserve the book’s key subject
matter — racism and Eddie’s conflict around whether to stay in Paris or return
to the United States.
(to Connie): “Here in Paris, I’m Eddie Cook,
musician.Period.Not Eddie Cook, Negro musician.I don’t have to prove anything else.”
“Like, because I’m Negro I’m different.Or because I’m Negro I’m not
different.I’m different, I’m not
different, I don’t have to prove either case.Can you understand that?”
“There isn’t a place on earth that isn’t hell for somebody.Some race, some color, some sex.”
“For me, Paris is just fine.”
Connie:Eddie, you’re wrong.I’m not denying what you feel…but things are
much better than they were five years ago, and they’re gonna still be better
next year.And not because Negroes come
to Paris.But because Negroes stay home,
and with millions of white people they work to make things better for everybody
However, this issue now
plays a secondary role to Ram’s similar, but much less interesting, concern:
should he stay in Paris to pursue a serious musical career, or return to the
U.S. with Lillian and become a white-picket-fence-hubby?Ram’s dilemma often seems awkward and
inauthentic, showing itself to be what it probably was: a forced attempt to
give Paul Newman a meaningful character arc.
Typical of 1960’s liberal
filmmaking, the black characters in Paris
Blues are presented as decent, smart, and sober, while the white
characters, unburdened by the screenwriter’s need to be race-respectful, get
the fun, quirky, lines.
This romance is doomed.
You get up too early.
In contrast, Eddie and
Connie’s relationship is essentially sweet, their dialogue earnest.Their romance also serves as an excuse for
the obligatory — and interminable! — lovers’ stroll through Paris.The bridges over the Seine, the steps at
Montmartre, the mid-day rain shower, the starry-eyed couple arm-in-arm….somewhere
along the way, this film about the coolest of the cool – jazz musicians, hip
improvisers – goes square.
In the end, Eddie decides to
marry Connie and give the U.S. another try, while Ram opts to stay in
Although the film is uneven,
Paris Blues is notable as a
well-meaning movie that deals with a serious subject — racism — at a time when
most Hollywood movies shied away from such topics.And, give credit where credit is due to a
group of talented actors and filmmakers who made a movie about a theme,
characters, and historical moment rarely touched in cinema.
It would take another 25
years before the subject of expatriate African American jazz musicians would be
tackled again in film.And it took a
Frenchman to do it.In Bertrand
Tavernier’s 1986 Round Midnight, real
life saxophonist Dexter Gordon plays Dale Turner, a gifted but self-destructive
musician working in Paris in the 1950s.This film is significantly darker and grittier than Paris Blues, its approach to the material a continent and several
filmmaking eras away from the earlier movie.Both films provide a glimpse into jazz history, through the distinct
lens of their own time, place, and cultural vantage point.
(Eve Goldberg is a writer and filmmaker. Her
articles have appeared in Hippocampus, The Gay & Lesbian Review, The
Reading Room and AmericanPopularCulture.com. Her film and television
credits include Emmy-nominated Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist, and Cover Up:
Behind the Iran-Contra Affair. Her first book, Hollywood Hang Ten, is a
mystery novel set in 1963 Los Angeles. See a sampling of her short films on her web site at https://eve-goldberg.com/ )