I reviewed Paris When It Sizzles (1964) over on Fairy Hepburn but I have more to say. The movie has such a bad reputation for no reason at all. This is not going to be a nuanced take. Maybe some people find the film enjoyable and flawed, but I’m not one of those people. It’s a perfect movie. Anyone who disagrees is well within their right. I’ve never been able to figure out why people think it’s so unforgivably bad. Audrey didn’t like it much either because of her negative experiences on the set, but it’s one of her best performances.
So! What I wanted to focus more in depth on was the movie within the movie. This one is all about the magic of filmmaking — chaotic, stressful, and actually not magical at all. Audrey is Gabrielle Simpson, a cheerful secretary who arrives in a swanky Paris apartment to type up Richard Benson’s (William Holden) latest script. Richard is a hotshot Hollywood screenwriter who’s been procrastinating on the project, which is due in just three days. And absolutely none of it is written. He does have the perfect title, though: The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower.
The movie within a movie spoofs the industry and its array of eccentric and pompous personalities, but never comes across as cynical.
Gabby, ever the professional and accustomed to unorthodox Hollywood types, gets to work immediately. She is an eternal optimist, someone with a genuine, unsullied enthusiasm for life. She came to Paris to live.
Now compare that to Richard, a jaded alcoholic who has grown increasingly sour about his trade and the town that employs him. When Gabby explains her plans for Bastille Day, which include a male acquaintance, Richard is inspired with a script idea. His imagination gets to work, where Gabby meets Phillipe, who looks remarkably like Tony Curtis. Phillipe however, is the quintessential Curtis cad, a fast talker who breaks the date and leaves Gabby pitifully alone. Until! A “rather tall, rather suntanned, rather handsome athletic looking” stranger “with a rugged, but curiously sensitive face” spots her and comes to the rescue. And this stranger is none other than Richard Benson.
Richard lets his imagination roam free, when its been stifled for so long. And although he’s a cynic, he gets to have a little fun by starring in his absurd little fantasy. That’s something I’ve always really liked about classic movies, how adults tap into their childlike sides without it being childish or condescending. Screwball comedies really excel in this area. I’ve grown so tired of movies where very serious adults with bored faces tackle life’s challenges or else get so mired in defeat that they believe the world really is bleak and has no light or hope left inside. That’s a worldview that we all succumb to, but we’re not supposed to stay there for long. Paris When It Sizzles won’t let Richard stay there. Gabby hasn’t ever ventured to that place, but she succeeds in bringing Richard out.
The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower, in Richard’s mind, is a romantic comedy, spy thriller, and at one point, a horror movie with him as a vampire. That one is Gabby’s idea though. Just the hint of a romance starts to emerge as the two write the script in Richard’s apartment, borrowing from their movie (or is it vice versa)? But Gabby gets overwhelmed by Richard’s advances, and in their movie, she fancies herself an innocent being preyed upon. And so, the two of them wind up in a cave, where Richard’s character reveals himself to be a vampire.
Now that just happens to be my least favorite mythological creature, but can you imagine if Bill Holden had ever played one?! Maybe I’d like them better. Gabby escapes and a wild chase on horses ensues. There’s even a chase through the clouds, where aviatrix Gabby shoots Richard down in a plane. After all that, Richard sends her overly imaginative self to bed.
As was custom in all of Audrey’s films, her wardrobe was designed by Hubert de Givenchy. He received onscreen credit for her costumes in this film, as well as for her perfume! Audrey insisted on it. And I mention it, not only because it’s a fascinating tidbit, but because there’s one scene in the film where she looks as if she’s bathed in the stuff while she’s floating on air in one of Givenchy’s most underrated creations. It’s a pale blue nightgown with organza sleeves printed with flowers, a big silk bow, and even a train.
She looks heavenly, so she must smell heavenly too. It’s the sort of elegance that some of us can only dream of. Gabby emerges from her room and crosses over to the balcony, where she retrieves her bird. Just a small interlude with lovely music playing, and Richard watches her, quietly awed.
The next morning, he’s finished the entire script! He surprises Gabby with all the finished pages, and he twirls her about and they dance. But then he shuts off the record and brusquely informs her that they are not writing a musical. That little scene seems like a reference to Funny Face, and the song that was playing during the dance was “That Face,” sung by Fred Astaire. There are other allusions to Audrey’s films, like My Fair Lady, which Richard claims is a Frankenstein story; Breakfast at Tiffany’s (he mentions stories about prostitutes with hearts of gold); and Roman Holiday, where he fixes her bangs like Mario the barber.
In Richard’s rewrite of the script, doing away with the vampires and chase scenes, he’s cast Gabby as the police informant who’s working to hand him over. He brings her on a date to a movie studio, where unbeknownst to her, he’s planning to steal film reels. Once Richard discovers that she’s working with the police, we get another chase scene. But after she’s cornered, the two simply take a cigarette break. They wind up on the large ornate bed and Richard cleverly inserts a dissolve. Gabby reminds him that the censors would never allow it, but Richard waves away her concerns because they could be doing just about anything else! Like playing Parcheesi. And in the next scene, that’s exactly what they are doing.
Richard and Gabby’s film culminates in the sort of dramatic ending that only Hollywood could whip up. Tony Curtis returns, and even Audrey’s first husband Mel Ferrer appears in a cameo as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. The other celebrity cameos include Marlene Dietrich at her chicest in the film’s beginning and famed wit Noel Coward as Richard’s producer Alexander Meyerheim.
As for real life, Gabby and Richard go their separate ways. But she’s not ready to part forever, because she leaves her bird behind. And Richard goes looking for her on Bastille Day, which she’s celebrating with the dreaded Phillipe. And then the actual film ends in typical Hollywood fashion, and our lovers share their final, earth-moving, studio rent-paying, theater-filling, popcorn-selling kiss.
And that’s all! A lot of frothy, silly fun that deserves much more recognition for its comedy and a new appraisal of its many strengths.