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