For those who are fans of old romantic dramas, might I suggest a film that may not have appeared on your radar. Paris Blues is a 1961 film starring Sidney Poitier and Paul Newman and a cast of other amazing talents both behind the lens and on screen and, the film features Louis Armstrong, what could be better?
Paris Blues is a rom dram that attempts to push the envelope a bit as it tackles a lot of subject matter that to this day is still relevant. The movie centers around two musicians, saxophonist Eddie Cook (Poitier) and Trombonist Ram Bowen (Newman) each calling Paris their home for their own personal reasons. Both musicians are faced with a different challenge that make them both reluctant to accept a serious romance when it is presented to them in the form of two American woman on vacation in Paris. Connie Lampson (Diahann Carroll) and Lillian Corning (Joanne Woodward). Ram dreams of becoming a greater musician and a composer. His dedication to music is what prevents him from becoming attached to women. Eddie, an expatriate, loves his life in Paris and refuses to return to the U.S. due to racism. Although both Eddie and Ram have different motivations in life the two aren’t prepared to be challenged by Connie and Lillian respectively.
Eddie deals with a more poignant challenge in life as Connie questions his reasons for staying in Paris. She believes that Eddie is running away from the reality of America as opposed to being strong and facing racism head-on with others that deal with the same struggles. Meanwhile, Ram is simply obsessed with his music dream and tries his best to downplay the way his romantic involvement with Lillian is changing his lifestyle. In the end, both musicians choose love, Eddie decides to return to America with Connie yet, Ram chooses his love of music over Lillian. Paris Blues is predictable in a sense but what it should be praised for is the attempt of depicting how race intersects with love, music, and ideas of freedom.
Paris Blues from beginning to end shows a very accepting city of racial tolerance. Throughout the film many background characters and passerby’s show interracial couples and the like, adding to the sense that Paris is leagues ahead of America in racial progress especially for the time period of the early 60’s. Also, the main plotline of Eddie’s character straightforwardly tries to explore the complexities of racism for black people during this era. I feel that some credit should be given to director Martin Ritt, who has a track record of projects that attempt to use the theater and film medium to portray other sides of American life.
Paris Blues was scored and had original music by Duke Ellington and featured Louis Armstrong as Wild Man Moore, a trumpet player that seemed to be as famous and respected as the real life Armstrong. Louis’ role in the film is minor however, it is refreshing to see Louis in a role that went against the demeaning stereotypes of blacks on screen. Jazz fans will certainly love the lighthearted battle of the bands scene in the film.
I feel that while Paris Blues isn’t a spectacular film overall, it doesn’t stop it from being a good watch, especially if you’re in the mood for classic romantic dramas. It gets extra points for trying to go outside the box but ultimately feels disjointed in the sense that the two main characters didn’t seem to be invested in the others life. This might be a result of how the movie was adapted from its original form as a novel. Paris Blues original story has an interracial love affair among its characters. Poitier himself said that this was a loss of the movie’s “guts” and “spark”. Understandably, given the era of the film there no doubt had to be pressure to change a key plot of the story to make the film acceptable for white audiences. The silver lining in all of this however, is the fact that Diahann Carroll and Sidney Poitier exhibit a beautiful portrayal of black love on the screen. Outside of my minor gripes, I still believe Paris Blues attempted something that most films of the early 60’s weren’t trying and also with such talented actors the film is an easy watch.