Some stories I’ve heard/read suggest that Ray Bolger was an egotistical ass. And, unfortunately for him, he didn’t have the good looks and notoriety for people to swoon over him the way they do other egotistical asses (and Hollywood, then and now, is chock full of them if we’re being honest). I have come across Doris fans who write off this film simply because they can’t stomach Bolger, hate the treatment she endured during filming, etc. before they even get to the actual flaws the film might (and does) have. I understand that if a movie’s been tainted, it’s been tainted, but it always makes me a little sad that this charmingly saccharine little film gets left out a lot of times.
For me, I’m not here to see anyone or anything other than Doris Day making the sun shine brighter than anyone else can (sorry, Wham!, but nobody can top Doris). That’s a common thread for me in all of her films. With the exception of The Man Who Knew Too Much (blog-a-thon post by Crimson Kimono) and Please, Don’t Eat The Daisies, because I love Jimmy Stewart and David Niven respectively, the leading men are pretty much all nonexistent when I’m watching a Doris Day film because I only have eyes for her. That’s not to say I don’t have soft spots for her team ups with some of the other men by any means, (Rock and Tony come to mind since I’m no sacrilegious Doris fan!) just that it’s often been a case of needing a few viewings to even appreciate the male leads or costars if I wasn’t already in love with them.
So because I couldn’t care less if Bolger was in this film or someone else – if it were the same film (and not an actor I abhor) – and because I find Bolger entertaining regardless of the moments I’m applying face to palm, I love April In Paris and urge everyone to at least give it a shot if they want to see a bright and sunny young Doris (her 12th film, and towards the end of her first five years in movies). I would urge everyone to at least give it a shot simply for Doris’ rollicking number, “I’m Gonna Ring The Bell Tonight”.
The film opens up with Bolger’s character, S. Winthrop Putnam (the S is for Sam). He’s a ‘politician’, specifically the “Assistant Secretary to the Assistant to the Undersecretary of State.” Of course, the joke here is that he acts more high-and-mighty than he ought when, really, he’s just an easily manipulated, graveling peon in the ridiculous bureaucratic system of Washington D.C. If anything, he’s only put up with because of his fiancé Marcia Sherman, the daughter of his boss, who has high political aspirations that she’s willing to achieve vicariously through her spouse – it seems whoever she marries will be in the White House if she has her way.
Underneath Sam’s rigid exterior isn’t a regulation-obsessed, power-hungry rich man, rather a whimsical Everyman into the arts who’s worked his way up from the son of a janitor and would like to give into his carefree whims and enjoy life. But he’s simply so entangled in the politics of following rules, pushing pencils, and pleasing older, regulation-obsessed, power-hungry rich men that he doesn’t tend to give into those whims. Fortunately for Sam, he makes a terrible mistake. An invitation intended for Ethel Barrymore to act as an American representative at an art festival in Paris is sent instead to a chorus girl named Ethel “Dynamite” Jackson who’d applied for a work permit for Montreal at the same time, Doris Day of course.
In the opening act, before Sam learns of his mistake, we also meet Philippe Fouquet (ah, the little middle fingers that were given to the production code are sometimes very amusing), a Frenchman played by Claude Dauphin. He’s a Parisian night club owner who’s stranded in America, trying to get home, but being put through the runaround by the government – going through the “usual channels” which is essentially code for being tossed from one agency to the next because none of them are willing to help him. (Funny how 65 years later, things operate generally the same in that regard.) Philippe acts as the guiding force of the film, and narrator; he even breaks the fourth wall.
Sam rushes off to un-invite Ethel Jackson and finds her in the middle of a chorus line, singing “It Must Be Good.” Naturally, Sam is bowled over when he sees just how drop-dead gorgeous (hence, “Dynamite”) Ethel is. Sure, “what a built” may be entirely sexist, but aren’t we all guilty of having to pick our jaws up off the floor upon seeing Doris Day for the first time, and every subsequent time? I certainly can’t say I wouldn’t be right there with him if in a similar situation.
What I love about Doris Day characters is that even though Doris is absolutely stunning and feminine, she’s not some picture of frail womanhood (no offense to the actresses who are, by any means, since we all need representation). Ethel Jackson is no exception. She’s a woman who will sock you if you tell anyone she’s been crying, who pushes back when she’s being pushed around, who gets angry, who rebels, who stands up for her dignity, and generally displays a wonderful range of human emotions and reactions while on her little adventure in the movie.
Sam breaks the news and, naturally, previously excited Ethel is heartbroken and sings the beautiful Yip Harburg and Vernon Duke classic, “April In Paris”. I love this song, generally speaking, especially performed by Ella Fitzgerald – one of Doris’ biggest influences, and of course love what Doris brings to the table. It’s a moment of vulnerability for her, in the film, and her sedate performance, her emotional voice and tear-glossy eyes are simply mesmerizing. Doris always has this natural charm that pulls me in and it’s true when she’s being emotional too. For all of the “affectedness” that could be (and has been) wrongly attributed to her sunny, ultra-blonde, girl-next-door routine, for me, I’ve never seen that in her acting. I mean, she always breathes life into her characters just by opening that lovely mouth of hers whether to speak or sing or simply smile, but then she taps into the character’s emotions even deeper and shows off her acting chops and it’s like icing on an already delicious cake (seriously, Doris, you’re giving the rest of us unrealistic expectations!).
Now, obviously, the movie would end there if it were as simple as Ethel Jackson having her hopes and dreams of being spirited to Paris dashed for good. Fate, and popular politics, intervene when “the people” voice their joy at having a common woman represent the U.S. at the art festival and Sam’s boss responds with voter numbers in his eyes instead of pupils. Sam, after trying to fix the problem, has to hurry off to fix the problem again by making sure Ethel comes along, but not without performing a song and dance number with himself dressed as two different presidents, which gives us a little insight into his truer artistic and imaginative personality while also giving us another example of how he’s let Washington go to his head (honestly, he’s not overly likable as a stuffed shirt politician, and less so when I rewatch the film now following this past election cycle). Ethel doesn’t go without throwing a wonderful fit over the incompetency and runaround, but she goes.
What follows is your standard fare: girl and boy fall in love, but it’s complicated. And it’s the madcap complication that makes it delightful. Some of the highlights for me include, aforementioned “I’m Gonna Ring The Bell Tonight” sequence (a song that gets stuck in my head for days at a time), Doris’ song number with Claude: “That’s What Makes Paris Paree” toward the end, and a humorous scene in the middle that is nearly completely impossible outside of its 1952 context – that is, it’s literally all about preserving sexual virtue prior to marriage and is an example of how the production code was literally played with for humor. One thing can be said for the production code, and I may talk about more of my feelings on the subject in another post, and that’s it sometimes gave us unique storytelling, creative jumping through hoops and witty satire we don’t see anymore (for better and worse).
April In Paris certainly isn’t the most nuanced film. It’s not Doris Day at her best (although that’s a false statement because she’s always at her best). It’s probably not even all that memorable unless you’ve managed to form some kind of attachment to it like I did early on. There are some misses, objectively and subjectively (I don’t love the jealous women trope by any means). But, overall, it’s still a cute little movie and a pleasant enough excuse to fawn over Doris Day for an hour and a half. I wish more people could see that and appreciate it for what it is! Cheesy has been thrown at this film as a description, but I say pop open a bottle of wine get a French loaf and enjoy it! And if you don’t want to watch the film, at least do yourself a favor and watch some clips on YouTube!
This post is part of the Doris Day Blogathon hosted by Michaela at Love Letters To Old Hollywood, and just in time for Doris’ birthday! For more entries, click on the banner and if you enjoyed my post, you’re sure to enjoy the others even more!
XOXO Elinor Anne James