Farce and Fantasy: Paris When It Sizzles (1964)

Turner Classic Movies is airing their Audrey marathon today! 24 hours and 11 films. S’ wonderful! S’ marvelous! The full schedule is below:

Naturally, I had to write something for the occasion, so Paris When It Sizzles is my film of choice. Directed by Richard Quine, the film is distinctly unpopular — but I’m quite fond of it! I first watched it years ago and enjoyed it a ton, so I was really surprised to find out that it’s not universally beloved. Although the production was troubled, with both Audrey and leading man William Holden experiencing personal difficulties, you absolutely would not know it from watching the film. It actually was completed in 1962, but Paramount delayed the release; just no good in the studio’s eyes. 

A 1963 Variety review called it “contrived, utterly preposterous and totally unmotivated,” with the screenplay by George Axelrod described as “marsh mallow-weight hokum.” Another from The New York Times is similarly dismissive. But Saturday Review’s Hollis Alpert was easily the most sour critic when he declared it “a dreadfully expensive display of bad taste.” But enough of all that! 

A breezy romp beautifully shot on location in Paris, it was Audrey’s fourth film in the City of Light. And it was her second with William Holden. The pair’s wonderful chemistry in Sabrina nearly a decade earlier is still as warm and vibrant, even if the proceedings are much more outlandish this time around.

Richard Benson (Holden) is a screenwriter and self-described famous international wit who’s got just 48 hours to write a script, after wasting his allotted 19 weeks. Here’s the quintessential Holden cynic with his usual effortless charm. Rich loves his booze but certainly not his job. He’s somewhat world or rather, Hollywood weary, but his whole attitude is marked by indifference. Gabrielle Simpson (Audrey) is the secretary hired to type up the nonexistent script. In their first exchange after meeting, Rich remarks on the city’s famous landmark in the distance: “That rather grotesque object looming so prominently on the horizon is the Eiffel Tower. I had it moved there to remind me of what town I’m in. if it offends you of course, I’ll have it taken away again.” A truly marvelous script.

Gabby is rightly panicked about the deadline but she gamely gets to work.

Rich’s script is for The Girl Who Stole the Eiffel Tower, quite the promising title. And so he begins to envision the film, complete with Frank Sinatra singing the title song. After one frustrating false start, a story does materialize and it stars Gabby. It’s a movie within a movie, with Gabby and Rich occupying the lead roles in an action suspense-slash romantic melodrama “with lots of comedy of course.” Miraculously, those disparate elements do come together. And it’s hilarious. We get to see Bill Holden as a vampire! 

Tony Curtis has a cameo, as does Marlene Dietrich (only briefly though). Noel Coward was also on hand as producer Alexander Meyerheim.

The movie’s plot is total nonsense, but that’s what makes it so much fun! I don’t go to the movies for realism (usually), I go for magic. Movies sell us a fantasy; Rich knows this. Making his screenplay as absurd as possible lets him have fun even if it’s just in his imagination. Paris When It Sizzles is a send up of the movie business and many of its conventions, but what unfolds onscreen is magic. Gabby acts as the enthusiastic muse and she is fully immersed in the movie they’re writing, even though it’s a farce that Rich eventually tires of. But his cynicism does not win out in the end. 

Paris When It Sizzles is delicious, like a pastry topped with strawberries and cream.
It’s impossible not to be whisked away into its absurd magic. Audrey is just exquisite as Gabrielle. I think her comedic timing isn’t praised enough, especially in this film. I laugh out loud whenever I see her jump into the air as she’s being chased and then cornered by Rich in one of their script scenarios. 

Audrey’s wardrobe was naturally designed by her dear friend Hubert de Givenchy, and the perfume he created for her, L’Interdit, was also mentioned in the credits. She’s dressed in warm fruity colors like orange and green, which only adds to the film’s visual appeal. Her blue dressing gown looks as if it was sewn by fairies. She glides into the room with music playing, Rich is entranced, and so am I. It’s such a lovely scene.

Then there’s her pink dress, which matches a pink room.

Some tidbits:

  • the title comes from a song lyric in Cole Porter’s “I Love Paris”
  • Mel Ferrer, Audrey’s first husband, also has a cameo
  • it contains references to Audrey’s past films, like Funny Face and Roman Holiday, as well as My Fair Lady, which she would later star in
  • when Gabby and Richard first meet, she smiles and says “That’s very funny,” in response to a quip he’s made about her bird’s name, which reminded me of that scene in Sabrina, when she says the same to David about her dog having the same name as him

Maybe more people will start to reappraise Paris When It Sizzles. But even if they don’t, I’ll happily soak up all of its sparkling brilliance.

If you’d like to read more blog posts for Audrey’s Summer Under the Stars day, visit this link. Happy reading and watching!

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