I first saw Children of Paradise about a year ago with Bob and Lynda at the Coral Gables Art Cinema down here in Miami, I forget why they were playing it, but the three of us went because, even though I was probably still watching movies from the silent era, I’d made something of a fuss among friends, especially when drinking, about how seriously committed I was to the Project, ridiculously huge as it sounded, and so they wanted to be suppportive — as they always are — but also, if I’m remembering correctly, Bob had started mentioning to me at that point how hard it was to make friends when you’re married, to find people with whom schedules and interests can sync up, and so I do think I remember they were itchy to get outta the house, try something new, and so when they saw that this three-hour French comedy from 1945 was playing nearby, they pitched it to me, and we went.
Children of Paradise is outstanding, often hailed as one of France’s greatest films, and what I think warrants mentioning straight off the bat is that it genuinely doesn’t feel like it’s three hours long. The dialogue is quippy, the storylines unfold and intersect at a smart and sustained pace, and even though it’s a period piece — which I’ve kept from uniformly denouncing almost exclusively because of Mutiny on the Bounty — I was hooked and didn’t feel at all displaced.
Given the movie’s grandeur, what looks like the seamlessness of its production, what’s also worth mentioning is that it was made, somehow, under Nazi-occupation in France — which pops up all over the literature about the movie but first occurred to me, and to Bob, when we were in an elevator after the movie, heading up to the bathroom, and a guy in probably his late sixties said it to us, wiping his eyes, moved by the movie in ways it hadn’t occurred to us to be moved. He said something about “spirit” and “bravery” and “devotion” on the part of the cast and crew.
“Yeah,” we agreed. “It’s crazy to think about.”
Ridley Scott’s movie about J. Paul Getty recently came out, called All the Money in the World [Editor’s Note from the Future: as you can see, I wrote this a while ago], and though the consensus seems to be that it’s a good movie (mostly mentioned amid awestruck chin-stroking at the fact of Scott’s age) the conversation is overshadowed by the fact that Scott fired one of his leads, Kevin Spacey, after filming had already wrapped. They’d even released a very compelling trailer featuring Spacey in the role. So, remarkably, Scott hired Christopher Plummer — after tasking him with an overnight decision — to take the role and, in an elleged feat of working nine consecutive eighteen-hour days, Scott filmed all of Spacey’s scenes over again. A month’s work done in about a week.
I find the story of that production invigorating, all such stories seem to be striking a chord with me lately. Feverish, obsessive, skilled work under unforgiving circumstances. We see it here with Children of Paradise too where, according to an essay by Peter Cowie: “somehow the [shoot] survived power failure, a shortage of film stock, storms, curfews, and the audacious spending of its director, Marcel Come.” All this during a fifteen-month shoot and, according to Roger Ebert, shuttling production back and forth between two cities.
The reason I mention the Ridley Scott thing, the feat of replacing Spacey with Plummer and re-shooting a huge bulk of the movie, is because it’s a piece of trivia about the mvie’s production that simultaneously enhances the experience, by drawing our attention to the professionalism behind the scenes, but also distracts us from the movie itself as a work of art. One of the reviews I read mentioned the Spacey/Plummer affair as though with a bored sigh, saying it would be a forgotten aspect of the production in “a couple decades.”
Obviously the “trivial” of Children of Paradise‘s production is more remarkable and historically significant than that of All the Money in the World but the fact of its continued pertinence in discussion about the film is making me wonder if maybe the enormity of a production’s obstacles makes the very feat of its completion a source of note. Like Apocalypse Now. I can’t stand it. But I’d devour a 500-page book about its nightmarish production, in which director Francis Ford Coppola lost 100 pounds and Martin Sheen had a heart attack and Dennis Hopper was fueled by a studio-sanctioned cocain budget. Same goes for a book about Kubrick’s year-long shoot on The Shining.
And of course, predictably, I’m thinking of this in relation to myself and my own trek through the thousand movies on the List. Children of Paradise is about a love triangle, two actors and a brutish tightwad vying for the heart of an actress, Claireuse (played by an actor billed only as Arletty), and the tightwad can be dismissed offhand — the heroes of interest are the svelte and boyish and friendly young mime, Baptiste Jean-Louise Barrault), and his more Cassanova-like friend, Frederick (Pierre Brasseur), who wants to be a star, steal every show, wants to play Julius Caesar and othello. As solitary and qiet and routine as Thousand Movie Project seems from the midst of things, one movie at a time at a cafe with a notebook, when I come across stories about like the fevered production of Children of Paradise, or All the Money in the World or Apocalypse Now, I feel rabid with excitement for the Project’s scale and, like the ambitious Frederick who defies his paltry playwriter by constantly breaking the fourth wall and making the play’s melodrama, I feel like blowing things up, watching eight movies a day with cup after cup of coffee. Ahdunno. It’s inspiring, I guess.
[I know there was a whole fucking thing I wrote about how compelled I was by the build-up to a duel in the third act but I have no idea where it went and now the movie isn’t fresh enough in my head to replace it. If this were another 90-minute movie I’d just watch it again but…I think it’ll be a long time before I return to this one, anjoyable though it was.]