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Paris Blues (1961)

Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s music fills the screen in this tribute to Paris, the city of lovers and great jazz. Adding to the picture’s jazz credentials is the presence of Louis Armstrong, in one of the few films to cast him as a character rather than having him play himself. Their music provides the backdrop for two love stories, one of them something of a breakthrough for a screen romance.

Paul Newman and Sidney Poitier star as two American expatriate jazz musicians working in Paris. When they meet vacationing schoolteachers Joanne Woodward and Diahann Carroll, the men suddenly face the possibility of returning to the States. For Newman, that means giving up his musical studies and his dreams of becoming a classical composer. Poitier, who has enjoyed the greater freedom for Blacks in France, hesitates to return to a country still awash in racism.

Paris Blues’s honest depiction of racial issues was unusual for a film at that time, but it could have been much more daring. Harold Flender’s original novel dealt only with the Black couple. United Artists didn’t think two actors of color could carry a romantic drama at the box office, so the screenwriters (including blacklist victim Walter Bernstein), created a pair of interracial romances. That was too much for United Artists, so the interracial element was cut. There’s only a hint of it, with Newman coming on to Carroll initially. Poitier always resented the change to the original novel, but Carroll was impressed with the script’s depiction of their characters in a realistic social context.

d. Martin Ritt, 99 minutes, 35mm

Courtesy of MGM and Park Circus LLC