by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I ran the film Turner Classic Movies had shown just after That Midnight Kiss as part of an entire night of films that dealt with opera to greater or lesser extent: That Girl from Paris, a 1936 RKO vehicle for French soprano Lily Pons (erroneously included on the RCA Victor compilation The American Opera Singer, which theoretically was supposed to showcase U.S.-born performers only but also included Scottish-born Mary Garden and Canadian-born Jon Vickers as “ringers,” along with Italian-born guest artist Enrico Caruso as partner with authentically American Geraldine Farrar in their famous record of the closing section of the love duet from Act I of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly) whose origins were a short story in the March 1928 issue of Brown’s Magazine, “Viennese Charmer” by W. Carey Wonderly.
RKO had first filmed “Viennese Charmer” in 1929 as Street Girl, directed by Wesley Ruggles from a script by Jane Murfin, and seven years later they decided to rework the property as a Pons vehicle. The original Street Girl starred Betty Compson as Frederika Joyzelle from the fictitious European country of “Aregon” (and affecting a horrible accent to sound “Aregonese”), a homeless immigrant running away from a man who accosted her by hiding out in a New York apartment occupied by the four members of a jazz band, whom she builds into a star attraction by singing with them and negotiating a better contract for them with their employer. While Street Girl took place entirely within the U.S., That Girl from Paris starts out in Paris, where Nicole “Nikki” Martin (Lily Pons) is about to marry the impresario Paul Joseph DeVry (Gregory Gaye), who has built her from an unknown to a star and used his clout to get her onto the stage of the Paris Opéra. She’s about to marry the guy when she suddenly has a change of heart and flees the church, demanding that the next time she sings at the Opéra it will be on her own merits and not due to a man’s power, and dashes off to the French countryside.
There she experiences a meet-cute with Windy McLean (Gene Raymond), sax player with an American jazz band called the Wild Cats, when he pulls up his car next to her, thinking she’s hitchhiking, and of course it’s hate at first sight — which only convinces any hardened moviegoer that they’re going to end up in love at the end. When Windy and the rest of his band members — Whammo Lonsdale (Jack Oakie, who was in the original Street Girl as well!), Butch Romanoff (Mischa Auer) and Laughing Boy Frank (Frank Jenks) — sail back to the U.S., Nikki stows away in their cabin (making this film a close relative to the previous year’s Marx Brothers vehicle, A Night at the Opera, though with a great female opera singer as their stowaway instead of a great male one) and manages to sneak into the country by diving through the porthole of the boys’ stateroom.
From then on the film follows the Street Girl template pretty closely, with Nikki getting the boys a better deal from “Hammy” Hammacher (Herman Bing), their boss at a New Jersey roadhouse and also taking over as their star attraction from Windy’s previous girlfriend, dancer Claire Williams (Lucille Ball, moving up from her teeny-tiny bit parts in the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films Roberta, Top Hat and Follow the Fleet to a second lead with at least one great comedy sequence; she’s asked that rosin be put on her dance shoes but Nikki has put soap on them instead, and she slips and falls all over the dance floor and proves how great a slapstick queen she was already, 15 years before I Love Lucy). She’s also beset by two immigration agents determined to deport her (some things never change!) and, in order to keep her in the country, the band members decide that one of them shall marry her and they cut cards to decide which one it will be.
Jack Oakie’s character actually gets the high card, but Gene Raymond’s character has fallen genuinely in love with her and thus he demands to do the honor — but when Nikki hears that the band members cut cards for her hand, she has a hissy-fit and turns herself in to the authorities, reunites with Paul Joseph De Vry, and he pulls strings and gets her a spot at the Met in a production of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, where she sings the aria “Una voce poco fa” under the direction of her husband-to-be, André Kostelanetz. (She insisted that he conduct her aria even though Nathaniel Shilkret, a fine conductor himself, conducted the rest of the music for the film, including Pons’ pop songs.) Once again, this time in the U.S., De Vry is set to marry Nikki — and once again Nikki runs away, this time to the band members, who practically force a reluctant Windy to marry her inside a taxi as the film lurches to an end.
That Girl from Paris is a nice movie that could have been better. The script is by writers who don’t have great reputations but were solid professionals — P. J. Wolfson and Dorothy Yost (with Joseph Fields credited for “adaptation” and Harold Kussell for “contribution to screenplay construction,” whatever that meant — a particularly inappropriate credit since this script seems more glued together from pieces of other movies than actually “constructed”) — and there are a lot of witty lines and good moments. What it needed was a great director, someone like Ernst Lubitsch, to give it the right air of insouciance and also to get a great performance out of Lily Pons, who emerges under the actual director, Leigh Jason, as a pleasant enough screen personality with a charming (real) French accent but not especially well developed acting skills. (She’d come to prominence as a coloratura soprano in a pre-Callas era in which operas like The Barber of Seville weren’t taken seriously and considered only fit for spectacular vocal display.)
It doesn’t help that “Una voce poco fa” (the aria Dorothy Comingore so famously mangled in Citizen Kane five years later it’s weird to hear it actually sung properly in an RKO movie!) is Pons’ only bit of operatic singing in the film; for the most part she’s either doing coloratura vocalizing or singing pop songs, most of them written by Arthur Schwartz with lyrics by Edward Heyman — they both had credits on great songs, but none of their works here qualify; they’re basically stentorian chips off old operetta logs and not really suitable vehicles for Pons’ voice. Indeed, Jack Oakie gets almost as many vocals here as Pons does — and he turns out to be a perfectly acceptable comic singer whose warbling adds to the film’s entertainment value.
Pons made three films at RKO, I Dream Too Much (1935) — also a pretty leaden movie but redeemed by the young Henry Fonda’s performance as the penniless composer Pons reaches out to and tries to help (though Fonda’s quiet sincerity in the role practically defines the term “overqualified”); That Girl from Paris (the only one of the trio that was a box-office hit) and Hitting a New High (1937), a God-awful movie in which in order to score a nightclub job in New York Pons is obliged to pose as “Ooga-Hunga, the Bird Girl,” who supposedly grew up in the African jungle and sings opera perfectly even though she never heard it until white people discovered her there. (In order to pose as the “Bird Girl” Pons sings a largely wordless aria, “Le rossignol et la rose,” from Saint-Saëns’ opera Parysatis, an utterly lovely piece which is the one point of distinction Hitting a New High has to offer.)
The Street Girl/That Girl from Paris plot line was used by RKO a third time in 1942 for the movie Four Jacks and a Jill — and there are some oddly incestuous connections between the three films: not only does Jack Oakie repeat his Street Girl role in That Girl from Paris, but just months after making this Gene Raymond would marry another Hollywood diva, Jeanette MacDonald, for real; and though Ball wasn’t in Four Jacks and a Jill, her husband (by then), Desi Arnaz, was. The fact that Pons never became a movie star on the level of Geraldine Farrar (in the silent era, which indicates what a good actress she was as well as a great singer!), Jeanette MacDonald (who frankly would have played the female lead in That Girl from Paris far better than Pons did — and not just because of her real-life romantic connection with its leading man!) or Grace Moore — after her trio of films for RKO her only other movie appearance was as one of the guest artists in the 1947 film Carnegie Hall (in which she sang the Bell Song from Delibes’ Lakmé — and sang it superbly) is probably due to the fact that, as great a singer as she was for her repertoire and her time, she didn’t really project the kind of extra-musical charisma needed to make it to cinematic diva-dom.