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Donna Reed served her apprenticeship as a young actress at MGM, cutting her teeth on bits in the Andy Hardy, Thin Man and Dr. Gillespie series before graduating into larger supporting roles and, finally, leads. In 1951, after having enjoyed an archetypal role at RKO as the sympathetic wife and mother of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), she moved on to a contract at Columbia Pictures and an Oscar® as Best Supporting Actress for playing against type as a prostitute in From Here to Eternity (1953). Shortly thereafter, now in her 30s, Reed returned to MGM for two more movies, The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954) and Ransom! (1956).
A leading lady of beauty, charm and warmth, Reed never quite became a full-fledged movie star; she seemed to lack the requisite fire and ambition. But she would find her niche in television, where her sitcom The Donna Reed Show became a long-running hit.
In The Last Time I Saw Paris (1954), inspired by the F. Scott Fitzgerald story Babylon Revisited, Reed plays one of two sisters in post-World War II France who both fall for a visiting writer (Van Johnson).
Unfortunately for Reed, the other sister is played by the 22-year-old Elizabeth Taylor, who was in the full bloom of her youthful beauty and captured most of the audience sympathy as a tempestuous but warm-hearted playgirl who comes to a tragic end. Taylor would say later that this was the role that revitalized her interest in acting after too many roles in which she served a purely decorative purpose. The film marked Taylor's first teaming with director Richard Brooks, who would later guide her through her signature role as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).
It is obvious in The Last Time I Saw Paris that Taylor is the performer who has captured Brooks' imagination. Reed's main function in the film is to watch jealously from the sidelines as Johnson and Taylor enter into a troubled marriage plagued by his thwarted ambitions and drinking problem, and her flightiness and delicate health. As the grim and embittered Marion, who has married someone else on the rebound, Reed even tries to take Johnson's only child away from him.
Still, Reed acquits herself professionally and, at the time, won some positive critical notice, including this comment from Philip T. Hartung in Commonweal: "Donna Reed is excellent as the sister who carries a secret yen for Van through the years and is now intent on making him suffer for his indiscretions. Hers is the most interesting role in the film and I'm sorry it was not developed more fully."
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Richard Brooks
Screenplay: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Richard Brooks, from story "Babylon Revisited" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction: Randall Duell, Cedric Gibbons
Original Music: Conrad Salinger, Charles Trenet
Editing: John Dunning
Costume Design: Helen Rose
Cast: Elizabeth Taylor (Helen Ellswirth/Wills), Van Johnson (Charles Wills), Walter Pidgeon (James Ellswirth), Donna Reed (Marion Ellswirth/Matine), Eva Gabor (Mrs. Lorraine Quarl), Kurt Kasznar (Maurice), George Dolenz (Claude Matine), Roger Moore (Paul Lane).
C-117m. Closed captioning. Letterboxed.
by Roger Fristoe