An American in Paris: Audrey Hepburn and the City of Light - A historical analysis of genre cinema & gender roles

Intermediate Diploma Thesis, 2004

26 Pages, Grade: 2.0



1. Introduction
1.1 Historical outline of the Parisian movements before the Second World War
1.2 A brief introduction to Hollywood- and French- film industry in the postwar period

2. Analytical Thesis on the ‘City D’Amour’
2.1 The role of the city in films

3. Analytical Thesis on Stars
3.1 American female typology & European gender roles
3.2 Audrey Hepburn – a representative of European subculture

4. Conclusion

5. Appendix

6. Literature
6.1 Bibliography
6.2 Internet
6.3 Filmography

1. Introduction

Nowadays, it has become quiet around various Hollywood genres of the Classic Period of cinema. In the time between both World Wars, and also soon after WWII, Hollywood filmmaking meant entertainment to a frustrated and humiliated world audience. Especially dance-comedy- and musical-genres became more picturesque, especially because of Technicolor, the plots less melodramatic and the actors followed a progressive and innovative typecast.

Particularly the world of the Hollywood film musical opened up new possibilities when presenting a fictional world in their studios that enchanted an international audience. Hollywood spared no expenses and pains to explore particularly European capitals to promote a dream as well as their understanding of the American way. To which extent Hollywood created an image of Paris that gained acceptance with a global audience? And in how far can be said that American female stars changed their outer and inner appearance, in order not to correspond to obsolete Hollywood typecast.

In my work I would like to give a better impression of what historically happened in American filmmaking, that glorified and idealized the French capital; and in French filmmaking, that searched for new themes, settings and individuals. In the first chapter a historical outline of the time from the 1920s onwards, as well as a brief introduction into the structures of the American- and French-film industry will illustrate to what extent Paris turned out to be an aesthetic and significant feature in motion pictures of that time.

In the following it is of my concern to analyze the City of Light & Love and its international reputation. My analysis leads to one specific aspect of filmmaking – the divergence between the American female (stereo-) typology and European gender roles during the postwar years of the 50s and 60s. Audrey Hepburn serves as a well-known example, which is considered to be a representative for European subculture, French haute couture and American fairy-tale dreams. I try to illustrate in how far Audrey Hepburn changed the female image during a time in which anybody preferred blond femininity instead of brunette individuality. My aim is to find out how much Paris served as the ideological medium – both in French- and in Hollywood-filmmaking.

1.1 Historical outline of Parisian movements before the Second World War

The 1920s in Paris[1]

After the First World War, which means the years from 1920 onwards, living in Paris increasingly meant a new kind of physical experience. The avant-garde (app.1) and art-movements like cubism (app.2) and surrealism (app.3) became the latest intellectual revolutionary movements in Paris, which both turned against the rigid structures of Catholicism. According to Janet Flanner (Drutman 1988: xiii), especially the district of St. Germaine became the literary and artistic quarter of both the supporters of avant-garde and bourgeois American writers as T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce as well as for numerous filmmakers and unconventional thinkers who searched a refuge of artistic integrity and anonymity, and found it in the suburbs of the metropolis. Although those writers or artists of that time “did not originate the idea of ‘moving on’”, they became an essential part “of the general literary atmosphere”. (Cowley 1951: 111-12)

However, “Paris accommodated itself to improvement and to destruction” (Drutman 1988: xxiii) because of its loss through change – the metropolis “seemed immutably French” (Drutman 1988: xxiv) as if it held to a certain kind of nostalgia. But the French/American relationship was already established during the late 19th century, especially because of its bohemian atmosphere – everything seemed to be impoverished but inspiring and creative to American artists, who wanted nothing but to express themselves in order to escape from the enduring puritan restrictions overseas. Even during World War I, Paris remained a peaceful city as well as the capital of world culture, where plays, concerts, and other high-cultural events ensued as if nothing had happened – Paris was considered of facilitating an easy lifestyle.

Janet Flanner mentions that during the 1920s there were “40.000 American residences and approximately over 250.000 tourists, who constituted the new melting pot of avant-garde and modernism”. (Drutman 1988: xxi) Whereas the American culture was influenced by the Victorian era, from which such expatriates felt increasingly isolated, they experienced the possibility to live a new idea of individualism in Paris.

‘The Lost Generation’[2]

You are all a lost generation.

(Gertrude Stein, in: Cowley 1951: 22)

According to Malcolm Cowley the term of the Lost Generation was first used by Gertrude Stein who applied it to young writers born around 1900, to constitute a slogan to separate the bohemian ‘elite’ from former generations:

It was useful to older persons because they had been looking for words to express their uneasy feeling that postwar youth – “flaming youth” – had an outlook on life that was different from their own [...] But the phrase was also useful to the youngsters. They had grown up and gone to college during a period of rapid change when time in itself seemed more important than the influence of class and loyalty. (Cowley 1951: 3-4)

Their manifest included never working for the system, with a claim for a formal simplification – used to living at the Left Bank of the Seine, their conviction strongly determined the Parisian life – having dulls of café au lait, being always in a hurry, having a loss of sleep like being on cocaine, celebrating an unexampled mental activity, the consumption of lots of alcohol – all of that built the very extraordinary flair which attracted thousands to come. Cowley explains that they “at last had a slogan [that] proclaimed their feeling of separation from older writers and of kinship with one another”:

They might not be lost; the future would decide that point; but they had already had the common adventures and formed the common attitude that made it possible to describe them as a generation. (Cowley 1951: 4)

The so-called ‘women of the Left Bank’ came to Paris to be artists, with the anticipation of finding freedom and alternative lifestyles. With them the Left Bank became the third space within the American community. The Left Bank was determined by an absolute privacy, which enabled the women to break away from Victorian family structures with children and their domestic roles.

All of them “had the illusion of belonging to a great classless society” (Cowley 1951: 5), which is the reason why such historical and revolutionary instances are mentioned above. Moreover, it is to illustrate in how far especially subcultural movements and increasing change of female domesticity, shaped various visual and thematic stylistics of both European and American filmmaking. In the following it is of my concern to demonstrate the specific distinction between what is called the French ‘ poetic realism ’ of the imminent cinema of the Nouvelle Vague (app.4) (Engl. New Wave) with its permanent claim for authenticity, in contrast to the classical Hollywood cinema with its studio settings and idealized plots. The decades I chose for my examination are of great importance both for the American and European film-industry because of the economic upswing during the 50s, the 2nd World War traces, and also because of a thematic modification in filmmaking. The principle of the ‘cinematic city’ will help to understand the difference between what is real and what is constructed. But to give a better impression in how far cinema is connected to subculture, revolutionary thinking, gender roles, and most important the city, it will be necessary to outline the origins of cinema.

The cinema in Paris[3]

Paris and the cinema are inseparably connected with each other because of its influence on nearly every era of cinematic productivity – from the Silent Era to Nouvelle Vague, from literary realism to post-modernity, from the Praxinoscope to digital technologies. Paris is therefore considered not only to be a place for making film-history, but also for keeping it.

In 1895 the Lumière Brothers invented the Cinématographe, which presented the world’s first ‘living performances of life’ with short pictures like the well-known

La sortie de l’usine Lumière a Lyon and Arrivée d’un train en gare, that debuted in Paris. (Dirk/Sowa 2003: 11-13)

Only one year would have passed when George Meliès came into action with his first short films called ‘reconstructed topicalities’ – he is the inventor of the fiction film, which became responsible for saving the progressive ‘seventh art’. And it was Charles Pathé who would have shaped the burlesque including slapstick elements from 1897 onwards. (Dirk/Sowa 2003: 15)

But also the action gradually turned away from indoor shootings onto the streets. It is said that the cinema now offered widespread possibilities within the city – the moving downtown with sinful Montmartre and its artcafés in Montparnasse provided a mixture of artificiality and reality, constructed settings and the authentic view onto the city. Particularly the monumental buildings and institutions influenced the early cinema – the completion of the Eiffel Tower as a symbol of love and industrial revolution, the great railway stations and also the opening ceremony of the Metro in 1900. It is mentioned that Paris gradually developed into the central place for the big city movie, a sight of tragedies close to reality, a place of unaffected, but seemingly dreamy ‘snapshots’, which refused the melancholic Belle Époque (app.5). These followers were specifically interested in reissuing former works of literature and mostly worked on the romantic nostalgia of ancient times. (Dirk/Sowa 2003:18-19)

First in the middle of both World Wars also the darker side would have come into on-screen appearance, when the impoverished, the injured, and the veterans dragged along the streets – this was the time when cinema improved from silent to sound pictures. Jean Vigo would have been one of the current filmmakers, who paved the way for the sociocritical suburbia film, including themes of an increasing paranoid perception of reality. But no one understood his contents; the audience wanted to be entertained, thus surrealist possibilities weren’t actually needed or only of significance in the high arts. (Dirk/Sowa 2003: 19-20)

1.2 A brief introduction to Hollywood film industry in the postwar period

During World War II the Paris-film was forced to stop – the German occupations forced French filmmakers to switch over to the countryside or to fictitious worlds of fantasy. Films of that time mainly dealt with the past and alleged harmless biopics of artists. Just Hollywood struggled not to leave Paris to the Germans – they conceptualized approximately a dozen spying-adventures, in which James Cagney (13 Rue Madelaine, 1947) and John Wayne (Reunion in France, 1942) dropped into the Seine to kick the Nazi’s out of town.

Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, USA 1942) became the most successful picture, in which the adornment to the city was of higher relevance than the cynism of such cruel ideologies of the self-entitled Herrenrasse. Perhaps for that reason that it only dealt with the memory of Paris.

Despite all restrictions, many classical movies developed a manner of undisruptive entertainment, which represented the way into a better future and celebrated their debut first in the liberated Paris. Soon after World War II numerous American film-teams conquered the city to realize musical- and dance-pictures, in order to reanimate the myth of the internationally adored city d’amour. With films like An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli, USA 1951) and other high-budget productions, actors like Gene Kelly or Jane Russell danced through picturesque settings of artificial happiness, to stylize the metropolis to one single ball. There was scarcely any international star, who had not taken part in Paris-films during that time. The Americans celebrated their boundless excitement, conjured up the fortune of the poor but happy artists in the alleys of Montmartre. They consciously would have set the lack of anxiety of the ‘old’ Paris, where the famous Moulin Rouge, the Seine-bridges and cafés achieved a new unpredicted popularity. (Dirk/Sowa 2003: 20)

In the time before the Nouvelle Vague established a new, impartial view on the 2000 years old city at the end of the 1950s, nightclub-dramas as well as obscure Montmartre detective-stories remained triumphant box-office successes. (ibid.)


[1] Drutman, Irving (ed.): Janet Flanner: Introduction, pp. vii-xxiv. In: “Paris was yesterday – 1925-1939”, New York: Harvest, 1988.

[2] Cowley, Malcolm: Prologue: The Lost Generation, pp.3-9. In: “Exile’s Return”, New York: Viking, 1951.

[3] Dirk, Rüdiger; Sowa, Claudius: Ville Lumière : Das Kino und die Stadt, pp.11-24. In: „Paris im Film – Filmographie einer Stadt“, München: Belle Ville, Arte Edition, 2003.

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An American in Paris: Audrey Hepburn and the City of Light - A historical analysis of genre cinema & gender roles
Ruhr-University of Bochum  (Philologie)
American Expatriates in Paris
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ISBN (eBook)
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American, Paris, Audrey, Hepburn, City, Light, American, Expatriates, Paris
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Sandy Nirwing (Author), 2004, An American in Paris: Audrey Hepburn and the City of Light - A historical analysis of genre cinema & gender roles, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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