We often think of Paris with an air of wholesomeness. Sure, just the name Paris—or for that matter any European city—brings with it connotations of love affairs, pickpockets, and all the other wild fantasies of city life that are anything but wholesome, but in the end there is a no real presence of danger in our thoughts of these things which instead have an operatic quality of near tongue-in-cheek innocence. We call the pickpocket an artist. We gush over Paris as the city of love.
Of course we’re aware that this idea of Paris is completely romanticised, but I in no way want to break that. Rather, I’d like to continue to breath life into fragile kindling that is the romanticised idea of Paris. There is, after all, a deal of fun in idealising something, in knowing that we’re deluding ourselves. Maybe it’s odd then that the subject for this small post didn’t come from a narrow street lined by ancient lamps and vines of ivy or an organ grinder in the square or a back alley cinema (all of which did exist), but rather from the logo for a popular chain of bagel shops in Paris called Bagelstein, of which there are more locations than I can keep track. I’ll say there are around 30 from a google maps estimate.
The Bagelstein logo immediately caught my attention as I was walking through one of the more crowded, popular parts of Paris called le marais. In the center of the logo is an image of non-other than Ernst Lubitsch, a German-born film director who made some of the greatest American romantic comedies of the 1930s and 40s. That the Bagelstein bagel company, which fetishises mid-century American culture as much as we fetishise French culture from the same era, chose Lubitsch as their mascot seemed rather odd, and as I kept walking, dodging through the crowds of American and Japanese tourists, I began to ponder over this.
Lubitsch, so far as I know, has never before been connected with bagels. There certainly aren’t bagels in his films that take place in an escapist art deco world of old Europe with all its luxury, charm, elegance and wit. Just the image of Melvyn Douglas or Mariam Hopkins or some other star from the Lubitsch canon dressed to the nines going into a bagel shop and ordering an everything with cream cheese made me laugh.
It was also bizarre to see such a rather obscure figure given the dignified honour of having his face plastered onto storefronts in over 30 different locations around Paris. In America Lubitsch has never really received the same attention as most of his contemporaries who already could never aspire to climb their way up the ladder of pop-cultural attention high enough to be put on any logos. And yet contrary to all of this, here he is, palm on cheek, grinning at some unheard joke, surrounded by a combination of French and English: Bagelstein, Depuis 1789, Beaux & Frères, The Old-Fashioned Homemade Bagel. It’s that kind of homespun Americana that the French buy into like we buy all of the romanticised images of Paris we know really can’t exist outside of our dreams, or for that matter outside the movies.
Lubitsch directs Design For Living (1933)
So appropriately enough it was as I was watching a Lubitsch movie, Design For Living (1933), on one of my last days in Paris, that I finally came to understand the Bagelstein company’s philosophy in choosing Ernst Lubitsch for this logo. Lubitsch’s Hollywood ideal of Paris as the picturesque home of left bank bohemian artists and right bank swanky aristocrats, where even the impoverished are dressed like something out of a Charles Dickens novel, and everyone has a sharp one-liner ready at moment’s notice, is the equivalent of the French ideal of America which could be summed up with my host family’s dismay that I’d never taken a road trip down route 66 or all the black and white photos of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe lining the walls of the Bagelstein stores.
France and the US are two countries tied together by these kinds of cross-cultural ideals. I can understand why most mock it, why most say that Americans will never know the real Paris, why there are even cafés and bistros around Paris that advertise in their windows: the real Paris. But as a disciple of the cinema I’ll take Lubitsch’s side here, buy my ticket, and likewise into the fantasy, completely aware of it. Here’s to the Paris of the movies, and here’s to you, Bagelstein.