WHAT A JOY! IT’S M–G–M‘S TECHNICOLOR MUSICAL!
”An American in Paris” first saw the light of day in 1928. A jazzy orchestral piece, it was written by George Gershwin and inspired by his years in Paris, an attempt to capture the city’s sights and sounds. In later interviews, he called it a ”rhapsodic ballet” that had been created in a much looser form than his earlier works. When film producer Arthur Freed saw a performance of the piece, he knew that it could be turned into a movie and acquired the rights. He also knew that he wanted Vincente Minnelli for the job. The director had experience from earlier musicals, but hesitated initially. However, this film became his musical masterpiece. It couldn’t have been done without Gene Kelly, though.
Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is an American artist living in Paris. A World War II veteran, he’s now trying to make a living through his painting. One day, an American woman approaches him in Montmartre where he’s put his works on display. Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) is a wealthy heiress who shows an interest in his paintings and invites him to a dinner party that night. That’s where Jerry sets his sights on Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), a pretty French girl who doesn’t seem very interested in him. The evening ends with Jerry being ignored by Lise and reproached by Milo for chasing other women instead of her.
The following day is more successful. Milo has forgiven Jerry and tells him that a collector is interested in his art. And Jerry goes to see Lise at her job in a parfumerie where she finally agrees to have dinner with him…
Playful and eye-catching
Several songs by George and Ira Gershwin from the 1930s are put to great use here, including ”I Got Rhythm” (performed by Kelly and a bunch of kids), ”Embraceable You” (sung by Caron) and the energetic ”By Strauss”, a homage to father and son Strauss (performed by Kelly, Oscar Levant and Georges Guetary). Playful and eye-catching.
Kelly, who had co-directed the excellent On the Town (1949), must have been a very influential force and he was also recognized at the Academy Awards the following year, where he received an Honorary Oscar for his versatility ”as an actor, singer, director and dancer”. He’s credited here as choreographer and the film’s most breathtaking sequence is the ballet that ends it, a 17-minute long masterpiece where Jerry has been abandoned by Lise and enters a highly stylized dream world, accompanied musically by Gershwin, and based visually on art by French masters like Renoir, Rousseau and Toulouse-Lautrec. The sequence cost a fortune to produce and took such a long time to prepare that Minnelli found time to direct another movie, Father’s Little Dividend, before returning to this set; here’s where it’s particularly easy to see Kelly take charge behind the scenes. There are challenging moments. The ballet sequence has a dark streak and the music veers between different styles throughout the film, featuring Gershwin’s jazz, Guetary’s operetta voice and Levant’s piano pieces. Not all of this may appeal to audiences, especially almost 70 years later, but I love the ambition on display.
The story may not be Alan Jay Lerner’s most intriguing work, but everything about this movie signals a desire to take the musical genre to a new, more mature level, one that asks of its audience to take art and its emotional power seriously.
The film wasn’t made in Paris (save for a few exterior shots), but its ability to convey the artistic idea of Paris as a city of dance, music and romance is simply irresistible. That’s Hollywood at its best.
An American in Paris 1951-U.S. 115 min. Color. Produced by Arthur Freed. Directed by Vincente Minnelli. Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner. Cinematography: Alfred Gilks, John Alton. Music: Johnny Green, Saul Chaplin. Art Direction: Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons. Costume Design: Orry-Kelly. Cast: Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Oscar Levant (Adam Cook), Georges Guetary, Nina Foch. Cameo: Anna Q. Nilsson.
Trivia: Later a stage musical.
Quote: “That’s… quite a dress you almost have on.” (Kelly to Foch)
Oscars: Best Picture, Story and Screenplay, Cinematography, Scoring, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical).
Last word: “Gene Kelly saw me on the opening night of a ballet where I was playing the Sphinx. I was 17, and I didn’t know about this tradition of staying backstage for visits at the end of the show, so I just took off my makeup and went home. He came backstage to congratulate or meet me, but I was gone. So that was that, but about a year later, he was looking for a partner to do ‘An American in Paris’ with him, because Cyd Charisse, who was supposed to be his partner, was pregnant. So he remembered me and came to Paris to do a test with me, and another actress. And my test was chosen!” (Caron, The Daily Beast)