by Joel Bocko
An American in Paris (1951/United States/directed by Vincente Minnelli & choreographed by Gene Kelly)
stars Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, George Guetary, Nina Foch
written by Alan J. Lerner • photographed by Alfred Gilks (ballet photographed by John Alton) • designed by Preston Ames, Cedric Gibbons • music by George Gershwin, Conrad Salinger • costumes by Orry-Kelly
The Story: Wealthy, debonair Henri (Guetary) loves pretty young Lise (Caron), a girl he cared for during the war. Lonely heiress Milo (Fochs) loves cheerful yet skeptical artist Jerry (Kelly). Unfortunately Lise and Jerry love one another and as they dance their way into each others’ hearts against a romantic Parisian backdrop, they must struggle between the pull of money and loyalty on the one hand, and true love on the other.
First of all, this isn’t just an American in Paris, it’s an American Paris – not a City of Lights that is or ever was, but rather a Paris dreamed of across miles and miles of sea and continent, far away in Hollywood. That’s an important point. This Paris is full of authentic touches (productions of the time attempted to reproduce specific areas on soundstages) and cultural references, but it’s also purposefully artificial. Likewise, Jerry is more an idea of a painter than an actual painter – we only glimpse his canvases, and his patter consists of the cliches of bohemian artist life (though Kelly’s a rather clean-cut bohemian) rather than technical insight or the passion of vision. For those who don’t like musicals because of their gap from reality, this is not the musical to win you over. But for those who love bravura dancing, full of machine-gun-fire taps and the gracefully propulsive gestures and flexes Kelly specialized in, or intensely creative choreography and stage direction, replete with artfully tangling and untangling bodies and sensuous, eye-popping colors, An American in Paris is right up your avenue. And yet it isn’t all make-believe.
There’s an added treat to the musical flourishes, a treat that brings the film down to earth somewhat, even as it tiptoes on the clouds: Leslie Caron. In her film debut she plays a winsome slip of a girl, at times standoffish, at others unguarded, sometimes fickle, at others so committed it hurts, at once innocent and wise, a 19-year-old with life experience on her back yet the the freshness of a youthful perspective in her eyes. It’s a guileless performance, and no wonder: Caron was herself 19, and had survived brutal war experiences (like the character in the film) that left her suffering from malnutrition, and only able to work on the production on alternating days. Her character stands for a whole generation of war kids, still childish in certain ways yet sadly wise beyond their years and it adds an extra poignance to her romantic scenes with Kelly: she’s young enough to gaze at him with starry eyes, smart enough to know she shouldn’t.
Indeed, the war hovers over the film in an interesting way. This a bright, chipper movie, full of fantasy and romance and fun – the heartache and melodrama near the end circulates around personal romance and any notion of world crisis is far off. Yet World War II is namedropped numerous times and plays an important role for the female characters particularly. Milo’s first husband left her for another woman he met while stationed across the country (leaving her nervous, desperate, and overbearing with men, as if she can’t quite trust them to stick around of their own accord). Lise is engaged to the man who protected her during the war, and it is this more than any sense of security or fear that makes her cling to him – he thinks she loves him, but really she’s just thankful. The war brought an element of uncertainty and instability to the lives of these women and it complicates their romantic outlook, and with it, their relationship to the men in the story. And of course Jerry, the American in Paris himself, wouldn’t even be in the city if he weren’t an ex-G.I. All in all, this is very postwar movie.
If An American in Paris reflects a world touched by war, it also looks back nostalgically on the prewar world – its soundtrack is composed by a man who died back in the late thirties (George Gershwin), its characterizations seem drawn more from the Lost Generation layabouts than Fifties busybodies, and its most memorable number, the 20-minute “American in Paris” ballet (controversially altered by uncredited co-composer Salinger, but largely Gershwin’s creation) recreates an entire era of late-19th, early-2oth century Parisian art. Some of the homages are easy to spot (the Rousseau looks playfully Rousseauean even before you see the giveaway lion), others might be more difficult, but ultimately, whichever Impressionist or post-Impressionist canvas is being artfully imitated, it’s the overall spirit that comes through. It’s a spirit of nostalgia, but also a kind of intellectually curious, aesthetically ambitious attitude – a set of cultural aspirations that would have been foreign to most Hollywood musicals 20 years earlier (hence the film earned charges of “pretension” from some quarters – it was seen as highbrow, or middlebrow seeking to be highbrow).
In truth, whatever its potential pretentiousness, the closing sequence, superbly stylized into a state of heightened unreality, is the most powerful and alive in the film. Though Gershwin (with touches from Salinger) was the composer and Kelly the choreographer – and the brilliant art direction and cinematography also deserves credit – one can’t overlook Vincente Minnelli’s contribution. An American in Paris shares with much of his fifties and sixties work a penchant for exploding in unforeseen directions in its final moment, achieving a kind of formal transcendence that the rest of the picture, good as it may be, doesn’t quite prepare us for. Think the propulsive, violent conclusion to Some Came Running (in which a film set in the forties seems to leap past a decade and become a slice of borderline sixties psychedelia). Or those bold sequences in Running (the exposure dimming when Sinatra kisses the schoolteacher), and also The Bad and the Beautiful (Lana Turner driving on a suicide run through backprojected hysteria) or Two Weeks in Another Town (Douglas racing up the winding stairway in a fury) where suddenly the film’s formal elements take over and directly express the characters’ emotional states; temporarily the narrative becomes avant-garde.
There’s a gorgeous, darkly-silhouetted fountain dance (see above) which fits this bill, but much of the ballet also has a lighter touch that would be absent from the moodier later works. The film as a whole contains this balance between frog-in-the-throat atmospheric romance (the legendary dance along the Seine, when Caron’s defenses crumble) and cheery-as-can-be joie-de-vivre in Kelly’s solo numbers (“S’Wonderful,” the delightful “I Got Rhythm”). I call them “solo” even though he’s partnered with others in some of them – his “partners” tend to sing along but limit their footwork to walking, knowing they could never compete with his acrobatic lower body. There’s an exception, though (besides Caron) – two older women (one rather stout) join the young man in an early number, “By Strauss ” – and man, can they move! If I could find a clip, I’d post it; they demonstrate that you don’t have to be built like Kelly to keep up with him.
Ultimately, An American in Paris stands at a kind of crossroads for the American musical; while Kelly’s follow-up Singin’ in the Rain would be his masterpiece and perhaps the greatest musical ever made, it in some ways stands outside from the form as an exception rather than a summit. An American in Paris, on the other hand, draws on traditions of the past – the songwriters of the 20s & 30s, the lighthearted patter and trivial story, the gleeful artificiality of the world onscreen, perhaps most of all the originality of the material (not based on any hit Broadway production) – and fuses them with elements that were newer, and on their way to taking over the genre – a seriousness in artistic ambition, with a desire to seem international and sophisticated (fake as this Paris is, it’s more connected to reality than the Euro-fantasias of the Astaire-Rogers films). It was also the first musical to win Best Picture after six hardbitten postwar works in a row (and against competition like A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire).
An American in Paris was far from the last musical to nab this trophy, but it was significant in one sense – it was the last time an original production, not an adaptation, got the top award. From here on, the industry would look elsewhere for musical inspiration. I tend to think something was lost, but whatever one thinks of the later musical era, it isn’t hard to appreciate the flashes of inspiration in An American in Paris, and to feel the energy of an idea and a feeling being discovered before our eyes. One might almost say it’s s’w… no, I won’t go there.
In closing, a lyric might be appropriate but really it’s not Ira’s words one remembers when recalling An American in Paris, nor truth be told, first and foremost anyway, George’s marvellous music. It’s the staccato sound of Kelly’s taps and the image of his torso hurtling through space, arms spread wide like a propeller, legs kicking with passionate precision. That closing ballet may be the signature moment, but it’s another, simpler, yet completely joyful sequence I want to highlight. Who could ask for anything more?