Monday, May 16, 2011

AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)


AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (DIR: VINCENT MINNELLI) (SCR: ALAN JAY LERNER)

For the best picture of 1951 the Academy picked director Vincent Minnelli's AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, (the first musical to win since 1944's GOING MY WAY) and it's one of the most lighthearted best picture winners ever; with its lovely Ira Gershwin score, beautiful technicolor photography and talented cast, it was an obvious choice, but the film's flimsy story keeps it, in my opinion, just short of classic status. Unbeknownst to the Academy, Gene Kelly would team up with director Stanley Donen a year later and make SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, a better musical in every way.
While I am certainly a fan of the films of Fred Astaire, I think overall Gene Kelly was the best song and dance movie star ever; I find his more physical and masculine style of dance more engaging than Astaire's somewhat effete nimbleness.  And I think Kelly was a better singer and actor than Astaire, with Astaire's screen presence only really coming alive when he started to dance.   Kelly's career in Hollywood began when he left Broadway in 1942 to make the musical ME AND MY GAL with Judy Garland and decided to stay.  Minnelli's career also began in Broadway, and he moved to Hollywood in 1943 to direct CABIN IN THE SKY.  Before AN AMERICAN IN PARIS the two men had worked together in 1945's ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (in which Minnelli directed Kelly and Astaire dancing together for the first time) and 1948's THE PIRATE.  The idea for AN AMERICAN IN PARIS began when the two of them wanted to do a new kind of dance scene in a movie, a long, big, bold one that would feature ballet style dancing by a large cast, along with huge sets and many costume changes, and absolutely no singing or speaking.  (It's precedent can be seen in a short ballet fantasy scene in 1949's ON THE TOWN, directed by Stanley Donen and starring Kelly).  At first MGM studio executives were dubious on the idea, until Kelly and Minnelli screened 1948's Micheal Powell and Emeric Pressburger film THE RED SHOES for them to give them an idea of what they were looking for.
With the green light given, Alan J Lerner was commissioned to write a script around the star and the director's concept, and the rights to Ira Gershwin's score was bought.  Initially, Kelly hoped to shoot the film on location, but that was considered too complicated by the studio, and the film was shot entirely on MGM sets except for a few travelogue shots at the beginning.  (Personally, I think this detracts from the film quite a bit.)  One thing Kelly did get was his choice of leading lady: 19 year old Leslie Caron, a dancer he had seen while vacationing in Paris; this would be her film debut.

Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly

The film's story deals with Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), a former GI who chose to stay in Paris and paint after World War II.  He eventually meets Milo Roberts(Nina Foch),  a wealthy, attractive American woman  who likes both him and his art.  But instead he falls for pretty Lise Bouvier (Caron), not knowing that she is already involved with cabaret singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary).  This simple story is really just framework to hang the musical scenes on, but that's not entirely a bad thing, given how good those scenes are.  In contrast to the big ballet fantasy at the end, (which is clearly supposed to be inside Jerry's imagination) the other big dance moments in the film have a charmingly offhand manner about them, as if Kelly's dancing springs from an honest spontaneous desire by his character to tap dance in his apartment room or show off different moves to impress a group of children.  And I like the film's romanticized view of Paris, where struggling artists living in charmingly ramshackle apartments, while cafe society is in full swing.  I also enjoy the casting of Oscar Levant as Jerry's American friend Adam; Levant gets a chance to show off his excellent musical skills in a solo piano number, and his hang dog expressions and dour line delivery make him an excellent foil to the sunny, optimistic Kelly.

The pure spectacle of the final dance scene


Finally, there is that final ballet fantasy sequence, the moment that the entire film is building up to; it is indeed, one impressive spectacle, that reportedly took an entire month to film and cost half a million dollars.  In it, Kelly pursues Caron thorough numerous gorgeous sets based on paintings by famous French impressionist painters like Toulouse-Lautrec.  At seventeen minutes, it never seems to lag, with costume and set changes coming quickly as Minnelli's camera swoops around the dancers, as graceful as their movements. Impressively, intimate dance moments between the two leads are often followed by a cast of literally hundreds of dancers moving in unison.  Still, I think that Kelly topped even this excellent scene with the "Broadway Rhythm" sequence from SINGIN' IN THE RAIN a year later.

I mentioned the thinness of the story, and while it doesn't ruin the film, it certainly is noticeable at times, with the romance between Jerry and Lise moving in a predictable way, while poor Nina Foch's Milo, a far more interesting character than Lise,  is barely used.  Even worse is the way that are two lovers meet: Jerry spies Lise in a cafe, is immediately smitten, and pursues even when she shows no interest.  His aggression seems downright rude!  And while Caron is obviously a talented dancer, her acting here is not particularly impressive, and her chemistry with Kelly only really works when she dances.  Still, this film features Kelly in some of his best onscreen dance scenes ever, bursting with energy and grace, and for that alone it is terrific and worth seeing.  I've already compared it to SINGIN' IN THE RAIN more than once, and it's hard not to do since both films star Kelly and were released back to back, so let me compare them one last time:  AN AMERICAN IN PARIS is a very good Hollywood musical, SINGIN' IN THE RAIN is perhaps the best Hollywood musical ever.

SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
It's easy to see while the Academy was impressed with this film, and, given it's classy style (sets inspired by French impressionist painters!) it was a safe choice for best picture.   But there were better films that year, such as Alfred Hitchcock's STRANGERS ON A TRAIN, Elia Kazan's A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE, John Huston's THE AFRICAN QUEEN, and Billy Wilder's THE BIG CARNIVAL.  Still, the Academy could have done much worse than AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, as they would show in their choice for the next best picture award...