An American in Paris
Director: Vincent Minnelli
Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch, Georges Guetary
Right off the bat, I will say that An American in Paris doesn’t hold a candle to Singin’ in the Rain. Of course it doesn’t. Nothing does. And even I, an avowed fan of movie musicals, admit that An American in Paris is not even close to my favorite movie musical, nor do I think it deserved to win the Best Picture Oscar for 1951 over A Place in the Sun or especially over A Streetcar Named Desire. And, when considering Gene Kelly musicals, it’s an absolute travesty that THIS film was recognized by the Academy when Singin’ in the Rain didn’t even garner a single nomination the following year. Basically, An American in Paris suffers from being a pretty decent musical that, frankly, got more praise than it deserves.
But Gene Kelly. Gene Kelly with rolled up sleeves. Gene Kelly speaking French. Gene Kelly cures a great number of my ills. And it’s an MGM musical, with some pretty darn staggering set pieces. So you know what, I still like An American in Paris.
Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is a struggling street artist living the poor bohemian life in post-WWII Paris with friend and struggling pianist Adam (Levant). Enter rich heiress Milo (Foch) who takes an interest in both Jerry’s art and Jerry himself, and makes an offer to Jerry to be a kept man. Jerry’s hard up for money, and seriously considers it – after all, Milo’s not too bad. Problem is, Jerry also just met Lise (Caron), a young ingénue who completely swept him off his feet. But Lise isn’t exactly unattached; in fact, she’s engaged to one of Jerry’s good friends, Henri (Guetary), Jerry just doesn’t know that yet. How on earth will this complicated entanglement of love and lovers ever possibly resolve itself?
My biggest problem with An American in Paris lies not with the fact that it garnered more awards than it probably should have, or that it indirectly lead to Singin’ in the Rain being shut out come nomination time. No, my big problem with An American in Paris is in its story. It’s a bit sordid, a bit seedy, and it never quite gels. Do I need my musicals to have perfect or completely moral stories? No, I don’t (Cabaret is pretty awesome and certainly not G-rated), but in An American in Paris, it’s as if the film cannot decide which way it wants to swing with regard to its characters. Is Jerry a wholesome do-gooder or is he a desperate playboy? Is Milo a cunning cougar or honestly in love? I wind up feeling sympathy for characters that the film tells me I shouldn’t like, and I dislike the characters who are clearly meant to be the heroes. In other films, I embrace this sort of role reversal because it was obviously intended, but in An American in Paris, this is more down to poor character development than any sort of intended moral ambiguity. I just can’t sympathize as much as the film tells me I’m supposed to with Jerry’s plight – wealth and riches or honest love? – especially when it comes at the expense of peripheral characters who I rather like. Even when I first watched An American in Paris when I was a wee child who absolutely adored MGM musicals, this one never sat well for me and I seldom, if ever, asked my parents to rent it again. I liked the lovely dancing and the gorgeous setpieces, but the plot never worked the way it thinks it does.
Now, having said all of that, I still like An American in Paris, and that’s because 1) Gene Kelly 2) Gene Kelly dancing 3) incredibly colorful dance sequences 4) Gene Kelly 5) an amazing ballet finale and 6) Gene Kelly speaking French.
Yeah, I have a thing for Gene Kelly.
No, not a thing. A full on, hardcore crush that has been raging for years and will continue to burn with the heat of a thousand flames for the rest of my life. We’re talking number one or number two in my all-time crush list. All time. Top Two. The man simply does things to my ovaries. Like exploding them all over the nice wallpaper.
And man, is he on form in An American in Paris.
We first get the lovely little opening scene where he opens and closes trick contraptions in his tiny little Parisian studio apartment, indirectly showing off his keen sense of choreography and physicality. Then we get Gene Kelly being goofy and silly with Oscar Levant. Then we get Gene Kelly singing “I Got Rhythm” with a group of French children, and I honestly don’t think I can handle how utterly adorable he is. Then he pulls out his classic “falling hopelessly in love” bit and I melt. I utterly melt.
|Stop it. Just stop it. You're killing me.|
|Added for obvious reasons.|
When Gene Kelly dances, the world stops spinning to wait until he’s done. I am entranced, utterly fascinated, with the way he can make his body do things with what appears to be little to no effort. He’s so smooth and despite the athleticism that he is rightly remembered for, it’s the grace he has that makes him my favorite performer from the era of movie musicals. Yes, he does all this absolutely staggering choreography, but he makes it seem so easy. One of my favorite parts of any Gene Kelly musical is when he dances with a partner, because it is here that his talent is most evident. A dance partner, any dance partner, really shows me how amazing he is, because despite his best efforts to make the dance a true partnership, Kelly always manages to shine. I can’t take my eyes off him, not for a second, and he just puts everyone he dances with to shame. If it’s a tap dance sequence, Kelly is smoother, less stilted with his movements. If it’s a slow dance, a romance, Kelly is more effortless. If it’s a wild and crazy dance, Kelly commits more. His talent was so immense, there was simply no containing it, even when he tried. I can’t tear my eyes away from him when he dances. This is true star quality.
And then there’s the final ballet sequence.
I will say, right here, right now, that if movie musical ain’t yo thang, that final ballet sequence must be rather interminable to sit through. Sixteen uninterrupted minutes of film that doesn’t speak to you in any way doesn’t sound like fun to me either.
Thing is, though, that ballet sequence IS my thing. To me, it’s the highlight of the entire film. It’s an extraordinary capper to a film whose story fails to completely captivate me; the extended dance sequence ends the experience on an incredible high note.
The film fantasy to end all film fantasies, the sets, costumes, and choreography are all astounding. When it is combined with Leonard Bernstein’s incredible score, you have filmmaking that wins all around for Siobhan. I adore how clever the different styles represent different French painters. It’s art, plain and simple, art put to film. (and there are worse things in life than Gene Kelly in a skin tight dance costume during the Toulouse Lautrec sequence.) And has Technicolor ever gotten a better workout than in this sequence? It’s simply extraordinary. To me, it is easily the highlight of the entire film (and even those who don’t enjoy must admit that it gave Gene Kelly a chance to contemplate how to set up the amazing ballet sequence in next year’s Singin’ in the Rain).
I would never count An American in Paris amongst my favorite film musicals, but it’s not a bad musical either. Gene Kelly is definitely on his game here, in full on ovary-‘sploding mode, and the dance sequences are fantastic. The story is weak, but the production value is strong. Whenever I feel the need for a Gene Kelly fix (which is pretty darn often), there are far worse options I can reach for (Summer Stock, anybody? Which I still rather like) than An American in Paris.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10. Because Gene Kelly reasons.