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An American in Paris
Directed by Vincent Minnelli with Gene Kelly, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary, Nina Foch and Leslie Caron, color, 113 minutes, 1951

"I Got!"

DVD cover

Cover of 2-disc DVD

By Carter B. Horsley

Sometimes an imperfect film can be a masterpiece.

"An American in Paris," is an infectious and joyous 1951 movie musical set to the music of George Gershwin that suffers from some lapses in levity and energy but struts its "stuff" with undeniable and remarkable genius and brilliance.

Because they shared the same star and director, Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli, it is always compared with "Singin' in the Rain," (see The City Review article) the 1952 film that is considered by many to the finest American film musical.

"Singin'" got its fabulous title song dance routine by Kelly and adorable and highly competent Debbie Reynolds at the female while "American" has a spectacular long dance number celebrating great French painters with Kelly and the somewhat bland but find dancer, Leslie Caron. To confuse the context between the two films further "Singin'" got the charming Donald O'Conor as Kelly's great dancing sidekick and "American" has Gershwin's great interpreter and great oddball comic Oscar Levant as Kelly's sidekick.

The true difference may come down to the fact that "Singin'" has got Jean Hagen as the hysterically daffy female on-screen partner of Kelly while "American" has the charming but sedate Georges Guetary as Kelly's rival in love.

In his 1992 review of "An American in Paris," Roger Ebert said it was "a corny story of love won, lost, and won again," adding that "Compared to 'Singin's' tart staire of Hollywood at the birth of the talkies, it's pretty tame stuff."

While Singin's fascination with such popular American myths as Hollywood, the exuberance of love, and the hard road to success are hard to beat, "An American in Paris" is not tame at all. It is flat out bravura.

Gene Kelly was very influenced by the inclusion of a lengthy ballet in The Red Shoes" (see The City Review article) that opened in 1948 and convinced producer Arthur Freed to let him try his hand at a similar major dance piece set to Gershwin's famous "An American in Paris."

That dance sequence starts out slowly with a large set based on the fountains of the Place de la Concorde that begins as a typical poor Hollywood rendition but quickly emerges as a full-blown Raoul Dufy extravaganza of bright, gay colors. The brilliance of the following dances sequences builds upon the wonderfully artistic sets encapsulating the genius of leading French artists. The second scene is a Madeleine flower market in the style of Renoir and Manet, followed by a Van Gogh style opera house scene, and then a Montmartre cafe scene a la Toulouse-Lautrec with Kelly dressed exactly like one of Lautrec's famous dancers, Chocolat. The last scene reverts to the Place de la Concorde. Kelly's choreography delightly matches Gershwin's great music with brightly uniformed soldiers and boulevardiers chasing women avec insouciance. Toujours l'amour! The highlight, of course, is Kelly dressed as Chocolat seen squatting, learing, jumping swiveling, bouncing in perfect sync with the brushstrokes of Lautrec.

The Chocolat sequence is the epitome of the arts of dance and music, a perfect marriage of joy and rhythm, of pose and attitude, of syncopation and sensation. "Singin'" is all charm and the boundless enthusiasm of love unsprung. Chocolat is all mastery of human movement, human emotion, of awe and wonder and the ideal.

There are many other fine choreographic moments in the long dance sequence but there are not as transformative. In "The Red Shoes," Leonid Massine as the Shoemaker does a rapid beating jump that also is magical but not as striking and memorbable as Kelly's poses in "America." Nureyev, Barshnikov, Godunov, Villela, Vladimirov all had the edge in altitude and graceful flair but for sheer, contagious exuberance and majesty Kelly as Chocolat showed them.

This number, of course, does not settle the Kelly-Astaire debate. Astaire's incredible inventiveness and precision had no peer and he ends up beating up Kelly in this imaginary gigantic tug de toes by his incredible elegance of line even if he would have cheered Kelly's Chocolateall night.

If the 13-minute dance segment was all that "American" had to offer, it would definitedly be "second fiddle" to "Singin' In the Rain." That, of course, is not the case.

The first great number is "I've Got Rhythm" that Kelly performs with a gaggle of cute French kids who shout "I got!" on his cue as he twirls his imaginary Chaplin walking stick and twaddles along before ratcheting up his shoe-tapping and tapping of children's heads in a very lightly choreographed number that is joyous and not just cute. Another early dance number, Tra-La-La-La," has his feet accompanying Oscar Levant's facile fingers on the piano in their very tiny garret room. The highlight of the routine is when Kelly is "trapped" in a doorway opening that would seem to contain his wild antics and he out-Astaires Astaire in his ability to kick the living daylights out of any confine.

Downstairs from their garret studio, is your typical French bistro cafe where Kelly and Levant greet Levant's boulevardier friend and famous hoofer, Georges Guetary, who has recently fallen in love with a young gamin/dancer, Leslie Caron. The three men swoon at the thought and Levant lights numerous cigarettes while trying to drink his coffee and they all think "It's Wonderful" and a dance by Straus. Both the garret duo and the cafe trio scenes are very, very humorous and well-done and surprisingly have been slightly pooh-poohed by some critics. Roger Ebert, for example, of the greatest film critics of all time, remarked in his review about Levant's smoking antics that "maybe it seemed funny at the time." Clearly, Roger has never been so carried away that he has lit more than one cigarette at a time. It was and is funny!

We next see a classic 1930's theatrical dance extravaganza a la Busby Berkeley in Guetary's "Stairway to Paradise" number and it is very stylish and great fun and proof that Guetary had a much greater voice than most of the black-and-white Hollywood tenors that popularized such vulgarities in loving excess.

The film brought eight Academy Award nominations and it won six of them: Best Picture (Arthur Freed, producer): Best Story and Screenplay (Alan Jay Lerner)" Best Color Cinematography, Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Musical Score, and Best Color Costume Design. Its nominations for director (Vincente Minnelli) and Film Editing were unrewarded. Gene Kelly received an Honorary Award from the Academy the same year "in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film."

The film starts with a travelogue of Paris with a narrative by Kelly who states he is "an American who lives here. My name is Jerry Mulligan." He is an ex-GI and stayed on in Europe to paint. We are then introduced to Adam Cook, a concert pianist who tells us "that's a pretentious way of saying I'm unemployed at the moment" and the "world's oldest child prodigy." Jerry tells us that Adam's face is not pretty," but "underneath its flabby exterior is an enormous lack of character."

The scene moves to the bistro beneath Mulligan and Cook's studio where Cook's buddy, music-hall star Henri Baurel (played by Georges Guetary) shows him a picture of this 19-year-old finance, Lise Bouvier (played by Leslie Caron in her film debut). Henri says he had rescued here from the Nazis when her father was a resistance fight and she was orphanced and she is now a dancer who works in a perfume store. Henri raised her in his home prompting Adam to call him an "shocking degenerate." Adam laughs off the ocmment and proclaims "she's an enchanting girl, Adam. Not really beautiful. And yet, she has great beauty." In fact Leslie Caron is not very beautiful at this point in her career although she is a fine dancer and that presents a problem with the film when later Kelly falls madly in love with her as it is not very plausible. Later in her life she would become much more attractive.

Mulligan goes off to sell his Utrillo-style paintings in the Montmartre of Utrillo and a very attractive and sophisticated blond lady, Milo Roberts, played by Nina Foch, buys two of his paintings and invites him to join her later for a party.

Mulligan returns to Roberts's hotel to discover he appears to be the only guest at the party and quips about he gown "What holds it up?" She replices, "Modesty."

"I see it's a formal brawl after all," he says," adding that "the more formal the party is, the less you have to wear."

She tells him he's wrog and that the party is "most informal."

"Where's everyody?

"Here."

"What about that extra girl?"

"That's me."

Mulligan gets indignant: "You must be out of your mink-lined head. I know I need dough but I don't need it this badly. If you're hard up for companionship, there are guys in town that do this kind of thing for a living. Call one of them."

Milo protests that he is more interested in his talent than him romantically," and persuades him not to leave and they go to the Cafe Flaubert on Montparnasse where he is enchanted by a young woman at the next table and asks her to dance and sings "Our Love is Here to Stay" and eventually gets her phone number, all the while blithely ignoring Milo who tells him "If you insist on picking up stray women, that's your own affair but from now on, don't do it when you're with me. Is that clear?"

It is an awkward scene for Milo is much more attractive, glamorous and worldly than the young girl and it is hard to believe she would not tell Mulligan to take a hike after such rudeness. Perhaps if she were not so attractive and self-assured, it might have been more believeable.

The next day Mulligan calls the perfume store but she tells him he is "growing into a large nuisance." Milo, meanwhile, shows up at the cafe and assures him she is working hard to get him dealers and galleries. Mulligan, obsessed however with Lise, goes to the perfume story and get him to agree to meet him later by the river where he woos her with the song "Our Love is Here to Stay." It is a fine song but thesinging and dance number with it are pedestrian even though some critics considered it, inexplicably, outstanding. It's just schmaltzy.

She runs off to see Henri perform his new musical number at the theater, "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise."

The next scene focuses on Adam daydreaming about performing Gershwin's great piano Concerto in F, one of the greatest American musical works of all time and a concerto that ranks with the world's finest. In the dream sequence he plays the concerto's complete third movement which is very dramatic and percussive and brilliant. In his dream, he not only plays the piano, but also the violin, the xylophone, the timpani and the gong and at the end stands up in one of the boxes to yell "Bravo." In real life, Levant's recording to the concerto is the definitive version even decades after the movie was made. According to Tim Dirks's excellent review of the movie "the comedy bit was adapted from Buster Keaton's own short silent film The Playhouse (1921) in which the comedian played every acting role - and even the audience)."

(As an aside, I should admit that my first feeble attempts to kiss a young lady where in a Park Avenue apartment with three Turner paintings as the third movement of the concerto was played on a record player by Levant. I was virtually overcome by the fumes of the music's greatness and still am to this day, which may explain my love for Mr. Levant and Mr. Gershwin's concerto. Appropriately, the magical young lady's first name was Pixie. This disclosure, of course, is not offered as a "conflict of interest" but as an "apex of interest.")

Mulligan and Lise realize they must be truthful about their relationships and they decide not to see each other again. At a Beaux Arts Ball, however, Mulligan realizes that he cannot forget Lise and he tells Milo of his love for Lise.

She is about to leave the ball with Henri who realizes that she loves Mulligan and she rushes up a very long flight of stairs to reunite with Mulligan.

Poor Henri and poor Milo are in the end abandoned and looney Levant is left to his own hypocondriac but genius devices. Paris remains for lovers, just not all lovers.

It's not a neat ending from the viewpoint of the storyline, but from the viewpoint of Gershwin's music is has been extremely uplighting, challenging, joyful and full of life, and memorable. What more can you ask, really?

 

This film is ranked 52nd in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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