An American in Paris (1951)

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Writer: Alan Jay Lerner
Cast: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Nina Foch, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary.

It’s important when discussing an older film to try to look at it with eyes of the time and not with a modern perspective, otherwise one runs the risk of not understanding the intent and original reactions and reception. That said, it’s also important to see how a movie fits in to the overall canon and if it still deserves the accolades it received when it came out. All that said, I can’t help myself from wishing that An American in Paris were much better than it is, because I truly believe it could have been a masterpiece. There are moments of such brilliant genius that those that are not stick out and ruin the feeling of the movie as a whole.

An American in Paris unexpectedly won the Oscar for best picture against other films people considered to be sure-fire winners (such as A Streetcar Named Desire, which I reviewed on this blog earlier this year). The film is for three quarters of its runtime a traditional and kinda boring musical. It’s hard to believe this film won the Academy Award and Singin’ in the Rain (one of my favorite movies) wasn’t even nominated when it came out the following year. The perfect human specimen that was Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an American former GI who decided to stay in France and try to make it as a painter in the city of lights. Penniless and living in a very creatively decorated room, he peddles his art on the Parisian streets. His only friend is equally undiscovered talented pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a cantankerous man who seems incapable of cracking a smile. One day Jerry is approached by an American woman (Nina Foch) who decides to purchase a couple of his pieces. His new patron though has ulterior motives (I mean can you blame her? It’s Gene Kelly we’re talking about here!). Meanwhile Jerry falls for a young ingenue named Lise (Leslie Caron). Lise is the main squeeze of Henri (Georges Guétary) who happens to be a friend of Adam’s, although nobody knows of all these different entanglements.

Aside from the magic that Kelly is able to bring to his performance (charm, incredible dancing, and even a few laughs), there are some other notable performances. Especially Guétary, who sings incredibly well, and Fochs. Levant is flat and one dimensional, but nothing is worse than Caron. Making her film debut, apparently she learned all her lines phonetically because she only spoke French, and it shows. Her delivery is awkward and wooden, the only expression she seems capable of is surprise, her smile is nearly grotesque. She sticks out for all the wrong reasons. The less said about her the better.

The set design is also not the greatest. Instead of filming in Paris, the movie was shot on Hollywood studio lots. Nothing looks or feels real as a consequence. You can just feel the plaster and styrofoam that are supposed to be roads and buildings hundreds of years old. It just doesn’t really work. The music is also bizarre. None of the pieces were originally written for this film, nearly all of them in fact were about twenty years old, in fact. All the music was written by George and Ira Gershwin, and while all the songs are good, they don’t feel in any way appropriate for the film. Add the bizarre stylistic choice to have extras watch the performances acting as audience stand-ins and I was confused and a bit underwhelmed throughout.

So what was good about this movie other than some of the actors? Two moments that indicate the movie could have been a masterpiece had the filmmakers and studio been willing to go full throttle into the avant-garde and artsy they so clearly were willing to dip their toes in. The first scene that was actually interesting is actually a dream of Adam’s. The character is a failed composer who has yet to have a single piece of his performed. In the dream a concerto finally finds an audience. In the dream Adam is the opera conductor. He’s also the pianist. Slowly we realize that every member of the orchestra is Adam as well. When the insane and amazing performance is over the audience obviously leaps and hollers, praising and applauding the mesmerizing performance. The audience is entirely made up of Adams as well. Brilliant. The other stand out is the reason I suspect the film won best picture. The last twenty minutes of the film are completely silent. The film gives way to a ballet, each scene inspired by a masterpiece of French painting. My breath was taken away by how incredible this sequence was, and finally I also saw why Caron was cast: while she is a truly awful actress, she is a gorgeous dancer who matches Kelly’s strengths leap by leap.

Unfortunately the movie decides to make the awful decision to end on a cliche and ultra-saccharine romantic note. The film could have been an experimental, avant-garde musical post-war take on Casablanca. It chose to play it somewhat safe (because that ballet was most definitely not safe), I just wonder what could have been had they all had the guts to go all in, instead of just one quarter in.

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