American in Paris, An (United States, 1951)

January 24, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
American in Paris, An Poster

The two decade period beginning in the late 1940s and concluding in the late 1960s represented the height in popularity for the Hollywood musical. Not only did nearly every major production prove to be box office gold, but the level of critical approval was high. Between 1952, when An American in Paris won the Oscar, and 1969 (Oliver!), six of 18 Academy Awards Best Picture citations went to musicals. Prior to 1952, only three musicals won the top Oscar prize, and after 1969, only Chicago was similarly recognized. One of the most formidable forces in the surge of the musical's popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s, both on screen and behind the scenes, was Gene Kelly. His two signature pictures, An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain, have, over the years, become emblematic of the Golden Era of MGM musicals.

An American in Paris is a tribute to George Gershwin. Even though the composer died 14 years before the release of the movie, his fingerprints are all over it. Although none of the compositions are original and several are re-interpretations of Gershwin standards ("I Got Rhythm", "Our Love Is Here to Stay", "S Wonderful"), the film cleverly interweaves a variety of Gershwin's early 20th century work. The 17-minute finale, a dance sequence set to an arrangement of the 1927 orchestral "An American in Paris," offers the film's most forceful and lasting impression.

The tone is light and whimsical and the story, reportedly dashed off by screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner in almost no time, is paper-thin. An American in Paris is more about mood, dancing, and singing than it is about plot and character. It falls into the category of a weak Oscar winner. The movie is enjoyable enough to watch, but it represents a poor choice as the standard-bearer of the 1951 roster. In many ways, this is a dress rehearsal for Singin' in the Rain, which came out in 1952. Ironically, although many critics affirm that Singin' in the Rain is among the best (if not the best) Hollywood musicals, it was considered inferior to An American in Paris in the '50s. In fact, Singin' in the Rain was largely ignored at the 1953 Oscar ceremony.

An American in Paris was the second color film to win the Best Picture Oscar (after Gone with the Wind). The 1950s represented a transition period for major Hollywood films, with about half of the Academy Awards victors of the decade being in Technicolor and the other half in black-and-white. By the 1960s, color had triumphed. The last black-and-white Best Picture recipient (not counting the faux b&w Schindler's List) was 1960's The Apartment. Although color had been around for quite some time, the switchover happened as quickly as did the silent-to-talkie conversion, spurred on in part by competition from television. It is worth noting that the '50s also introduced the "widening of the screen." The first Best Picture winner not to use the 4:3 Academy Ratio was 1953's From Here to Eternity. 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai went full widescreen, with a 2.55:1 aspect ratio. Although films of the early 1950s retained the "classic" look of their '30s and '40s forebears, by the end of the 1950s, they appeared much as they do today.

An American in Paris traces the exploits of Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), an American who has come to Paris to paint. He lives in a small room where the bed has to be raised using a pulley system to provide room to set up a small breakfast table, he rarely has enough money to pay for a decent meal, he has never sold a painting, and he hasn't been happier in his life. Love finds Jerry - twice - when he least expects it. His work attracts the attention of a wealthy woman, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who decides to champion the art and, more particularly, the artist. Jerry is grateful to her but not romantically attracted. It's a different story with Lise (Leslie Caron), a girl he meets one night at a club. This is love at first sight, but there's a problem. Lise is engaged to be married to famous singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary), and she's unwilling to end the engagement even if it means she cannot be with the man she truly loves.

As is true of Kelly's popular movies, there's a lot of singing and dancing - all carefully choreographed by the star. And, although the official directorial credit for An American in Paris goes to Vincente Minnelli, those involved in the film freely admitted that Kelly functioned as a co-director. The film's tone is impacted by the decision to film on a Hollywood lot rather than in France (Kelly's stated preference). The use of background paintings lends a storybook quality to the production, which enhances the playful, hyper-romantic atmosphere. Had An American in Paris been filmed on location, it would have been a more grounded motion picture, even set in the post-war City of Lights.

The musical number most often mentioned in association with An American in Paris is the 17-minute ballet that concludes the movie. Expensive and meticulously choreographed, it's a remarkable piece of filmmaking, especially since it is assembled using a series of long takes. The camera follows Kelly as he dances across the fantasy rendition of Paris and edits occur sparingly. During the final 20 minutes, the film features no dialogue - spoken or sung - which is in many ways remarkable.

Other musical sequences are worth mentioning, including the sequence in which Jerry and a group of French children combine on "I've Got Rhythm" and the quiet one in which Jerry and Lise dance alongside the banks of the Seine while singing "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Lise's multifaceted introduction, which allows her more costume changes than Madonna in concert, shows Caron's versatility as a dancer. Perhaps the most underrated example of choreography in An American in Paris happens during a scene that features no music: Jerry's introduction in his bedroom, which flows with a delightful smoothness.

The Academy loved An American in Paris - an overreaction to a popular, frothy motion picture. It's a fine, fun film with a lot of great songs and dancing but there's nothing about this production that causes it to stand out when compared to one of dozens of musicals from the era. Gene Kelly was granted his only Oscar for this film (an honorary one for his contributions to screen choreography). In addition to the Best Picture, it also won in several technical categories and, curiously, Lerner captured the Best Screenplay honor for a script that is, to say the least, sparse. Despite being nominated, Minnelli did not win Best Director, although he would be granted that prize seven years later for Gigi.

Going into An American in Paris, Kelly was a rising star; this movie brought him fully into Hollywood's spotlight - a position he would not relinquish until finishing his on-screen song-and-dance career 30 years later with Xanadu. His leading lady, Leslie Caron, was making her debut after being discovered on stage by Kelly. Her acting deficiencies, obvious at times during the course of An American in Paris (in which her best scenes are those that rely upon her dancing ability), would be corrected in subsequent movies. The supporting cast is eclectic, but contains no major stars, either budding or otherwise. This is Kelly's movie and one of those rare instances in which he is not paired with an equally talented male partner (Frank Sinatra, Donald O'Connor, Fred Astaire).

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about An American in Paris is that it led directly to the production of Singin' in the Rain. Without the former, there might not have been the latter. Gene Kelly remains one of the best and brightest of the Golden Era musical stars and An American in Paris shows him in fine form. The movie should be remembered for that quality rather than for its questionable Oscar triumph.

American in Paris, An (United States, 1951)

Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guetary, Nina Foch
Screenplay: Alan Jay Lerner
Cinematography: Alfred Gilks
Music: George Gershwin
U.S. Distributor: MGM
Run Time: 1:53
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "NR"
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1