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An American In Paris - Elegant Masterpiece

Updated on September 1, 2011
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A Great Work Of Art

 

MGM made 50 musicals in all and none were artistically better than An American in Paris. The film was made in 1951 and featured music from George Gerwshwin including his magnificent orchestral composition of 1926, and lyrics by brother Ira from some of his compositions of the 20's and 30's. That is some musical pedigree! When you add the athletic dancing and choreography of Gene Kelly at his best, lavish sets and costumes, tremendous Technicolor cinematography, a brilliant film debut by the 19 year old Lesley Caron and a happy, old-fashioned love story, it is not surprising that the movie received eight Academy award nominations and 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. It was one of the few musicals ever voted Best Picture in Oscar history, and one of only a few Best Picture winners with no acting nominations. The film was also the first to win a Golden Globe award for Best Motion Picture (comedy or musical) - a newly-created category - in the 1952 awards ceremony.

The Incomparable Gene Kelly

I Got Rhythm

Story Line

 

As in many musicals, the plot of this film is not its most important element. The storyline ia simple one about a young G.I., Jerry Mulligan, at the end of World War II, who instead of returning home, remains in Paris to study art. He has the romantic ideal to live the life of the great painters -- holed up in a Montmartre garret, starving for his art. But the reality of life on the breadline is harsh so that when rich female American gallery owner Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) offers to support him, he agrees,although he refuses to become her lover.

Then he meets Lise, a young French girl, (Lesley Caron) and instantly falls in love. Unfortunately, she's already engaged to an older man, a close friend of his called Henri Bourel, (Georges Guetary) a popular nightclub performer and who had saved her during the war from the Nazis. But when Henri discovers that she has fallen for Gerry, he gracefully and conveniently exits, leaving the young couple to a life together.

This rather thinplot is held together by the superlative production numbers and by the recycling of several vintage George Gershwin tunes, including "I Got Rhythm," "'S Wonderful," and "Our Love Is Here to Stay." Highlights include Guetary's rendition of "Stairway to Paradise"; Oscar Levant's fantasy of conducting and performing Gershwin's "Concerto in F" (Levant also appears as every member of the orchestra); and the stupendous closing 17-minute "American in Paris" ballet, in which Kelly and Caron dance before lavish backgrounds based on the works of famous French artists.

Lovely Lesley Caron Dancing

Main Cast

 

Gene Kelly received an Honorary Award from the Academy the same year, presumably for his contributions to this film - it was presented "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."

While Gene Kelly was an obvious choice for the role of Jerry Mulligan, casting the other roles proved to be a difficult task for director Vincente Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed. Kelly was sent to Paris to test two up-and-coming French dancers: Odile Versois and Leslie Caron. The not-yet eighteen-year-old Caron soon found herself coming to Hollywood to make her screen debut speaking English in the year's most anticipated musical spectacular. While Caron became an overnight sensation upon the film's release, the experience was not an easy one for her. She later complained that Minnelli did little to direct her, urging her, "Just be yourself." As a result, her inexperience and insecurities were reflected on film, lending Lise the degree of youthful confusion that the character required.

The vocal score is a rarity, in that it is all-male. Leslie Caron had a weak voice, and the decision was made for her to remain mute during the musical numbers, rather than be introduced on screen with a dubbed voice.

The role of Henri Baurel had been intended for Maurice Chevalier, but Chevalier would not make his American screen comeback until several years later. One possible reason that has been cited for Chevalier's absence was his rumored collaboration with occupying forces during the war.

Oscar Levant
Oscar Levant
Nina Foch
Nina Foch
Georges Guetary
Georges Guetary
 

Gene Kelly - Jerry Mulligan

Leslie Caron - Lise Bouvier

Oscar Levant - Adam Cook

Georges Guetary - Henri Baurel

Nina Foch - Milo Roberts

Eugene Borden - George Mattieu

Martha Bamattre - Mathilde Mattieu

Mary Young - Old Woman Dancer

Madge Blake - Edna Mae Bestram (customer)

Nan Boardman - Maid

Andre Charisse - Dancing Partner

Ann Codee - Therese

George Davis - Francois

Art Dupuis - Driver

John Eldredge - Jack Jansen

Mary Jones - Old Lady Dancer

Jeanne Lafayette - Nun

Leslie Caron

Gene on roller skates

Summary

 

The music and dancing of 'An American In Paris' are simply breathtaking and they lift the film out of the normal rut of film musicals. They blend and integrate perfectly with the story and illustrate the potential of the genre. As musicals go it is a polished, seamless masterclass. The imaginative, 13 minute avante-garde "dream ballet" which closes the film (and which cost half a million dollars to produce, a colossal sum for the austere post war early Fifties) is the longest uninterrupted dance sequence in any Hollywood film and is a masterwork - jumping and dissolving from space to space, swirling around an area, with dancers entering and leaving the frame in surprising ways. Jerry chases Lise - the French girl of his dreams - through a dream interpretation of Paris as brought to life by his favorite painters: Manet, Renoir, Utrillo, Van Gogh, Rousseau and Dufy. There's modern dance, tap and ballet, Gershwin's music is thunderous and amazing throughout and it's all shot in Technicolor, which brings to mind a painting far more vividly than any color process in the last forty years of movies has been able to.

The marvellous Gershwin tunes, "S'Wonderful", "Stairway to Paradise", and "I've Got Rhythm" have an extra something special and give the listener and viewer a rare 'feel good' feeling.

The film, although set in Paris, is one of the most optimistic American films of the post-war period - with Paris at its center. It's a simple love story, but also a celebration of dance, music and art, of the highest order.

'S Wonderful

Gene and Lesley

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