AN AMERICAN IN PARIS
Film review by Ed Nguyen
Technical specs by Michael Jacobson
Stars: Gene Kelly, Leslie
Caron, Georges Guetary, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Audio: English mono, French mono
Video: Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 114 minutes
Release Date: March 31, 2009
“I got my gal; who could ask for anything more?”
One of the very first musicals to win the Best Picture Academy Award was MGM’s The Broadway Melody (1929). This was followed a few years later by the MGM biopic The Great Ziegfeld (1936) about legendary revue showman Florenz Ziegfeld. MGM would continue to dominate the movie musical genre for the next two decades, producing several more musical Best Picture recipients after the mid-century mark, starting with 1951’s An American in Paris.
Little expense was spared in creating this Gene Kelly tour-de-force. MGM’s top musical producer, Arthur Freed, was given control of the film, which was intended to showcase the music of one of America’s finest twentieth-century composers, George Gershwin. Freed had previously produced other musical biopics, such as 1946’s‘Til the Clouds Roll By (about Jerome Kern) and 1948’s Words & Music (about Rodgers & Hart). He had already secured the rights to the title “An American in Paris” from George Gershwin’s lyricist-brother, Ira. However, a musical biopic about George Gershwin had only just recently been produced (1945’s Rhapsody in Blue), so the decision was made to create a new story around the music of George Gershwin.
The actual task of arranging the Gershwin music for the film would be handled by MGM’s Saul Chaplin and Johnny Green, director of the famous MGM studio symphony. For extra prestige, the talents of MGM’s resident pianist-actor, Oscar Levant (a co-star in Rhapsody in Blue) would be called upon again for An American in Paris.
Vincente Minnelli, one of the studio’s top filmmakers, was the natural choice for director. Minnelli had been the genius behind several Judy Garland films such as Meet Me in St. Louis and The Pirate, and the striking visual flair and cinematography associated with his films would fit in well with the image of an impressionistic Paris come to life for An American in Paris.
Originally, on-site photography had been intended for the film, much as with Gene Kelly’s On the Town, but MGM opted instead to recreate Paris on its studio lots. This decision actually worked to the film’s benefit, as Paris could be envisioned as a dreamy, nostalgic version of itself, a picture-perfect, colorful town of glamour, amour, and splendor.
At one point during pre-production, Fred Astaire had been considered for the film’s lead. Eventually that role would go to Gene Kelly, the younger of the two dancers and the one more associated with virile leading roles. Kelly liked to refer to himself as a “blue-collar movie star,” and this self-description was reflected in his muscular, athletic style of dance and his Everyman quality (in contrast to the classy, top hat & tails image projected by Fred Astaire).
Of course, for a strong romantic and dancing lead such as Gene Kelly, an equally skilled female lead was required. Cyd Charisse had been suggested as a possible co-star, but Gene Kelly wanted a fresh unknown instead. According to Kelly, the actor “discovered” his leading lady while scouting in Paris. The girl in question was a young ballerina with the Ballet des Champs-Elysées and had so impressed Kelly with her dancing that she was auditioned on the spot and her tape sent back to Hollywood. That young ballerina, eighteen-year-old Leslie Caron, was soon signed to an MGM contract in preparations for her film debut in An American in Paris.
The film’s premise would revolve around a love triangle, with Kelly and another dashing co-star both wooing the same girl, played by Leslie Caron. Originally, Maurice Chevalier had been considered as Gene Kelly’s potential romantic rival, but the role was eventually offered to French singing star Georges Guetary, several years younger than Gene Kelly but playing older in the film. As with Leslie Caron, Guetary was signed by MGM especially for this film.
An American in Paris opens following the close of the great European war. Veteran Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) has settled in Paris in pursuit of his dreams of becoming a famous painter. If Utrillo, Lautrec, and Rouault could come to Paris to study and paint, then so could a nobody like Jerry Mulligan!
Jerry is not the only struggling American artist in town. His buddy, Adam (Oscar Levant, in a role tailored-made for him) is a talented but thoroughly neurotic pianist who chain-smokes and twitches at the slightest provocation. Adam’s dream is to compose a great work and to become a concert pianist someday, but his lack of success in this endeavor rivals that of Jerry’s in the world of painting.
Jerry’s luck changes one day when his work is noticed by Milo Roberts (Nina Koch), a wealthy widow with too much time and money on her hands. Her interest in Jerry is perhaps not entirely that of a mere patron, but as she puts it, she has drive and he has talent. Together, they can set up a special exhibition to screen Jerry’s paintings, if he is so willing (or if he is able to keep the widow’s hands off him long enough to allow him to paint).
Jerry’s life becomes more complicated when he falls for a lovely young French girl, Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). Jerry, however, is unaware that she is already betrothed to his friend, dance hall star Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary), who is equally in the dark about his fiancée’s new romantic predicament. Ultimately, by the film’s bittersweet and ambiguous ending, Lise must decide between her two suitors - the dashing American with big dreams or the loyal Frenchman to whom she literally owes her life.
Had An American in Paris ended around the 1:30 mark, it would have made for a thoroughly enjoyable musical. However, what propels this film into true moviedom immortality is its stylistic innovations. An American in Paris is a fusion of French impressionism, ballet, vaudeville, jazz, and Tin Pan Alley. The bold 17-minute ballet sequence that closes the film far surpasses any such dance number previously seen in Hollywood musicals (only the brilliant British ballet film The Red Shoes is comparable). This extraordinary ballet is staged to the Gershwin composition of the same name and offers a microcosm of the film’s essential love affair (with visuals strongly influenced by the works of impressionistic or contemporary painters Renoir, Dufy, Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh, and Lautrec).
In this ballet, the Gene Kelly character is introduced as a fish out of water, a foreigner lost in the hustle and bustle of Parisian life. Among the familiar sites, or heavily stylized renditions of them, are the Place de la Concorde, the flower market of the Madeleine, the Place de la Bastille, and the Place de l’Opera. The lonely and depressed Kelly character drifts in and out of these settings until he makes new friends and adapts of his new environs. Bold and invigorated, he glimpses a young beauty in the Leslie Caron character and woos and romances her. But in the end, she departs, leaving him only with his memories and a solitary red rose in blossom (this rose symbol, linked to the Leslie Caron character, is a recurring motif throughout the film).
Aside from the ballet finale, there are several notable musical highlights throughout An American in Paris. Gene Kelly has a thoroughly charming “I Got Rhythm” song-and-dance performed for an chorus of appreciative French children. “Our Love is Here to Stay” is the film’s central love song and offers Kelly and Caron an opportunity to perform a “real” dance duet outside the fantasy ballet. Georges Guetary’s showstopping “Stairway to Paradise” number may be the most memorable version of this Gershwin standard ever put on celluloid. Even lesser-known standards, such as “Tra-La-La” or “By Strauss,” are filled with buoyant exuberance. And even Oscar Levant gets to fantasize (about performing Gershwin’s Concerto in F in a remarkable display of piano virtuosity).
An American in Paris proved to be a great success for MGM and even earned Gene Kelly an honorary Oscar for artistic achievement. Today, the film still remains one of the finest musicals to win the Best Picture Oscar, and while its reputation has since been supplanted by Kelly’s own Singin’ in the Rain, An American in Paris has stood the test of time as a tribute not only to music of George Gershwin but also to the dancing genius of Gene Kelly and the directorial artistry of Vincente Minnelli.
Video *** ½
It's very pleasing to see this classic musical offered in high definition at last. It predates widescreen, but the full frame presentation has been marvelously cleaned up for high definition. The Technicolor images ring out with beauty and crispness, with very little left in to belie the movie's near 60 years of age.
The soundtrack is quite good for mono; dynamic range is fairly strong here and there, and of course, the wonderful catalog of Gershwin songs is an immediate plus in any audio review. Spoken words are clean and clear, and the overall presentation is quite clean, with very little interference or aging artifacts.
Features *** ½
This Blu-ray disc offers plenty for fans of movie musicals. There is a commentary track filled with archival interviews, new comments, and vintage audio clips from most of the film’s cast and crew. Gene Kelly’s widow moderates the commentary. Other bonus features include a trailer (3½ min.), the 1938 FitzPatrick Traveltalks short Paris on Parade (9 min.) offering colorful clips of various international pavilions from the 1937 Paris Expo, and the Tex Avery cartoon Symphony in Slang (7 min.) filled with visual puns regarding the colloquial lingo of the day.
The most prominent feature is Gene Kelly: Anatomy of a Dancer (84 min.), an “American Masters” episode profiling Gene Kelly’s film career and impact on contemporary dance. There are numerous interview clips with former friends and colleagues as well as archival interviews with Gene Kelly himself. Best of all are the many clips of dances from Kelly’s best musicals as well as very rare clips of Kelly performing on-stage before he became an MGM star.
‘S Wonderful: The Making of An American in Paris (42 min.) explores the history behind the production of this landmark film. On hand with multiple recollections about the production are Gene Kelly’s widow and cast & crew members, including Leslie Caron and Nina Foch. Caron in particularly provides amusing anecdotes about her discovery by Gene Kelly and her initial experiences in Hollywood. The latter portion of this documentary focuses on the film’s innovative ballet sequence. There is a brief mention of I've Got a Crush on You, a Gene Kelly number cut from the film (the audio clip for this number is included elsewhere on this disc).
Among these audio-only outtakes (14 min.) are alternate opening titles music, But Not For Me (vocals by Georges Guetary and a piano solo by Levant), the aforementioned I've Got a Crush on You, S'Wonderful (Kelly), Nice Work If You Can Get It (Guetary), and the Gershwin Prelude #3. There is also an intact Love Walked In out-take (2½ min.) featuring vocals by Georges Guetary and a brief appearance by Leslie Caron.
There are three audio-only radio interviews (14 min.). These offer promotional comments from Johnny Green, Gene Kelly, and lastly Kelly with Leslie Caron. Oddly, only the replies are presented in the first two of these interview clips, so one must deduce the questions from the answers themselves!
An American in Paris showcases all the spectacle, music, and wonderful dances we have come to expect and love from the best MGM musicals. I'm glad to see Warner releasing this jewel on Blu-ray, but I'm even more hoping to see what they've done with their high definition release of Gigi...that's got to be good!