Sunday, July 6, 2014

An American in Paris (1951) **


Artistically director Vincent Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) is a triumph.  It rightfully earned Oscars for its art direction (Cedric Gibbons, Preston Ames, Edwin B. Willis, and Keogh Gleason) and costume design (Orry-Kelly, Walter Plunkett, and Irene Sharaff), and I suppose one could make the case that its win for Best Music (Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin) wasn’t too far of a stretch—but one could definitely make a valid argument for Adolph Deutsch and Conrad Salinger’s work for Show Boat (1951), too. Howampar9ever, under no circumstance should An American in Paris have won Best Picture over the likes of A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), A Place in the Sun (1951) or even Quo Vadis (1951); and, while the field for Best Screenplay was weak, there is no question that Billy Wilder, Lesser Samuels, and Walter Newman’s script for The Big Carnival (a.k.a. Ace in the Hole, 1951) was far superior to what Alan Jay Lerner produced for An American in Paris. Its win for Best Color Cinematography (Alfred Gilks and John Alton) is a mild irritant since, again, there weren’t any true standouts in the field.  Unlike many of my fellow classic movie fans I don’t like An American in Paris very much.  I hate the story and find the musical numbers less than thrilling.  However, if you are a regular reader of this blog, then you know that my main complaint with An American in Paris is Gene Kelly’s beautifully staged vanity project: a 17-minute ballet performed at the end of the movie. 

Jerry Mulligan (Kelly) is a struggling American painter who lives in the most pristine section of Montmartre ever depicted on film.  Friends with a middle-aged child prodigy (Oscar Levant) and successful cabaret singer, Henri (Georges Guetary), Jerry is also “sponsored” by American heiress, Milo Roberts (Nina Foch). Obviously Nina has the hots for Jerry, but thatan-american-in-paris-1951--470-75 doesn’t stop him from hitting on 19-year-old Lise (Leslie Caron, who was really two years older than her character) at a nightclub right in front of Milo and her friends.  At first, Lise has the good sense to give Jerry the brush off, but eventually she caves into his harassment for a date after he stalks her at her job at a perfumery. But don’t feel bad for Lise, because she’s a two-timer, too. Unbeknownst to Jerry, Lise is engaged to Henri, the man who protected her during the Nazi occupation.  And, that’s the story.  There is absolutely nothing whatsoever that is compelling or engaging about it.  It also doesn’t help that Kelly was twice Caron’s age or that Minnelli and the screenwriters attempted to portray Foch’s Milo as what is now known as a “cougar” when she was twelve years younger than Kelly—this is way more than a mild irritant.

An American in Paris was inspired by George Gershwin’s music, most notably his 1928 orchestral composition of the same name. Several of Gershwin’s notable standards are performed: “Embraceable You “(from Girl Crazy, 1930); “Nice Work If You Can Get It” (from A Damsel in Distress, 1937); “Our Love Ihqdefaults Here to Stay” (which was a slightly altered version of his “Love Is Here to Stay” from The Goldwyn Follies, 1938); and, “’S Wonderful” (from Funny Face, 1927).  However, the only Gershwin musical number in the entire film that I like is “I Got Rhythm”, and even it pails in comparison to Judy Garland’s performance of it in the lackluster Girl Crazy (1943).  Additionally, right smack in the middle of the movie there is what amounts to an unnecessary intermission when Oscar Levant’s character dreams that he plays every instrument in “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra”. His character, Adam, is completely useless to the plot—why must we watch him in an extended 4+ minute sequence?

Gene Kelly could dance, there’s no doubt about it, but how many of the same tap routines must one watch in the same movie?  And, then there are the ballet sequences. I can get over that Kelly and Minnelli chose to introduce their big discovery, Caron, in a hodgepodge ballet number—at this time, she was a ballerina and not an actress.  Moreover, I can somewhat stomach their interpretive dance along the Seine for “Our Love Is Here to Stay”.  An-American-in-Paris-2But, that’s where my patience ends.  When Minnelli chooses to do a close-up of Kelly’s Jerry and the film morphs into la-la land (what I assume is Jerry’s subconscious) and for 17 minutes I have to watch a ballet tribute to French art, most notable Toulouse-Lautrec, but the works of Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Henri Rousseau are also paid homage.  Should the art direction,  costumes, and choreography be commended?  Sure, those things make the film palatable.  Yet, they don’t negate the fact that having a 17-minute ballet as the conclusion of your film is ridiculous. Is it pretty to look at? Yes. Does it drag on for what seems like forever? Yes.  Does it make any difference in the overall plot narrative of the film? No.  And, when your story is already suspect and not the least engaging, why would you choose to end it with a ballet sequence that people can’t wait to be over?  Vanity—particularly, Gene Kelly’s. 

So, I know I’m probably in the minority regarding my distaste for An American in Paris.  Frankly, I don’t care.  The story is lackluster. The acting is passable but by no means stellar.  The most memorable musical number is a ballet sequence that has no connection to the plot narrative. Seventeen minutes of spectacular art direction and costume design, and beautiful choreography does not make a film great—especially when the other 96 minutes are only mildly entertaining. 


  1. You're not really alone. The greatest tragedy of this winning a Best Picture Oscar is that it kind of prevented the nomination of the vastly superior Singin' in the Rain from even being nominated the following year. An American in Paris is fluff. The story is fluff, the romance is fluff.

    I mean, I like Gene Kelly and I'm happy to watch the man on the dance floor, but I like a little meat with my movies and this one simply doesn't deliver.

    1. Such a good point, Steve! Singin' in the Rain is so much better and it got snubbed!

      Of course, I know that aren't a big fan of musicals, but I'm glad to know that we can agree on not liking this one very much.

  2. I'm REALLY not a fan of musicals - for instance I watched "West Side Story" (another Best Picture winner) last week for the first time and it really didn't move me at all aside from a few parts and definitely not from the "musical" perspective (gangs + singing/dancing? uhhh NO lol). However i loved "An American in Paris". i thought the musical parts by and large weren't FORCED, like they flowed from the story (it helped too that the main CHARACTERS by and large were in musical/artistic occupations so it was almost plausible that they'd be singing/dancing at various points of the movie)

    I think you and others i've read on IMDb fall into the "it beat a superior movie" camp (i personally disliked Vivien Leigh's performance and character in "Streetcar" and since she was the main character that killed my enjoyment of that movie so i don't agree with that sentiment).

    As for the ages, Gene Kelly may have been pushing 40 but he certainly didn't look it to me, and while i was surprised to find out how much younger Nina Foch was to Kelly in this movie even though she was playing a cougar type, bear in mind that another notable role she had was as Moses' adopted mother in "The Ten Commandments " (it was racking my brain as to WHERE it'd seen her face before, and even though i'd only seen her in that movie, it's a movie i've seen a kajillion times so her face was etched in my memory) She is beautiful, but her face has a distinguished quality to it that lends itself to playing older women - i was actually rather hoping she'd end up with Kelly in the end.

    My main gripes with AAiP was the long dance sequence at the end, and i think they probably didn't wrap up the fates of some of the auxiliary characters. But nevertheless, for someone with a general animus of the genre, i was largely entertained.

    1. I'm not a fan of West Side Story, either. Good point about some of the musical numbers not seeming forced, as some of the characters were actually musicians.

      We'll have to disagree about Streetcar, though.

      I expect there are two camps to the Gene Kelly age debate. Hollywood has a bad history (and present) of pairing older men with young ingenues that just rubs some people the wrong way. Women like Nina Foch always seem to get "artistically" aged while men like Kelly, Cooper, and Bogart (and Clooney and Cruise in present day) find their ages minimized.

      Like you, my biggest problem with this film is the long dance sequence at the end. It grates on my nerves to no end and comes off as a vanity piece for Kelly.

  3. I totally agree with you on this one. Here I was going crazy over this movie and it turns out I am not alone. It is pretty, yes, but something (or a few things) are definitely missing. Compared to the earlier Gene Kelly musicals I miss Frank Sinatra and his voice, but more than anything I miss something too offset this vanity project, as you put it, of Gene Kelly. At the end of the movie you have seen Gene Kelly dancing and yeah, he dances well, gee, but that is all.

    1. I think you and are in the minority in not adoring this. For me it is a vanity project.