An American in Paris
d. Vincente Minnelli / 1951 / USA / 113 mins
It’s funny how films are remembered over time, An American in Paris won the 1951 Academy Award for best film (amongst others) whilst 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain would receive a great deal less recognition. I’ve read two articles recently that place An American in Paris as one of the most overrated films of all time and listed as one of the least worthy to receive an Oscar, whilst Singin’ in the Rain is now considered by many to be the greatest musical ever produced and the highpoint of MGM’s golden era.
In reality, both are exceptional musicals; but whereas Singin’ is able to boast of a hybridity of comedy, musical and satire, An American in Paris has its attentions focused squarely on that of dance choreography. Further tipping the balance is the comparative weakness in its writing, a criticism supported by the rumour that its script was written in a single day. All in all, the resulting film is one that many modern audiences would find little to endear themselves to.
Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, an ex-GI and struggling artist whose body has decided to stay where his heart has refused to leave, Paris. At first sight, he falls head over heels in love with a young Parisian named Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). As is nearly always the case, complications threaten to separate the two lovers. Lise is engaged to singer Henri (Georges Guetary) and Jerry is pursued by his current financer and fellow American, Milo (Nina Foch). It’s a narrative with slight conflict, and therefore one is left to feel more than a little sympathetic towards Milo and Henri when the requirements of the narrative fulfil themselves and Jerry and Lise are united.
The plot truly is, wafer thin. And even I, who have quite the man-crush on Kelly, feel unease at the sight of Jerry’s unashamed badgering and pursuit of a girl half his age. Kelly’s boyish charm manages to maintain an air of innocence and the audience is asked to forego the simplicities of the plot in favour of basking in Jerry’s desire and romanticism. Although Kelly lacks the strong foil of one such as Donald O’Connor, Oscar Levant provides a much-needed dose of cynicism as Bohemian pianist, Adam Cook. I’ve condemned films before now for a lack of dramatic depth but An American in Paris manages to succeed despite the simplicity of its script due to its ability to convey emotion through its fantastic dance sequences and gorgeous sets that, although lack the realism of Parisian location shooting, suit the heavily constructed, theatrical nature that only a rose-tinted mentality will allow.
All its intentions and no short amount of ambition and bravery coalesce in the film’s final act and a twenty-minute sequence that is completely devoid of dialogue, proof that even if Kelly is not to be remembered as one of the greatest dancers of his era, he was certainly the most capable of engaging a mass audience with his medium. The entire film is littered with the music of George Gershwin but nowhere is it used more effectively than the final, self titled movement. It serves as memorial to the splendour of the studio-era, managing to be one of few cases where extravagance and spectacle is married with a substance that supersedes the dollars it took to produce. Combining the aesthetics of artists such as Dufy, Van Goth, Manet and Rosseau, sets, costumes and performers combine to showcase a romanticism that is anything but as naive as the screenplay implies.
Although An American in Paris is no longer as well-regarded as it once was, even the smallest amount of research shows that it is still widely considered a stunning example of musical cinema. Still, whilst The Artist has managed to prove that the public maintains an interest in silent cinema, (and even though its ending hints that the same may well be true of dance) the concept of twining ballet with a mass audience through mainstream cinema is still a sorely missed relic of film’s past.