An American in Paris (1951)

Directed by Vincente Minnelli

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An American in Paris was constructed around a George Gershwin composition of the same name.  Producer Arthur Freed hired Gene Kelly to star in and choreograph the dance numbers, and he “thought the title alone, and the postwar sentiment it evoked, would strike box office gold. He was right. Audiences flocked to watch the story of an ex-GI named Jerry (Kelly) who’s struggling as a painter in the French capital while falling for a sweet shopgirl ­(19-year-old Leslie Caron, in her film debut).”

The film was a big influence on the 2016 film La La Land, particularly the closing 17 minute wordless finale which embraces the paper machete quality of the sets and portrays Paris as an abstract sensation, rather than attempting to mimic the real city.

The film uses the Parisian backdrop more like an image of heaven, a place where everyone is either looking for love or a career or some kind of life.  It’s a place where characters dream, and the dreamy quality of, in particular, the finale evokes a feeling of what Paris once was and could be again.  That’s because this came only seven years after the end of the Nazi occupation of France.  In An American in Paris, there is no sign of this moment in time, and from what I can tell, the film was an attempt to heal and move forward.  From today’s perspective it might be easy to see this as just another bright, colorful and showy musical, but for the time, “People were still grieving over World War II,” says playwright Craig Lucas, who wrote the book for the 2015 Tony-winning Broadway ­adaptation of the film. ‘So here was a Hollywood version of Paris that gave very little indication that it had just been occupied by Nazis. But it didn’t really matter. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron made people feel transported to someplace lovely and amazing.'”

The film “movie presented a fancified vision of the world that tapped into an audience craving for the illusory. “

So it’s escapism, then.  And we love our escapism, right?  The story follows Gene Kelly as Jerry, a struggling painter who frequently breaks from the narrative and into an elaborate song and dance.  He’s great with kids and people in general.  He’s one of those characters who’s so utterly handsome and charismatic, as many movie stars are onscreen, but he’s playing a character who’s down on his luck.  And because he’s Gene Kelly we know that he won’t be down on his luck for long.  And that’s where a lot of the audience’s comfort comes from.  We know that his life is about to get better, but frankly it’s already pretty good, and even though he’s down on his luck, Jerry doesn’t seem to care.  The whole story could just be the first fifteen minutes of the film, following Jerry’s routine around Paris, and we’d say, ‘that’s a damn good existence.’  It’s dreamy from the start.

One day a wealthy woman named Milo (Nina Foch) takes a liking to Jerry and conceals her romantic affections for him under the guise of acting as a patron of his arts.  She is eager to set him up with some of the Parisian elite, eventually setting up an exhibition of his work.  He makes it clear from the start that he’ll accept such an offer but that he’s not interested in her beyond that.  On their first night out together, Jerry takes his own liking to a younger girl, Lise (Leslie Caron) who continually rebuffs his advances.

Undeterred and slightly psychotic, Jerry continues to pest her until she somewhat inexplicably gives up.  We’re not meant to be put off by Jerry’s behavior or surprised by her giving in, though, because they’re the handsome leading couple in an escapist, sensational Hollywood musical.  We’re all sitting there saying, ‘well damn I’d sure as hell go out with Gene Kelly because by god…

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…who wouldn’t?’

Gene Kelly is suave and smooth-talking.  He’s always performing for the camera, even when he’s not dancing, like every subtle movement, even a blink, is carefully choreographed.  Lise starts to fall for him, and we know that he’s already fallen for her.  The problem is that Lise is engaged to be married to a friend of Jerry’s, Henri Baurel (Georges Guetery).

Henri is a famed French singer, and along with Jerry, they frequently hang out with Adam (Oscar Levant), a struggling pianist.  They’re three hopeful artists with varying degrees of success, and the film spends some time addressing their hopes and dreams alongside the sitcom-y romantic entanglements among Jerry, Lise and Henri.

In terms of plot, the story moves very quickly.  We learn of Lise’s engagement to Henri before Jerry does, but soon he catches up and reluctantly turns his affections towards Milo.  Lise runs off with Henri, and then we get the 17 minute finale in which Jerry re-imagines his time with Lise.  Then she shows up, having decided against running off with Henri, and they embrace.  The end.

An American in Paris glosses over the relationship between Jerry and Milo, and it even breezes through the relationship between Jerry and Lise.  Lise falls for Jerry’s affections very quickly, and because their relationship is hardly grounded in anything resembling reality, it’s meant to be a stand in for all of our romantic affections, right?  I mean, it comes together so quickly, hitting the familiar beats of Guy adorably pursues Girl, Girl adorably dismisses Guy because Girl shouldn’t be so quick to accept Guy she doesn’t know (which says a lot about our culture and the ways we consider women to be the more discerning gender or because we think they should be the more discerning gender, allowing guys to be more reckless and silly even though such recklessness isn’t always silly and such discernment isn’t always necessary; really people are people, let them do what they want), Girl eventually falls for Guy, Girl has a secret engagement preventing her from going any further with Guy, Guy laments this loneliness, sure that it was meant to be if only because it doesn’t seem likely to be, Girl returns to Guy’s loving embrace.

The conflict isn’t anything with the romantic leads.  It’s their circumstances.  This is a story, like many romantic films, that paints a picture of love meant to be and hindered by the external world, a la Romeo & Juliet.  It’s not realistic because it treats these two characters as blank slates.  It doesn’t matter who they are.  The real character… is love.  Or something.

Though I do think ‘love’ is the protagonist, in some ways.  These characters are weirdly drawn together, like Milo is to Jerry.  They base these affections on limited glimpses into the other’s life.  They don’t see the real person, just something to be loved.

So An American in Paris is a love story that’s not meant to challenge you.  It appeals to an audience’s desire to fall in love, to get out from under their own skin, to see someone else’s lives and experience some catharsis in their despair and then their happy ending.

The musical numbers never seem to advance the story much.  Instead they merely reiterate what we’ve already been told.  If the plot glosses over the details of a relationship, that’s because the film is counting on the subsequent musical number to tap into our shared feelings towards romanticism.  The plot, really, is just filler between the musical numbers, some of which exist entirely outside of the story, as in the finale, and others which seem to exist within the story’s reality, as when Jerry leads the children in a rendition of “I Got Rhythm.”

The film blends reality and fantasy, and it won Best Picture at the Academy Awards that year, surprising many, beating out Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire about a Herbie-like public transportation vehicle produced by Henry Ford who learned to love during the advent of the automobile but was quickly replaced by the Model T and sold off for scrap parts.

It seems as though An American in Paris was a surprise Best Picture winner.  Maybe even then people thought of fantastical pictures as not quite high art.  I think with time, though, an escapist picture like this ages better because it can be viewed more as a time capsule, a representation of the culture at the time.  The most interesting detail about this film, for me, is what it seems to be trying to say about Paris and about optimism following World War II.  If I’d seen it at the time of its release, or even now without knowing the context, I don’t think I’d care for it so much.  That being said, some of Gene Kelly’s moves transcend context.

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Because I don’t have a lot more to add about this film, I’ll just leave these quotes here.

“Minnelli’s musicals celebrated the triumph of the imaginary over the real. Any aspect of reality, however trivial, could be transformed, stylized, and incorporated into a ballet.” – Martin Scorsese

“Risqué might have been Kelly’s goal. Like many lovers of great art, he had an eye for the erotic. On the set, censorship officials were present with tape measures to check the length of female dancers’ décolletage and skirts. The movie’s vibrant, Oscar-winning costumes are credited to three designers, but it was Kelly who would step in with a pair of scissors when the censors weren’t looking to cut and cheat.”

“But he was an equal-opportunity objectifier. Originally aspiring to be a shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Kelly possessed the solid build of an athlete more than a dancer. “He was always fudging with his own outfits,” Kelly says, pointing out that he often hemmed his pants so that they were tighter around the thighs and hips.”

“The full finale required four weeks and about a half-million dollars to pull off — plus the belief that people would go along with it. Irving Berlin passed Kelly on the MGM lot during filming and said, “Seventeen minutes? I hope you know what you’re doin’, kid.” Kelly and Minnelli even reconsidered putting it at the end out of fear that confused or frustrated audiences would head for the exits.”

Up Next: Thor: Ragnarok (2017), The Bad and the Beautiful (1953), Dial M for Murder (1954)

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