AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)

  • Director: Vincente Minnelli
  • Writers: Alan Jay Lerner, Music by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin
  • Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guétary, and Nina Foch
  • Accolades: 1997 AFI Top 100 list (#68), 7 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Score – Musical, Best Cinematography – Color, Best Art Direction – Color, Best Costumes – Color, Honorary Award – Gene Kelly), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Vincente Minnelli, Best Film Editing)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on HBO Max, Buy or Rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I like musicals, I like the music of George Gershwin, so you’d think that a Best Picture-winning Gershwin movie would be right up my alley, right? Yet An American in Paris is pretty emphatically Not My Thing. It is a massive studio musical with plenty of eye candy (supposedly the final ballet sequence alone cost half a million dollars, in 1951 money), but other than that it’s mostly just aggressively cheerful. Those versions of Gershwin songs, which MGM had bought the rights to a few years earlier, are pretty much all forgettable. The weird gender dynamics involve a lot of gratuitous stalking. You would think that this movie would make great use of its Paris location, given the title, but as even some temporary reviews pointed out, it’s a very surface-y, “tourist’s eye-view” of Paris. The dancing, always the best part of a Gene Kelly musical, is mostly confined to that final sequence. Even then, the dancing seems to make everyone forget about every element of the plot that’s been happening for the past hour and a half and the movie just sort of peters out. But… maybe you’ll like it?

An American in Paris was among the biggest contemporary triumphs of the MGM’s big 1950s musical unit, a big financial success that cleaned up at the Oscars. It was directed by Vincente Minnelli, Judy Garland’s husband and Liza Minnelli’s dad, who specialized in these big mid-century musicals (his other classics included Meet Me in St. Louis (starring Garland), The Band Wagon, and Gigi, the last of which also won Best Picture. Here, he is given the great dancing frontman Gene Kelly, along with Leslie Caron, a French ballerina who plays as a sort of proto-Shirley MacLaine with more flexibility, and who this movie made into a big star. Kelly’s character, a painter, likes Caron’s character, who has another guy, and is torn. Also Kelly’s painter has a show coming up and is worried no one will like his paintings. He has a friend (Oscar Levant) who is a struggling concert pianist. Predictably, Kelly and Caron end up together at the end, but less predictably, literally no other plotlines are resolved in any way whatsoever.

What I have a feeling people remember is that big ballet at the end, set to Gershwin’s orchestral piece “An American in Paris” (the source of the basic idea of this movie). It is 17 minutes without dialogue, and contains nearly all of the movie’s top-notch dancing. You’d think, with Kelly and Caron, you’d have dancing all through the movie, but this movie mostly confines it to this bit at the end. And if that ballet sequence was the whole movie, admittedly I would be way more into it than I am. And for the most part, outside of Kelly stalking Caron until she’s suddenly OK with it (she literally calls him and tells him to leave her alone and never talk to her again, but if he did that there wouldn’t be a movie, I guess?), the movie is perfectly fine. It’s just not memorable, and then it tells you none of it mattered because it just abandons all of its subplots before the end of the movie.

I’m not alone in this assessment, as there has been something of a re-evaluation of An American in Paris from modern critics over recent decades. Again, not that it’s bad, but that it’s hard to pick out from a dozen other musicals in the same period, and that it certainly isn’t the movie we’d pick today in a “re-vote” for the Best Picture of 1951. But such is always the way with the Oscars, I suppose. And there is plenty in this movie to love. In particular, Gene Kelly’s dancing in that final sequence is as spectacular as ever, and in Caron he has a rare partner who’s also a professional dancer and doesn’t have to visibly try with all their might to keep up with him. I’d say the obvious comparison for this movie is the next movie the MGM musical unit produced, also starring Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain. But while that movie features great song and dance numbers throughout, the songs in An American in Paris mostly don’t work, and dancing is, for some reason, relatively minimal.

While the movie’s occasionally relentless cheerfulness did start to get on my nerves, it also has a sense of playfulness I sometimes enjoyed. In one early sequence, Caron’s other boyfriend (Georges Guétary) tries to describe her to friends, and we cut from his descriptions to her performing over-the-top versions of those attributes on a stylized set. One bit in this sequence, where she does vaguely sexy dance moves around a chair, drew the attention of censors as being a little too “sexually provocative.” Caron feigned innocence, noting “what can you do with a chair?,” and the scene stayed in. If only most of the rest of the movie had a little of the same pizzazz.

I’m probably being overly negative here, and I have a feeling that if you like this sort of thing in a different way than I do (i.e. if you’re Cecily Strong’s character in Schmigadoon), then you’ll enjoy this movie quite bit. Its influences, especially from that final ballet sequence, do continue to be felt today. La La Land director Damien Chazelle commented that An American in Paris was “a movie that we just pillaged.” With much of Gershwin now in the public domain (MGM bought the rights from his brother shortly after his death, eventually resulting in this movie), there have been a couple of attempts in recent years to make it into a stage musical, but none of them have really caught on. I would say that’s probably because the best thing about the movie is that long ballet, and how do you replicate that on stage without Kelly and Caron?

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