by Matt Levine
Gene Kelly had been pioneering the use of modern dance on stage and screen since the 1930s, but it was the one-two punch of An American in Paris in 1951 and Singin’ in the Rain in 1952 that solidified him as one of the greatest singer-dancer-choreographers in the history of American movies. The latter film especially has become entrenched as one of Hollywood’s most beloved creations, a burst of wry comedy and graceful human movement and irrepressible joy that marks the zenith of the American musical. Viewing both movies again, though, it’s almost too bad that the brilliance of Singin’ in the Rain has overshadowed the beauty of An American in Paris, which, while adored by musical buffs, is seen more as a warm-up for Singin’ in the Rain rather than a counterpart. In its sublime song-and-dance numbers, heartfelt expressions of loss and joy, and celebration of the creation of art, An American in Paris is one of the few American musicals that deserves to be placed alongside Singin’ in the Rain.
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Producer: Arthur Freed
Writer: Alan Jay Lerner
Cinematographer: Alfred Gilks
Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Music: George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin
Cast: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Georges Guetary, Nina Foch
US Theatrical Release: November 11, 1951
US Distributor: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
Adapted from George Gershwin’s 1928 orchestration of the same name and helmed by the well-established Vincente Minnelli, An American in Paris features a series of tunes (music by George Gershwin, lyrics by brother Ira) loosely connected by an admittedly flimsy plot. Kelly stars as American expat Jerry Mulligan, who had served in Paris during World War II and decided to stay on after the armistice to follow his dream of becoming a painter (Toulouse Lautrec is an idol, he says). His simple, carefree life—complete with a tiny studio apartment and a cobblestone street-corner on which he hawks his canvases—is interrupted by a wealthy socialite named Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who sees promise in his work and vows to connect him with Paris’ most prestigious gallery owners. Foch’s performance is less dynamic than most of the others, but it deserves praise: she exudes a loneliness that’s been buffered by the wealth and confidence enabled by her social standing. She’s clearly infatuated with Mulligan, who somewhat guiltily strings her along in the hopes of becoming a successful artist.
Though Jerry’s sugar-mama arrangement is disdained by his best friend Adam (Oscar Levant), another American transplant who lives in Jerry’s building and aspires to become a concert pianist, things go well enough until Jerry spies the beautiful Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) at a restaurant and falls disastrously in love. At first, he stalks her with somewhat creepy doggedness, roping her into dancing with him, calling her the following day, and finally showing up at her work (a perfume shop) to flirt with her. Lise finally succumbs to his persistence—and, perhaps, to Gene Kelly’s glittering smile and general air of euphoria—and agrees to show him around Grand Paree. Plucked from the Ballet des Champs Elysée by Kelly himself (after Cyd Charisse, who was slated to star, became pregnant), Caron is a joy in her role as Lise, her irrepressible laughter in Jerry’s company manifesting the very sound of happiness. It’s true love, of course, but the only problem is Lise’s fiancé—a revered Paris dance-hall singer named Henri (Georges Guetary), who also happens to be one of Adam’s close friends.
The story is almost willfully simple, but that shouldn’t be construed as a criticism: as with many movie-musicals, it’s not what happens that’s supposed to affect the audience, but how it happens. In the seemingly banal, everyday crises the characters face, relatable feelings of bliss and loneliness take opulent shape, their wildest fantasies and heartaches crystallizing into eye-popping bodily movements and musical expressions. This is the appeal of musicals, after all, which is why viewers who expect realism and cohesion from their movies generally find such fantastic musicals insufferable. In any case, the brilliant cast balances the larger-than-life musical numbers with amiable characterizations, lending surprising poignancy to the characters’ seemingly routine situations.
Admittedly, mid-20th-century showtunes are not my preferred musical genre, but An American in Paris benefits from the toe-tapping melodies of George Gershwin, who bridged the genres of jazz, classical, and Broadway revue in much the same way that Gene Kelly hybridized a variety of dance forms. The music in the film ranges from the passable to the sublime. The first dance number, “Embraceable You,” is performed by Caron in an astoundingly bright variety of costumes, foregrounded against sets which lurch suddenly from sunflower-yellow to deep-sea-blue and seemingly every eye-popping hue in between. A wordless expression of Lise’s dynamic personality, it’s a lovable, gorgeous sequence, as fine a use of Technicolor as in any Powell-Pressburger movie, and like much of the movie it seems to effortlessly exude the joy of true love.
After a few more middling musical numbers, we arrive at what might be the movie’s highlight: Kelly’s performance of “I Got Rhythm,” performed in front of a motley gang of adorable French children, as he tap-dances up a storm to their delight. Kelly was one of the first superstar choreographers to incorporate such “pop-culture” forms as tap and jitterbug into his routines; nowhere is their appeal more pronounced than in this number, which highlights the populist, kinetic appeal of such “lowbrow” forms of dance.
Yet part of Kelly’s brilliance was in his adaptability, and An American in Paris provides plenty of opportunities to demonstrate his voluminous range. The emotionally expressive movements of ballet and modern dance are highlighted in such numbers as “Our Love Is Here to Stay,” in which Jerry and Lise float in each others’ arms next to the banks of the Seine (it might be the most romantic dance sequence in any American musical); and the famous 16-minute climactic ballet, in which a heartbroken Jerry fantasizes about his life in Paris, the city of dreams, with Impressionistic sets seemingly scrawled by Jerry himself backgrounding the action. In much of his film and theatrical work, Kelly viewed dancing from an actor’s or director’s perspective—the movements had to correlate to the characters’ emotions and the mood of the scene. Both An American in Paris and Singin’ in the Rain convey this unforgettably.
The ballet that closes An American in Paris—not to mention a fantastic earlier scene in which Adam fantasizes that he’s every single member of an enormous orchestra performing his newest composition (he even envisions himself as an audience member applauding himself adoringly)—underlines one of the film’s most interesting themes. The love triangle storyline may not be very compelling, but ultimately the film is about the creation of art and the ways in which creativity serves as therapy for the artist. Jerry has his painting, Adam his symphonies, Henri his nightclub singing, and Lise her dance—they all dream of practicing their art in a city that gleams with illusion and aspiration. (The fact that all of their passions are infused in the movie itself conjures early film theories that posited cinema as the only art form to combine all other pre-existing arts.) Even a mundane voiceover narration from Jerry that opens the film becomes fascinating when this voiceover is passed off first to Adam, then to Henri—as though each artist in the film has the agency to override the film’s soundtrack and speak to us directly. There’s no denying An American in Paris is a romance, but the film may be more in love with the creative process than with human attraction per se. This might not be too surprising considering the backgrounds of Gene Kelly, Vincente Minnelli, and Leslie Caron—all of whom were raised in showbiz families that toured frequently and started these artists on their performance careers at a young age.
If Kelly and Caron are the undeniable onscreen stars, director Vincente Minnelli pushes An American in Paris into even more transcendent realms of pleasure. In collaboration with Kelly, Minnelli conceived of split-screen and optical effects, swift tracking shots, and a painterly use of set and costume design to make onscreen dance truly cinematic. The rapid, meticulous tracking shots that suddenly reorient our perspective during the musical numbers perfectly intertwine with the dancers’ movements, turning the camera itself into a seemingly weightless participant. Notice, too, the subtle mise-en-scène that populates every plane of action (foreground, middle-ground, and background) during the musical numbers: as extras move precisely into the frame at the right moment, forming an audience around the featured dancers, Minnelli demonstrates an understanding of deep-focus composition reminiscent of Jacques Tati, as the entire cinematic frame is conceived as a canvas for composition. Minnelli is a somewhat divisive director: Andrew Sarris once said that he “believed more in beauty than in art,” which is one of many asinine assertions that Sarris made as a critic. For Minnelli, the opulent beauty of fantasy and creation is art—it’s a more euphoric thrill than the “respectable,” middlebrow cinematic formulas Sarris may have been expecting. While Minnelli's interest in visual grandiosity backfired in the garish Gigi (1958), for example, it achieves a painterly beauty in An American in Paris, and furthermore stresses the film’s main underlying theme.
It may be tacky to bring up real-world crises in a review for such a blissful movie, but it’s been a bad week for inhabitants of planet Earth, from the murder of an 18-year-old black man by the police in Ferguson, MO to Isis’ attacks on Yazidi Christians on Mount Sinjar, Iraq to the faltering relief efforts that have been dispatched to eastern Ukraine. Then again, maybe this week has been no better or worse than any other. What does this have to do with An American in Paris? Simply that it can be hard to maintain a sense of hope regarding humanity—it can be hard to remember that individuals are capable of great beauty and creation as well as violence and destruction. The word “escapism” sometimes has a negative connotation, but we need escapism—we need to escape into a fantasy-world in which we are reminded of the possibility of love and human harmony. In contrast to the bigotry and zealotry that leads to so much despair in reality, An American in Paris suggests that creativity and intimacy are the highest accomplishments of which humanity is capable—the beauty that it offers is artful in its hope.