By Carter B. Horsley
Sometimes an imperfect film can be a masterpiece.
"An American in Paris," is an infectious
and joyous 1951 movie musical set to the music of George Gershwin
that suffers from some lapses in levity and energy but struts
its "stuff" with undeniable and remarkable genius and
Because they shared the same star and director,
Gene Kelly and Vincent Minnelli, it is always compared with "Singin'
in the Rain," (see The City Review
article) the 1952 film that is considered by many to the finest
American film musical.
"Singin'" got its fabulous title
song dance routine by Kelly and adorable and highly competent
Debbie Reynolds as the female lead while "American" has a
spectacular long dance number celebrating great French painters
with Kelly and the somewhat bland but fine dancer, Leslie Caron.
To confuse the context between the two films further "Singin'"
got the charming Donald O'Conor as Kelly's great dancing sidekick
and "American" has Gershwin's great interpreter and
great oddball comic Oscar Levant as Kelly's sidekick.
The true difference may come down to the fact
that "Singin'" has got Jean Hagen as the hysterically
daffy female on-screen partner of Kelly while "American"
has the charming but sedate Georges Guetary as Kelly's rival in
In his 1992 review of "An American in
Paris," Roger Ebert said it was "a corny story of love
won, lost, and won again," adding that "Compared to
'Singin's' tart staire of Hollywood at the birth of the talkies,
it's pretty tame stuff."
While Singin's fascination with such popular
American myths as Hollywood, the exuberance of love, and the hard
road to success are hard to beat, "An American in Paris"
is not tame at all. It is flat out bravura.
Gene Kelly was very influenced by the inclusion
of a lengthy ballet in The Red Shoes" (see The
City Review article) that opened in 1948 and convinced producer
Arthur Freed to let him try his hand at a similar major dance
piece set to Gershwin's famous "An American in Paris."
That dance sequence starts out slowly with
a large set based on the fountains of the Place de la Concorde
that begins as a typical poor Hollywood rendition but quickly
emerges as a full-blown Raoul Dufy extravaganza of bright, gay
colors. The brilliance of the following dances sequences builds
upon the wonderfully artistic sets encapsulating the genius of
leading French artists. The second scene is a Madeleine flower
market in the style of Renoir and Manet, followed by a Van Gogh
style opera house scene, and then a Montmartre cafe scene a la
Toulouse-Lautrec with Kelly dressed exactly like one of Lautrec's
famous dancers, Chocolat. The last scene reverts to the Place
de la Concorde. Kelly's choreography delightly matches Gershwin's
great music with brightly uniformed soldiers and boulevardiers
chasing women avec insouciance. Toujours l'amour! The highlight,
of course, is Kelly dressed as Chocolat seen squatting, learing,
jumping swiveling, bouncing in perfect sync with the brushstrokes
The Chocolat sequence is the epitome of the
arts of dance and music, a perfect marriage of joy and rhythm,
of pose and attitude, of syncopation and sensation. "Singin'"
is all charm and the boundless enthusiasm of love unsprung. Chocolat
is all mastery of human movement, human emotion, of awe and wonder
and the ideal.
There are many other fine choreographic moments
in the long dance sequence but there are not as transformative.
In "The Red Shoes," Leonid Massine as the Shoemaker
does a rapid beating jump that also is magical but not as striking
and memorbable as Kelly's poses in "America." Nureyev,
Barshnikov, Godunov, Villela, Vladimirov all had the edge in altitude
and graceful flair but for sheer, contagious exuberance and majesty
Kelly as Chocolat showed them.
This number, of course, does not settle the
Kelly-Astaire debate. Astaire's incredible inventiveness and precision
had no peer and he ends up beating up Kelly in this imaginary
gigantic tug de toes by his incredible elegance of line even if
he would have cheered Kelly's Chocolateall night.
If the 13-minute dance segment was all that
"American" had to offer, it would definitedly be "second
fiddle" to "Singin' In the Rain." That, of course,
is not the case.
The first great number is "I've Got Rhythm"
that Kelly performs with a gaggle of cute French kids who shout
"I got!" on his cue as he twirls his imaginary Chaplin
walking stick and twaddles along before ratcheting up his shoe-tapping
and tapping of children's heads in a very lightly choreographed
number that is joyous and not just cute. Another early dance number,
Tra-La-La-La," has his feet accompanying Oscar Levant's facile
fingers on the piano in their very tiny garret room. The highlight
of the routine is when Kelly is "trapped" in a doorway
opening that would seem to contain his wild antics and he out-Astaires
Astaire in his ability to kick the living daylights out of any
Downstairs from their garret studio, is your
typical French bistro cafe where Kelly and Levant greet Levant's
boulevardier friend and famous hoofer, Georges Guetary, who has
recently fallen in love with a young gamin/dancer, Leslie Caron.
The three men swoon at the thought and Levant lights numerous
cigarettes while trying to drink his coffee and they all think
"It's Wonderful" and a dance by Straus. Both the garret
duo and the cafe trio scenes are very, very humorous and well-done
and surprisingly have been slightly pooh-poohed by some critics.
Roger Ebert, for example, of the greatest film critics of all
time, remarked in his review about Levant's smoking antics that
"maybe it seemed funny at the time." Clearly, Roger
has never been so carried away that he has lit more than one cigarette
at a time. It was and is funny!
We next see a classic 1930's theatrical dance
extravaganza a la Busby Berkeley in Guetary's "Stairway to
Paradise" number and it is very stylish and great fun and
proof that Guetary had a much greater voice than most of the black-and-white
Hollywood tenors that popularized such vulgarities in loving excess.
The film brought eight Academy Award nominations
and it won six of them: Best Picture (Arthur Freed, producer):
Best Story and Screenplay (Alan Jay Lerner)" Best Color Cinematography,
Best Color Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Musical Score, and
Best Color Costume Design. Its nominations for director (Vincente
Minnelli) and Film Editing were unrewarded. Gene Kelly received
an Honorary Award from the Academy the same year "in appreciation
of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and
specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography
The film starts with a travelogue of Paris
with a narrative by Kelly who states he is "an American who
lives here. My name is Jerry Mulligan." He is an ex-GI and
stayed on in Europe to paint. We are then introduced to Adam Cook,
a concert pianist who tells us "that's a pretentious way
of saying I'm unemployed at the moment" and the "world's
oldest child prodigy." Jerry tells us that Adam's face is
not pretty," but "underneath its flabby exterior is
an enormous lack of character."
The scene moves to the bistro beneath Mulligan
and Cook's studio where Cook's buddy, music-hall star Henri Baurel
(played by Georges Guetary) shows him a picture of this 19-year-old
finance, Lise Bouvier (played by Leslie Caron in her film debut).
Henri says he had rescued here from the Nazis when her father
was a resistance fight and she was orphanced and she is now a
dancer who works in a perfume store. Henri raised her in his home
prompting Adam to call him an "shocking degenerate."
Adam laughs off the ocmment and proclaims "she's an enchanting
girl, Adam. Not really beautiful. And yet, she has great beauty."
In fact Leslie Caron is not very beautiful at this point in her
career although she is a fine dancer and that presents a problem
with the film when later Kelly falls madly in love with her as
it is not very plausible. Later in her life she would become much
Mulligan goes off to sell his Utrillo-style
paintings in the Montmartre of Utrillo and a very attractive and
sophisticated blond lady, Milo Roberts, played by Nina Foch, buys
two of his paintings and invites him to join her later for a party.
Mulligan returns to Roberts's hotel to discover
he appears to be the only guest at the party and quips about he
gown "What holds it up?" She replices, "Modesty."
"I see it's a formal brawl after all,"
he says," adding that "the more formal the party is,
the less you have to wear."
She tells him he's wrog and that the party
is "most informal."
"What about that extra girl?"
Mulligan gets indignant: "You must be
out of your mink-lined head. I know I need dough but I don't need
it this badly. If you're hard up for companionship, there are
guys in town that do this kind of thing for a living. Call one
Milo protests that he is more interested in
his talent than him romantically," and persuades him not
to leave and they go to the Cafe Flaubert on Montparnasse where
he is enchanted by a young woman at the next table and asks her
to dance and sings "Our Love is Here to Stay" and eventually
gets her phone number, all the while blithely ignoring Milo who
tells him "If you insist on picking up stray women, that's
your own affair but from now on, don't do it when you're with
me. Is that clear?"
It is an awkward scene for Milo is much more
attractive, glamorous and worldly than the young girl and it is
hard to believe she would not tell Mulligan to take a hike after
such rudeness. Perhaps if she were not so attractive and self-assured,
it might have been more believeable.
The next day Mulligan calls the perfume store
but she tells him he is "growing into a large nuisance."
Milo, meanwhile, shows up at the cafe and assures him she is working
hard to get him dealers and galleries. Mulligan, obsessed however
with Lise, goes to the perfume story and get him to agree to meet
him later by the river where he woos her with the song "Our
Love is Here to Stay." It is a fine song but thesinging and
dance number with it are pedestrian even though some critics considered
it, inexplicably, outstanding. It's just schmaltzy.
She runs off to see Henri perform his new musical
number at the theater, "I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise."
The next scene focuses on Adam daydreaming
about performing Gershwin's great piano Concerto in F,
one of the greatest American musical works of all time and a concerto
that ranks with the world's finest. In the dream sequence he plays
the concerto's complete third movement which is very dramatic
and percussive and brilliant. In his dream, he not only plays
the piano, but also the violin, the xylophone, the timpani and
the gong and at the end stands up in one of the boxes to yell
"Bravo." In real life, Levant's recording to the concerto
is the definitive version even decades after the movie was made.
According to Tim Dirks's excellent
review of the movie "the comedy bit was adapted from
Buster Keaton's own short silent film The Playhouse (1921) in
which the comedian played every acting role - and even the audience)."
(As an aside, I should admit that my first
feeble attempts to kiss a young lady where in a Park Avenue apartment
with three Turner paintings as the third movement of the concerto
was played on a record player by Levant. I was virtually overcome
by the fumes of the music's greatness and still am to this day,
which may explain my love for Mr. Levant and Mr. Gershwin's concerto.
Appropriately, the magical young lady's first name was Pixie.
This disclosure, of course, is not offered as a "conflict
of interest" but as an "apex of interest.")
Mulligan and Lise realize they must be truthful
about their relationships and they decide not to see each other
again. At a Beaux Arts Ball, however, Mulligan realizes that he
cannot forget Lise and he tells Milo of his love for Lise.
She is about to leave the ball with Henri who
realizes that she loves Mulligan and she rushes up a very long
flight of stairs to reunite with Mulligan.
Poor Henri and poor Milo are in the end abandoned
and looney Levant is left to his own hypocondriac but genius devices.
Paris remains for lovers, just not all lovers.
It's not a neat ending from the viewpoint of
the storyline, but from the viewpoint of Gershwin's music it is extremely uplighting, challenging, joyful and full of life,
and memorable. What more can you ask, really?