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Gene Kelly, arguably one of the two greatest dancers to take to the silver screen, would have turned 100 on August 23. That gives me a perfect opportunity to look at one of his crowning achievements, An American In Paris, directed by Vincente Minnelli. After nearly a decade in films, Kelly joined forces with Minnelli and producer Arthur Freed to create one of the best musicals the studio produced. It isn't the best (that would be Singin' In The Rain) and is by no means perfect, but it is “'S Wonderful.” (Sorry, I had to do it.)
An American In Paris finds Kelly playing Jerry Mulligan, an American WWII vet living in Paris and working as a painter. His friends include Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), an American piano player, and Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary), a successful singer who works with Adam. Jerry is a struggling artist with hardly any money to even get lunch and has zero prospects...until Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) buys his work and is ready to bankroll him. He also likes her, but she's more interested in his work.
When he goes out with Milo, he catches a glimpse of the beautiful Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron). Jerry and Lise fall madly in love, but Lise is engaged to Henri! Lise is forced to make a decision between the two, while Jerry decides that he has lost her. They later reunite at a masquerade party the day before she and Henri are set to leave Paris for America. While at the party, Jerry remembers how he fell in love with Lise in a dream, which ends just before Lise makes up her mind.
That dream, of course, is the hallmark of the film – Kelly and Minnelli's 17-minute ballet sequence, set to the tune of George Gershwin's piece of the same name. Gershwin tunes are sprinkled throughout, presenting moviegoers with a “greatest hits” collection of some of the best songs George & Ira Gershwin wrote. Pieces of “An American In Paris” are used in the score, coming together for the ballet. It is a cinematic wonder, taking obvious influence from Powell & Pressburger's The Red Shoes (1948). That British film was a surprising success in the U.S. and Kelly and Minnelli looked for a way to incorporate a ballet into an American musical. So why not use music written by one of the most famous American composers ever?
I think the magic of the ballet is that it doesn't feel tacked on or like a separate entity from the rest of the film. We know Kelly's character is influenced by the great French masters, so every frame of the ballet looks like it could have been painted by one of them. Kelly really knew how to tell a full story in dance, which is what ballet is supposed to do anyway. However, he successfully brought that to the screen, with the help of Minnelli. This really could have become a stagey, uninteresting piece of film, which is probably why the MGM brass was apprehensive about the idea at first. But thanks to Kelly and Caron's unbelievable dancing and Minnelli's direction, the audience never gets bored for a minute.
The first hour and 40 minutes of the film isn't bad, either. Kelly gets his famous scene with children with “I Got Rhythm” and Georges Guétary gets the amazingly staged “I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise” to highlight his vocals. “'S Wonderful” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay” are two other Gershwin standards in the film.
If there is one thing that has always irked me about the film is its ending. For some strange reason, this film can't go beyond 113 minutes, so when the ballet is over, Kelly and Caron hug and that's the end of the film. It has the overwhelming feeling of being a little rushed, as if most of the details from the last part of the film don't mean anything. Oh well, I guess when all is said and done An American In Paris is just about the love affair between the the two. After all, as long as that “love is here to stay,” who cares about being a starving artist?
An American In Paris was one of the most surprising winners of the Best Picture Oscar in history. Although it was critically praised, it had to beat George Stevens' A Place In The Sun and Elia Kazan's A Streetcar Named Desire, two revolutionary films that defined the direction American cinema would go for the next decade. An American In Paris already seemed nostalgic. After all, in just a few years, the musical would be left for dead, so the Academy voters might have felt that this was one last chance to get Freed an Oscar. (Of course, it wasn't, since Minnelli's Gigi pulled off a win seven years later.) Thankfully, An American In Paris remains a great film and a worthy film to hold the Best Picture title.
Kelly was a true genius, blending dance and film in a way that few ever did before or since. He provided movie fans with so many countless classic moments so An American In Paris is just one example of that.
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