Friday, September 18, 2015

Classic Films in Focus: AN AMERICAN IN PARIS (1951)

Singin' in the Rain (1952) might be the most popular of Gene Kelly's musical films, but An American in Paris (1951) proved his biggest Oscar success. The Best Picture Winner, directed by Vincente Minnelli, took home six Academy Awards in all, including wins for Best Musical Score and Best Color Cinematography. Although it lacks the more robust, developed narratives of Singin' in the Rain and On the Town (1949), An American in Paris offers plenty of Kelly's energetic artistry as a dancer, with a memorable performance from Oscar Levant and a charming debut by Leslie Caron. Songs from George and Ira Gershwin, as well as a screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner, make this picture particularly popular with musical types, while the climactic ballet is a highlight for those devoted to the art of dance.

Kelly plays aspiring American painter Jerry Mulligan, who stays on in Paris after World War II to practice his art. There he catches the attention of the wealthy Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), who offers to sponsor Jerry but also has designs of a more romantic kind. When Jerry falls for a young French girl named Lise (Leslie Caron), Milo becomes jealous, but Jerry doesn't know that Lise is already engaged to Henri (Georges Guetary), a popular singer who took her in during the war.

Kelly's charisma carries the lightweight narrative, although he's in a more sentimental mood here than in his other best known roles. The funniest scenes pair him with Oscar Levant's character, the perpetual scholarship musician Adam Cook, who provides a link between Jerry and his unknown romantic rival, Henri. Jerry and Henri form a lovers' triangle with Lise, while Jerry finds himself in a second triangle with Lise and Milo. The two parallel situations reveal the double standard for men's and women's behavior, since Jerry pursues Lise with relentless attention but balks when Milo treats him the same way. Of course, Jerry will get what he wants eventually, but the story cuts Milo out of its ending, leaving us to wonder how Jerry's influential sponsor reacts to his defection. Leslie Caron is much too young, at nineteen, to be a credible love interest, but she shines in the dances and looks especially lovely at the artists' ball, where she appears like a fairy princess with stars in her hair and a white ballet gown.

Ultimately, it's not the story that really matters in An American in Paris. This is a musical with the emphasis firmly on its song and dance. Jerry's performance of "I Got Rhythm" with a group of French children is an entertaining highlight early in the picture, and the "By Strauss" number features a great combination of the distinct talents of Kelly, Levant, and Georges Guetary. The most important sequence, however, is the American in Paris ballet, which puts Leslie Caron's skill as a ballerina to particularly good use. The long musical piece transports viewers through a romantic fantasy of Paris and its art, including some memorable recreations of paintings by Manet, Utrillo, and Toulouse-Lautrec. Caron even appears in costume as Jane Avril, the can-can dancer who inspired Toulouse-Lautrec's most iconic work. Kelly also adopts a number of striking costumes for this sequence, most notably a very fitted white outfit that highlights his muscular dancer's physique. The ballet dominates the final segment of the film, with no dialogue and only a single concluding scene to bring us back to the narrative frame, but for those who most value Gene Kelly as a dancer it's the quintessential moment of his screen career. 

For more musicals from Vincente Minnelli, try Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), The Band Wagon (1953), and Gigi (1958), for which he won an Oscar for Best Director. Gene Kelly also stars in Cover Girl (1944), Anchors Aweigh (1945), and Brigadoon (1954). Leslie Caron is best remembered for Gigi, but you'll also find her in Lili (1953), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and Father Goose (1964). See Oscar Levant in Romance on the High Seas (1948), The Barkleys of Broadway (1949), and The Band Wagon (1953), and catch Nina Foch in Executive Suite (1954), The Ten Commandments (1956), and Spartacus (1960).