Romance, love and a lot of dancing in this charming Best Picture winning musical
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Cast: Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan), Leslie Caron (Lise Bouvier), Oscar Levant (Adam Cook), Georges Guétary (Henri Baurel), Nina Foch (Milo Roberts), Eugene Borden (Georges Mattieu)
“This is Paris. And I’m an American who lives here!” Those are almost the first words you hear in this charming but light and frothy Best Picture winner. They are pretty much an indicator of the loosely constructed, lightly plotted film that unspools. With the rights to the back catalogue of Gershwin, a story was swiftly thrown together to give us a reason to watch Gene Kelly and friends dance and sing their way through them. Tapping into a post-war romanticism about the delights of Old Europe, An American in Paris is a hugely entertaining technicolour delight that blew audiences away.
That American is Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly), an ex-GI hanging around in Paris to try and make his dreams of being an artist like Renoir and Toulouse-Lautrec come true (one glance at his paintings is enough to know he has no chance). His best friend is fellow ex-pat, ageing ‘child prodigy’ pianist Adam (Oscar Levant). Adam’s friend is Henri (Georges Guétary), a famous French singer (and war hero!). Henri is engaged to Lise (Leslie Caron), who meets Jerry by chance, neither knowing who the other is. Doncha-know-it Jerry and Lise fall in love. All this while Milo (Nina Foch), a wealthy would-be patron, longs to make Jerry her companion. How will these romantic complexities play out?
The story is by Alan Jay Lerner, but it can’t have taken him more than a long afternoon to come up with it: two friends unknowingly love the same woman, which will she choose? There is the odd sparkling piece of dialogue, but really this is a showcase for three things: Gershwin, Kelly’s dancing and Paris. Pretty much in that order, since the film is almost completely shot on a Studio backlot (there are some brief second unit shots of the actual locations). Kelly objected at first to the lack of location shooting (“Ever tried dancing on cobble stones?” a producer pointed out), but actually it works for a film that is basically a fantasia on the city of romance, at points literally taking place in dream-like Parisian streets.
Constructed on a huge set (with some ingenious technical effects to expand the heights of the buildings, like Jerry’s apartment) the film is basically one delightful dance sequence after another, shot with a technicolour richness by Minnelli. We get introduced to our three male leads – Jerry, Adam and Henri – in overlapping voiceover, their faces unseen, as the camera roams over their Parisian locale. (We also get a neat repetition three times of the same joke as a camera settles on someone who nearly fits their description only to be told “no that’s not me”).
From there they meet each other and burst into a richly dynamic all-singing, all-dancing rendition of By Strauss in a classic Parisian café, that uses every prop going. (It later gets mirrored with an equally amusing ‘S Wonderful where, unknowingly, Jerry and Henri sing of their love for the same woman, while a stressed Adam who knows the truth puffs seemingly a whole pack of cigarettes at once). Not to be out down, as Henri describes his fiancée to the boys, we see Caron perform a series of ballet steps each of them styled differently to reflect the different facets of her personality.
Kelly took on much of the choreography work and the film is a tribute to his grace. The man could move like almost no one else. One of the best bits of choreography in the film isn’t even a musical number: after his introduction Jerry gets out of bed in his tiny apartment and, with a stunningly witty musical grace, rearranges all the furniture from ‘night-time’ (bed) to ‘day-time’ (table and chairs). It’s just about a perfect bit of physical choreography, one of my favourite in the movies and at least as beautiful in its way (if not more so than) Jerry and Lise ballet stepping to Love is Here to Stay under a Parisian bridge. Not to complain about this number, which is a hugely influential routine of two dancers moving increasingly in rhythm with each other, shot with a luscious romantic beauty by Minnelli.
The numbers are so good, you give a pass to the fact that Jerry behaves like a bit of shit. His paintings are hilariously – and I believe intentionally – third-rate rubbish (he’d barely manage to land a job as a postcard painter), so its clear his aspirations to art are a fantasy. It’s also clear that Milo can’t seriously be interested him as an artistic prospect, as opposed to a bed one. Jerry of course knows this, but he still blows hard and cold on her with a slightly shabby selfishness. He’ll take her money for an apartment and whisk her away to a masked ball when he’s feeling low. But he’ll also flirt shamelessly with Lise right in front of Milo and her friends, and then act with a churlish “what’s the problem” harshness in the car with a tear-stained Milo on the way home.
I’m not sure how sorry the film wants us to feel for Milo, but one look at Nina Foch’s fragile face and her wobbling voice a few seconds away from tears as she deals with humiliation from her possible-boyfriend, always puts me on her side (at least at that moment). Jerry is borderline stalker in his pursuit of Lise, chasing her down in the café he has been bought to by Milo (after spending large chunks of the evening starring uncomfortably at Lise), dragging her into a dance and then pestering her later at her workplace into a late night meal. Just as well she loves him. Honestly if Kelly wasn’t so charming, you’d give Jerry a slap. Or a restraining order.
An American in Paris saves its final flourish for its last act: a seventeen minute ballet, taking place in a mix Jerry’s memories and wishes after it seems he and Lise will be kept apart for ever. Choreographed by Kelly, there isn’t anything else really like this in the movies (until La La Land stole the idea). Minnelli and Kelly sit in the ballet in a deliberately artificial Paris, essentially Jerry’s paintings bought to life and mixed with those of his artist heroes. This sequence is at times a little indulgent (some reviewers have unkindly compared Kelly’s desire to dance a ballet to a clown gracing us with his Hamlet) but it’s beauty and dynamism means it rewards investing in it.
Because Kelly and Caron (who is admittedly incredibly raw here as an actor) are wonderful dancers and the choreography here showcases them to perfection. Partially retelling the events of the film, partially telling its own romantic fantasia of a couple bought together and pulled apart, it’s a perfect mixture of several dancing styles and emotions and looks stunning, in its hyper-realistic design.
It makes for a unique ending to a classic musical that gets a bit overlooked – possibly because of the brilliance of Singin’ In the Rain that followed a year later, but was a flop compared to this mega-hit – but is an explosion of superb musical entertainment. Sure, the story is slight – only Nina Foch gets anything approach a hard-hitting role – but the joy is grand. Kelly is charm itself, Levant and Guétary very good in roles that riff on their personas and the whole thing will have you tapping toes and clicking fingers.