Monday, July 16, 2012

An American in Paris

"I'm a concert pianist. That's a pretentious way of saying I'm...unemployed at the moment."--Adam Cook (An American in Paris, 1951)
Well I remember seeing this movie long ago, when my grandmother gave it to me.  She knew I liked old movies, and she gave me a few for Christmas or my birthday or something.  Anyway I loved the others, but this one I absolutely hated.  My idea of a musical was West Side Story or Sound of Music!  This movie was long, didn't have a plot, and riddled with incomprehensible 20 minute ballet sequences.  What?  No Jets or Sharks?  I hated it and never watched it again.  Many years later I got a chance to watch Singing in the Rain, then Brigadoon, and On the Town.  And I gradually began to realize what a Gene Kelley musical meant and what he was trying to do with this film.  Even so I was resistant, and I warned my boyfriend (Yes, he watched it.  No teasing!) what he was in for.  And then I watched it as an adult, as a film connoisseur, and a secret Gene Kelley fan.  It's terrific--still not my favorite, but surprisingly--my boyfriend actually liked it?

The Plot
Gene Kelly is Jerry Mulligan, an American and former G.I. who stayed in Paris after World War II to become a painter.  He is a struggling artist who lives on the Left Bank, but he is content with his bohemian lifestyle.  He is friends with many of his neighbors, including the local children (to whom he gives American bubblegum) and the cynical and misanthropic American concert pianist Adam Cook (played by Oscar Levant), who lives off a series of fellowships.  Adam's old friend, Henri Baurel, played by Georges Guétary, is a rich and famous French singer who used to live on the Left Bank, and who is as happy as Adam is pessimistic.  

Jerry Mulligan in his apartment.
Henri comes back to visit, singing "Nice Work If You Can Get It." Henri explains he is so happy because he is dating a young and beautiful girl.  Her parents, friends of Henri's, were in the resistance, and Henri let her stay with him when they got into trouble.  They met again many years later, and he fell in love with the woman she became.  When he tries to describe her to Adam, however, he gives many conflicting views of her character, which leads into a brief ballet dream sequence to the song "Embraceable You."  Afterwards, Adam introduces Jerry to Henri, who then promptly lends the starving artist some money.  After Henri mentions he prefers the waltz to jazz, the three then goof around, singing "By Strauss."

Leslie Caron's Montage
One day when Jerry is particular poor, he goes to Montmarte and sets up some of his work on the side of the street, hoping to sell something to a tourist.  Milo Roberts (played by Nina Foch), an American heiress living in Paris, admires Jerry's paintings and buys two of them.  Because she doesn't have the cash with her, Milo invites Jerry to ride back with her to her hotel.  Jerry isn't impressed by her expensive hotel room or chauffer, but he agrees to come back to a party she's throwing that night.  He goes home, and entertains the children of the Left Bank with a new song, "I've Got Rhythm."  When he returns that evening, Milo is provocatively dressed and he realizes the party is just for the two of them.

Gene Kelley in "I've Got Rhythm"
Jerry is insulted, and tries to return the money for his paintings.  Milo, however, convinces him that she really wants to help him and his work, and asks if they can discuss it over dinner.  Jerry agrees, but only at a place he can afford.  They go to a jazz club in Montmarte, and everything is fine until Jerry spots a pretty girl and overhears her name, Lise Bourvier (Leslie Caron).  While Milo is dancing with a friend, Jerry finagles a dance with Lise by pretending he knows her in front of her friends.  Lise is annoyed, but Jerry does manage to trick her into giving her phone number.  Milo observes this and is annoyed, lashing out at Jerry in the car ride home.  Jerry gets out of her car and determines he wants nothing to do with her, despite the help she has promised for his work.

Milo invites Jerry to a "private" party.
The next morning, Jerry phones Lise at the perfumery where she works and asks her out.  She turns him down and asks him not to call her.  A few minutes later Milo shows up at Jerry's neighborhood cafe and apologizes for her behavior.  Insisting again that she only wants to help his work, she invites him to have lunch later with her and a well-known art dealer.  Jerry agrees, and after she leaves goes to the perfumery.  Lise is at first annoyed, but eventually Jerry charms her into meeting him that night at 9pm.  Jerry comes home to Adam, and tries to convince him of his happy mood by singing, "Tra-la-la (This Time It's Really Love)."

Jerry sings "Tra-la-la."
Unbeknownst to Jerry, Lise is in fact the girl that Henri Baurel is in love with.  Henri is debuting a new number that night and wants Lise to attend.  Lise agrees, and though she is torn, still meets Jerry at 9pm at a cafe near the Seine.  She refuses to sit at the cafe, but does agree to walk along the Seine with him, and the two slowly fall in love.  Eventually, Jerry singings "Our Love is Here to Stay," to Lise, and they dance an extended ballet sequence, ending in a kiss.  When Lise discovers that it is 11pm, however, she runs back to Henri's theater, after agreeing to meet Jerry again on Saturday morning.

Lise and Jerry fall in love.
Henri's new number is "Stairway to Paradise," which he sings in a Ziegfeld's Follies-type way.  Lise runs into Henri afterwards, and he doesn't realize she's missed the song.  He informs Lise excitedly that he has just gotten an offer for an American tour, and tells her they could get married and go together.  White-faced, Lise nods and agrees that it would be wonderful.  
"Stairway to Paradise."
The next day as Jerry goes off to have lunch with Milo, Adam daydreams a piano concert where he is every member of the orchestra, playing "Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra." After lunch, Milo takes Jerry to a studio that she has bought for him, and informs him she has scheduled an exhibition at an art gallery for him in a few months.  Jerry is angry, because he cannot pay for the studio and does not think his work is ready.  But eventually he agrees, only if Milo lets him pay her back with the proceeds from the exhibition.

Jerry and Milo
Over the next several weeks, Jerry paints with a vengeance, often using Lise as a subject.  Later, when Lise and Jerry are in a taxi, they both realize they have been evasive, especially Lise.  They pull up to the Left Bank cafe that Lise knows Henri frequents, and she drives away without Jerry and without an explanation.  Dejected, Jerry has coffee with Adam, and explains that while he loves Lise, he is confused by her behavior.  When Jerry mentions her name, Adam chokes on his coffee, realizing she is Henri's girl.  Before he can mention it, Henri arrives and announces that he is engaged.  He gives Jerry advice on love with Adam nervously watching and trying to change the subject.  Henri insists that Jerry must tell his girl how much he loves her, and that love will conquer all.  Henri and Jerry sing, "'S Wonderful."

Georges Guetary, Oscar Levant, and Gene Kelly in "'S Wonderful."

Later that night Jerry tells Lise he loves her, and Lise tells him she's getting married.  She tells Jerry she loves him, but feels she owes her life to Henri.  Hurt, Jerry tells her he has been seeing Milo as well.  He rushes over to Milo, kisses her for the first time and invites her to the art students' costume ball.  At the wild black and white ball, he dances with Milo and pretends he is happy.  Milo meets Adam, who tells her how Jerry really feels about her.  Milo returns to Jerry just as he runs into Henri and Lise, after which Jerry admits to Milo his true feelings.  Milo leaves, and Jerry walks out onto the balcony, where he is joined by Lise.  Lise tearfully says goodbye to Jerry, not knowing that Henri has been smoking a cigarette nearby and has heard everything.  He meets Lise downstairs and drives her away from the party as a desolate Jerry watches from the balcony.  Jerry fantasizes about Lise and imagines an extended ballet sequence where the two of them dance through Paris (An American in Paris Ballet).  Jerry is suddenly startled by a car horn.  Henri has brought Lise back to Jerry, and as he runs down the steps to meet her, the two embrace.  They walk down the rest of the steps hand in hand.

Jerry and Lise leave together.
The History
Gene Kelly was born Eugene Curran Kelly on August 23rd, 1912 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  As a boy, he and his brothers were forced to take dance lessons, much to their chagrin.  Gene Kelly didn't take dance again until his was 15, and then only as a way to meet girls.  He graduated from high school and went to Pennsylvania State College to get a journalism degree, only to have to drop out when the stock market crashed.  He and his brother brought in money by dancing in nightclubs and talent shows, and eventually Kelly enrolled in the University of Pittsburgh to study economics while his family opened a dance studio nearby.  He taught at the studio while at school, eventually going on to law school.  But he became more and more interested in dance, and eventually dropped out of school as he started to get various choreography jobs.  Bored with teaching young children, Kelly moved to New York, and eventually worked his way into being a star choreographer, actor, dancer, and singer.  He gained a reputation as one of the hardest working and most driven men in the business.

Gene Kelly in An American in Paris
Eventually Kelly left New York to try his luck in Hollywood, staring in small films with actresses like Lucille Ball, Judy Garland, and Rita Hayworth.  He was well received by the public and therefore was given larger roles and more creative control over his musical numbers.  In 1945 he was paired with Frank Sinatra in what became the most popular movie of that year, Anchors Aweigh (where he received his first and only nomination for "Best Actor" from the Academy). Despite his success it was now World War II, and Kelly joined the Air Force only to be commissioned to film and direct several war documentaries.  It was during this time that he discovered his love for directing.

An American in Paris Ballet
Kelly returned in 1946 and made a few smaller pictures.  MGM wanted him to make safer vehicles, but Kelly fought to for creative control.  He acted in Take Me Out to the Ballgame, again with Sinatra, and it was this hit that convinced producer Arthur Freed to let Kelly give it a try on his own.  He partnered Sinatra for the third and final time in On the Town, and Kelly's directorial debut was a smash, and considered a breakthrough musical drama. Kelly did a non-musical role in the gangster film, The Black Hand, and then followed with Judy Garland's last film, Summer Stock.  Afterwards, finally, Kelly would film his two greatest works, Singin' in the Rain, and An American in Paris.

An American in Paris Ballet
An American in Paris was to be Gene Kelly's declarative statement in musicals.  Arthur Freed had bought the film rights to George Gershwin's "An American in Paris - A Tone Poem for Orchestra" for $158,750, in his weekly pool game with Ira, who also received $56,250 as a consultant to write any necessary new lyrics for songs used.  Ira Gershwin made the deal on the condition that the resulting musical would use only Gershwin numbers as its other songs.  Once Kelly got his hands on the new musical, he screened the film The Red Shoes for MGM film executives as proof that a film featuring ballet could work.  Suddenly Kelly was involved in a film that would be as meticulous as his dancing style.  He started by casting dancer Cyd Charisse, who had to drop out of the film after learning she was pregnant.  He then moved on to cast 19-year-old Leslie Caron, who he saw performing in a ballet in Paris.  She was an unknown ballerina 19 years his junior, who was so malnourished from World War II and unused to the vigorous pace of filming that she could only work every other day.  But Kelly felt the film needed a real French girl in the part.  
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron
They got the French girl, but despite his protests, Gene Kelly was not allowed to film in Paris.  The film was shot mostly in backlots at MGM, with Vincent Minnelli as director.  Minnelli was unfortunately tied up with his divorce with Judy Garland and Kelly ended up picking up a lot of the slack.  Kelly was responsible entirely for the directing of Leslie Caron's small dream sequence at the beginning of the film, which many censors thought too scandalous for a young girl.  Still, production was running behind schedule, and there was a push to cut the final ballet scene.  In one of his last acts at the studio before being forced out, Louis B. Mayer stood by Gene Kelly, and insisted the film wouldn't be complete without it.  The 17 minute dance sequence took a month just to film, and cost half a million dollars. Each scene is individually painted and choreographed to mimic French impressionistic paintings.  The backgrounds took six weeks to build with thirty painters working nonstop.  The dance rehearsals themselves took a little over a month.  

Leslie Caron in her suggestive chair dance.
When American in Paris opened in July of 1951, critics gave it a rave review.  Charmed by the beautiful new star, the groundbreaking choreography, the re-worked classic old songs, and, of course, Gene Kelly, people showed up in droves to see the film.  It made millions.  But Kelly still looked to the Academy for validation: "There is a strange sort of reasoning in Hollywood that musicals are less worthy of Academy consideration than drama," he said.  "It's a form of snobbism, the same sort that perpetuates the idea that drama is more deserving of awards than comedy."  He was up against some serious contenders, however, with A Streetcar Named Desire, A Place in the Sun, and The African Queen all lining up as heavy hitters.  MGM itself put its money behind Quo Vadis, a Gone With The Wind-style epic in the Roman empire.  Decision Before Dawn was Zanuck's pick--a glossy World War II drama.

An American in Paris Ballet
Oscar night came and once again, the Academy voted down the decision to broadcast the show on television, allowing only ABC to broadcast the show on radio for the either consecutive year.  The stars showed up at the Pantages theater, but were a bit of a motley crew.  Shelley Winters and Leslie Caron had the flu. Humphrey Bogart's wife, Lauren Bacall was very pregnant.  Debbie Reynolds showed up with a bag full of girl scout cookies, and Montgomery Clift was a little "worse for the wear."  Despite these eccentricities, things went more or less as expected:  Gene Kelley won an Honorary Oscar for his "versatility" and "his brillant achievements in the art of choreography on film" and producer Arthur Freed was given a standing ovation when he was awarded the prestigious Thalberg Award.  But everyone was completely floored when the throw-away film, An American in Paris, actually beat out so many serious dramas for the coveted "Best Picture" award.  Producer Sidney Skolsky demanded a recount and The New York Times's Bosley Crowther, who had put the musical on his "Ten Best" list, was furious that the Academy was full of "people so insensitive  to the excellencies of motion picture art that they would vote for a frivlous musical picture over a powerful and pregnant tragedy."  MGM displayed its unexpected success with an ad depicting Leo the Lion (their mascot) holding an Oscar and apologizing, saying "Honestly, I was just standing In the Sun waiting for A Streetcar."

Set of the Pantages Theater, 24th Academy Awards
In addition to "Best Picture," An American in Paris won "Best Art – Set Decoration, Color," "Best Cinematography, Color, "Best Costume Design, Color," "Best Musical Score," and "Best Writing, Scoring and Screenplay."  It also won the "Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy."  The film was #68 on AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies in 1998 and #9 on AFI's Greatest Movie Musicals in 2006.  In 1993, An American in Paris was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".
Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron

The film was also named as one of "The 20 Most Overrated Movies Of All Time" by Premiere.  Over the years An American in Paris has declined as a favorite movie musical, in favor of the more popular Gene Kelly film, Singin' in the Rain.  It is still, however, a popular, well liked film, and a favorite of movie theater revival houses.  And of course, Gene Kelly fans the world over.

The Verdict?
I liked this movie a lot more than I thought I would.  I seriously disliked it the first time around, but with age comes wisdom, and I've realized that there's a lot more to this film than 30 minute ballet sequences.  

Oscar Levant in An American in Paris
Firstly--it's actually funny!  Not laugh-out-loud funny, but definitely chuckle worthy.  There are witty one-liners, puns, and double entendres.  Secondly, the cast is, well, for lack of a better word, charming.  Leslie Caron is sweet and engaging, Oscar Levant has great facial expressions, Georges Guetary is a lovable bon vivant and of course, there is Gene Kelly.  But all this is pushed to the side when you consider the incredible choreography and score.  Who knew Gershwin songs could be so much fun?  And nothing is better than when Gene Kelly tap dances.  Each musical number is well rehearsed and planned out.  You don't need the flashing lights and special effects of Chicago--just Gene Kelly tap dancing with a gaggle of French children.  No tricks, no gimmicks, just pure movement.  There's something to be said for that.

Georges Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Nina Foch
Do I think it was the best film that year?  Probably not--it's hard to say without seeing the others but considering their reputations I would assume not.  However I find myself agreeing with Kelly's main point, that musicals and comedies are not afforded the same weight as dramas.  They are hard to judge against one another, but it is my opinion that it is just as hard, if not harder, to be funny or effortlessly musical, than it is to be dramatic.  Elizabeth Taylor may have vamped her way across the screen to great stirring effect, but An American in Paris represents years of hard physical practice.  The Golden Globes acknowledges this difference with different categories for "Best Picture."  Perhaps they have the right of it.

An American in Paris
Whether you think this film the finest example of Gene Kelly's work (and I don't--I'm still a die hard Singin' in the Rain fan) or you think think it a classic example of a musical genre that will never be made again, this film was, and still is groundbreaking for the American movie musical.  Gene Kelly proved that people will continue to love art--and the average person can admire beauty in movement.  And he was right--my boyfriend was a big fan.    
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