Movie Journal – 3/3/2012

An American in Paris (1951)     4.5/5

Directed by Vincente Minnelli (MGM)

Believe it or not, there was once a time in Hollywood when directors, actors, cinematographers, editors, and others responsible for the creation of movie magic worked collaboratively over the course of multiple films, often in contract to a studio, and in a quite opposite fashion to how movies are now made. In the era of An American in Paris, studios would punch out similar films made by the same people, and often multiple times a week, people would head over to the movie palace and see them. Producer Arthur Freed was responsible for many of the great musicals in MGM’s golden age, most notably Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Because of that film’s great success and well-deserved placement among the essential American movies, it is often easy to forget that “the Freed unit” won Best Picture (along with five other Oscars) a year earlier, featuring acclaimed director Vincente Minnelli, and of course, one of the most talented men to have ever walked the Earth – Gene Kelly.

Kelly tap-dances his way through the City of Light as Jerry Mulligan, a struggling artist now trying to make it in Paris. He experiences a stroke of luck one day as he meets a lonely, aristocratic woman (Nina Foch) willing to sponsor his work, but who is clearly looking for romantic involvement. Ironically, Jerry has immediately fallen in love with Lise (Leslie Caron), a French gal who will soon become engaged to a singer named Henri (Georges Guetary). Henri, meanwhile, was previously the mentor of Jerry’s best friend, a down-on-his-luck pianist played by Oscar Levant. The tangled nature of these relationships are explored in a way that is not as interesting and comedic as it maybe could’ve been, resolving conflict all too easily, and therefore, lending itself to a weaker script than, say …. Singin’ in the Rain. But what An American in Paris lacks in story is surely compensated by the sheer ambition and talent behind the production, featuring possibly the greatest musical sequences ever filmed.

This is a story told less through character, and more through singing and dancing as a means of courtship and personal development. Minnelli films Kelly and company in medium to long shots, allowing the audience to truly absorb the astounding nature of Kelly’s choreography, and keep us enthralled by a lack of cutting within the sequences. Filmed in Technicolor, An American in Paris also looks astounding, using bold color and warmly lit frames to create an awe-inspiring vision of both art and emotion. Yet what is most impressive about the film today is its “avante-garde”-like performance segments, a result not only of MGM trusting the judgment of a fine crew, but of how far musicals were able to escape the constraints of common narrative within this period. The film culminates in a celebration of the George Gershwin music it incorporates, featuring an astonishing sequence set to the full-length of Gershwin’s title piece.

If you look at An American in Paris in 2012, it will strike you how genuinely optimistic it is, how the screen simply relays complete happiness. It is not only hard to find a modern musical that features such talent, but also any other film that can effectively portray such a feeling. Some great movies won big at the Oscars this year, including nostalgia trips The Artist and Hugo. But these films have the sad misfortune to never be played in those grand palaces, and therefore, not even come close to an ecstatic reception by audiences. In the days of Minnelli and Kelly, hard work and passion could be recognized by more than a golden statuette. It could be recognized by the sound of all those around you laughing at once, each with a smile on their faces.

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