An American in Paris was 1951’s Academy Award-winning Best Picture (one of the six Oscars the film won, from a total of eight nominations). Produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minnelli (father of Liza, and at the time recently divorced from Judy Garland), the film’s screenplay was written by Alan Jay Lerner, with music by the Gershwins.
Gene Kelly stars as Paris-dwelling U.S. ex-pat, WWII vet and struggling artist Jerry Mulligan – who falls in love with Parisian Lise (then-newcomer Leslie Caron), his junior by a generation.
An American in Paris is often compared unfavourably to Kelly’s most famous film Singin’ in the Rain (Previously featured as a Five Star Film entry here. The latter film was released in 1952 – a year after the former – and not only starred Kelly, but was also co-directed by him (with Stanley Donen – who at time of writing is almost 91 years old, and is rumoured to be considering a directorial comeback. What a legend!).
It’s true that the script for Singin’ is stronger than and has more depth than that of American, but American is has its own magnificence: particularly in the production elements of design (production and costume) and cinematography, as well as in music and dance.
1. GENE KELLY’S DANCING
At time of writing, An American in Paris is one of only eleven films in the Academy’s eighty-six year history to win Best Picture without having any acting nominations. Other films from this unique group include inaugural winner Wings (1927), Gigi (1958) (which was also directed by Minnelli, produced by Freed – though he was uncredited, with a screenplay by Lerner, and co-starring Caron) and most recently Slumdog Millionaire (2008).
Kelly’s work in An American in Paris is just superb, particularly his dancing. He’s simultanenously masculine and graceful. He’s both limber and strong. The way he glides across the floor, Kelly looks like he could almost be ice-skating. His dancing is sensual and other-worldly. The way he moves, he somehow seems super-human. Kelly’s talents are evident in all of his An American in Paris dance numbers, but for me, his unique skills shine most strongly in the film’s closing ballet (more on that shortly), and in I Got Rhythm. In this number, performed on the street with the children from Jerry’s neighbourhood, Kelly’s tap dancing is just exquisite – and a joyous sight to behold.
Though he was not recognised with a Best Actor nomination for An American in Paris, Kelly was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1952 (at the ceremony which recognised the film of 1951). This was Kelly’s only ever Oscar, and it was awarded:
‘In appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film’.
The music in An American in Paris is simply glorious! Most of the songs from the film are actually from the 1920s and 1930s: music by George Gershwin and lyrics by his brother Ira. Highlights include the aforementioned I Got Rhythm, Our Love is Here to Stay and S’Wonderful. Many of these Gershwin songs were already popular before the film, but gained in popularity after the film’s release – and are still appreciated now, so many decades later. The film’s talented co-musical directors (Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin) won the Academy Award for Best Music: Scoring of a Musical Picture.
An American in Paris is visually stunning. It’s no surprise that among the film’s Oscar haul were Academy Awards for Best Art Direction – Set Decoration, Colour and Best Cinematography, Colour. The film’s sets and props are resplendent in dazzling Technicolour. One particularly appealing prop is a simple painting palette. Shown in close up, it’s viscous blobs of colourful paint look incredibly lush.
An American in Paris is so beautifully shot. Paris (and its MGM-backlot version) look gorgeous. There’s a particularly picturesque scene with Jerry and Lise by the banks of the River Seine that’s really lovely.
Mention should also be made of the some of the practical set/prop design elements. In the opening scene, we see Jerry’s tiny apartment, which is a feat of clever engineering. With its bed on a pulley, hidden pull-out table and other modular elements, the apartment is a cute little modular wonderland. It’s mesmerising to watch Kelly’s Jerry gracefully whip around the apartment in a series of seamlessly choreographed moves, as he makes use of all the apartment’s hidden features.
4. COSTUME DESIGN
Three artists shared An American in Paris’ Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Colour. Among them was Orry-Kelly, who was born in Kiama, Australia in 1897. Orry-Kelly also designed the gowns in the previously featured Five Star Film Casablanca (1942). See here for more on this masterpiece of a film.
Though the coloured costumes in An American in Paris’ are wonderful, I feel the most impressive ones are actually the black-and-white creations: seen in the famous Art Students’ Ball scene. The principal cast and countless extras are decked out in individual unique black and white creations, and they look absolutely fantastic against the principally black and white decorated set.
The most famous scene in An American in Paris is also its most ambitious: an exquisite seventeen minute six-part ‘dream ballet’, part of the final dialogue-free twenty minutes of the film. Many dance styles are employed, including classical ballet, tap and jazz. The various sections of the ballet are themed in the tradition of a series of (mostly French) painters. The set backgrounds range from coloured sketches to full painting-style walls. The sumptuous sets features include beautiful mirrors and fountains of coloured smoke. The dream ballet cost half a million U.S. dollars: an enormous budget for one section of a mid-century film.
An American in Paris is one of MGM’s most famous musicals, and deservedly holds a top-ten place in the American Film Institute’s list of the greatest movie musicals of all time. Lisa Malouf – follow Lisa on Twitter here: @lisamalouf