An American in Paris (1951, Vincente Minnelli)
A more accurate title might be Social Deviants in Paris. With Romance as a force of threat rather than redemption, this Gene Kelly musical that’s deservedly been subsumed in subsequent years by his other concurrent work at times approximates the effect of a strange man approaching you with a hotel room painting and forcing you at gunpoint to admit it’s beautiful. Kelly appears as womanizing artist slash loser Jerry, a starving painter in Paris barking up all sorts of wrong trees — usually female ones. Leslie Caron is the victim here, an engaged woman minding her own damn business while Kelly hounds and hounds her until she agrees to see him to shut him up, which of course ultimately results in her missing important dates with future hubby and famously stepping out to “Embraceable You” by the moonlit water.
But if that “no-no-no-well, okay yes” misogyny isn’t offensive enough for you, how about the B-story, which involves more of ’50s Hollywood’s mysteriously convicted and monstrous fear of (slightly) older women, specifically their sexuality? Between this, Sunset Blvd. and All About Eve it’s an epidemic, though those two films are far less mean-spirited than this one, in which Kelly’s paintings get purchased and his work fawned over and sponsored by a rich woman, played by an actually stunningly sexy Nina Foch who the film inexplicably casts as an undesirable spinster (she was over a decade younger than Kelly, for fuck’s sake); she attempts to become his lover but is cruelly led on and rebuffed, and finally ditched like a piece of dirt. This nastiness taints an otherwise pleasant film.
We’ve not mentioned Caron’s clueless husband-to-be, a big-time singer presented by Franco-Greek vocalist Georges Guétary, whose failure to read into anything about his situation is so nonsensical that by the conclusion the film fails to even attempt to explain it. Thankfully, there’s also the invaluable relief provided by splendidly sardonic pianist Oscar Levant in one of his handful of acting performances; Levant’s cynical eyes are the film’s most convincing human touch, given how much director Vincente Minnelli seems to wish to craft a slick film that hides Caron’s charming naivete and Kelly’s effortless physicality. These three forces are all that allows the film to occasionally burst into ferocious life, and Levant himself is its primary defense against meandering into the flaccid cutesiness to which Minnelli’s unmistakably attracted.
Not many people are left alive who are going to argue with the nearly universally accepted truth that the wrong Gene Kelly / Arthur Freed musical walked with the Academy Award; the following year’s wry, hilarious, beautiful Singin’ in the Rain melts this to putty. But the film deserves better than to be entirely forgotten, thanks to a few splendid scenes, and it’s certainly better than Minnelli’s later Oscar musical Gigi. In some sense, what’s most fascinating about An American in Paris is watching Kelly’s own creative mind at work; it seems like a rough draft of what would become Singin’ in the Rain, and considering the level of control he seems to have exercised over his productions, that isn’t an unreasonable assumption. Legend has it he even directed a few scenes of this film, which would go some way toward explaining why it suddenly explodes at various random intervals.
It takes its time to do so, and it is an artifact enough of its time that in contrast to some of Kelly’s other films, I would emphatically not recommend it to someone new to Hollywood musicals — such an audience is unlikely to be receptive to the thin story, artificial appearance, lazy characterization. But the Gershwin songs are an unmitigated delight — and by the time of the famous scene in which Caron’s Lise is being described to Oscar Levant and appears as a manifestation of each of his comments, it’s hard not to be sold; the sequence is explosive, funny, awash in eroticism, and brilliantly conceived, directed, and edited. Other memorable scenes follow, including a wonderful rendition of “I Got Rhythm” that spreads all along a fake Paris street, Levant’s Buster Keaton-looting musical masturbation featuring an orchestra consisting entirely of Oscar Levants, that “Embraceable You” dance that’s made its way into cinematic history even if the film itself hasn’t (it’s even mentioned by Audrey Hepburn in Stanley Donen’s Charade!), and of course, the final ballet.
But as excellent as the musical sequences are, the script and story are a dud and the film stops in its tracks every time the rhythm fades. Caron and Foch appear to be fine actresses, but they’re trapped in a story so nakedly sexist and dumb it’s difficult to enjoy any of their dialogue sequences, which never conquer the absence of vitality and presence in Minnelli’s strangely lifeless setup. It’s up and down all the way through for nearly two hours. Also embodied in all this is a lesson about Kelly as a performer. When the material is strong, he is extraordinary, bursting with confidence, grace and absolute control. When the film hits one of its long weak stretches (the opening half-hour in particular), he appears lost, adrift, smarmy, and undistinguished. You can invariably see in his face how much faith he has in what he’s doing.
Kelly was deeply disappointed when MGM wouldn’t allow the crew to shoot the film in actual Paris, which seems a bizarre decision for such a then-wealthy studio making a movie with the freaking word “Paris” in its title; the sets that Minnelli and his crew construct to attempt to approximate the City of Light are laughably false, from bistros that look like Mario Kart backgrounds to streets and exteriors that are completely unmistakably Los Angeles. Particularly after it’s become so common to shoot films — films that ironically strive for the tone and effect of this one — in Paris, the effect of seeing California forced to stand in for France is disorienting and surreal. And I would say “cartoonish,” but the cartoon Ratatouille, also set in Paris, seemed more realistic than this.
But make it past all of the sexual weirdness and rape allusions and rampant artificiality and you will be rewarded with twenty dialogue-free minutes of the restrained, ingenious ballet scene at the climax, a visual powerhouse showcase for Minnelli as stylist and Kelly as performer. It isn’t as impressive as “Gotta Dance” in Singin’ in the Rain, but it’s still intoxicating. Kelly presented the idea to MGM on the basis of the success of The Red Shoes; evidently, he took another lesson from that film that history has not recorded so precisely. After the lengthy ballet in Powell and Pressburger’s film, the story was only halfway finished, and there was a feeling of being let down and hungover after such a piece of visual imagination and hypnotic power. Kelly and Minelli solve this problem by ending An American in Paris roughly thirty seconds after the dance scene. But this approach presents its own problems. There isn’t a harsh comedown after the ballet, no, but the cold ending that follows it leaves plenty to be desired. The film would have had twice the effect had it been allowed the audacity of a sad ending, not completely inappropriate for a movie that suggests loneliness in its very title. Casablanca did it, after all, and this movie’s legacy would’ve likely survived well into the new century if Kelly had decided to call it a day without getting the girl, just taking a sip of wine and walking out into the night.
What we’re really seeing, then, when we see An American in Paris is a moment in time for Hollywood and for the U.S. that’s now irrevocably distant but is intellectually fascinating to see enlivened again; there’s nothing wrong with a classic movie being a museum piece, except when you consider that they don’t have to be, as a movie like Singin’ in the Rain plainly proves — we’re still appreciating that film on its original terms, but when we view this one we’re celebrating our cinematic legacy and the film’s impact on and placement in its time far more than anything about the story. I understand why it received the Oscar at the time, I think (A Streetcar Named Desire, though not particularly great, would’ve been a riskier choice; and I personally love A Place in the Sun so my vote is with it), but it’s inevitably never going to mean today what it did to audiences then. And nostalgia freaks would disagree, but I don’t think that’s a slur on us.
[Expanded and modified from a review originally posted in 2007.]