An American in Paris is a movie I enjoy quite a bit, and was one of my favorities as a child, but looking at it through critical eyes is a bit painful. I think it’s a good movie musical, and I’ll defend it on those grounds, but the the story is so lackluster I’d warn people off it if they’re not already a fan of musicals.
The titular “American” is Jerry Muligan (Gene Kelly), an ex-Gi and aspiring painter. He is caught between two women, Lise (Leslie Caron), the young woman he loves, and Milo (Nina Foch), his wealthy patron who expects something more from him. Complicating matters is Henri (Georges Guetary), a French singer who’s engaged to Lise. Adding humorous commentary to the proceedings without offering any real help is Jerry’s old friend, Adam (Oscar Levant), an out of work pianist.
Now, this complicated mix of lovers could have made an exciting story, or at least excited enough to justify all these musical numbers. The chief problem is Leslie Caron as Lise, who can dance but outside of that has no business being in this film. She can’t act and he has no screen presense, so it’s pretty unbelievable that these men would both be fighting over her. (In her defense, this was her first film and she does get better.) The rest of the actors aren’t very exciting either, though Oscar Levant is as funny as always, and the whole script is just so bland that it’s hard to care about anything that happens. The conflict is resolved off screen, which is strange but somewhat of a blessing because instead we get a musical number, which is what the film does best.
The music in the film is all recycled Gershwin songs, which is great. Every single musical number in this film is standout, and not just because the story is so worthless (thought that does help). Particular highlights include the adorable “I Got Rhythm,” where Kelly teaches French children how to sing parts of the song in English and dances around them, “I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise,” a part of Henri’s show that he just sells brilliantly, and “S’Wonderful,” which shows Jerry and Henri growing apart though they do not know it yet. The biggest number though, comes at the end, the titular “An American in Paris.”
In 1948, The Red Shoes was released with its innovative 17 minute ballet sequence in the middle of the film. Gene Kelly saw that and wanted to recreate the same principle in one of his films, which turned out to be An American in Paris. This is easily the most impressive part of this film: the design in fantastic, the scale is impressive, and the cinematography keeps right up with the dancers. It is designed to be an insight into how a painter (like Jerry) would see Paris, and each time Gershwin’s piece shifts in character a new painter is evoked through the costumes, production design, and choreorgraphy. Kelly and Caron are the stars here, as he pursues her across Paris and seemingly through several artistic movements. This gives the number a tangential connection to the story, though it is not the incredible marriage of themative relevance and artistic indulgence that is exhibited in The Red Shoes. Though it doesn’t offer as much insight into the characters (presumably because they don’t have much), it is just as great of an achievment on a technical level.
An American in Paris‘s musical numbers may be worlds better than its story, but if one keeps that in mind and doesn’t let it bother them, they’re in for a real treat. The film is beautiful, evoking Paris even without actually shooting there. The title number is impressive, and the rest of the musical numbers hold up their end of the bargain as well. I wish it’d had been a better film all around, but the Academy clearly thought it was. They put it up for eight awards and it won six of them: picture, original screenplay (are you kidding me?), color cinematography, color production design, color costume design, score, and lost out on director for Minnelli and editing. I can actually agree with all of these except picture and especially screenplay, and A Streetcar Named Desire should have won picture.
“Civilization has a natural resistance to improving itself.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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