Friday, January 3, 2014

An American In Paris (Best Picture 1951)

An American in Paris is a beautifully filmed, excellently choreographed, and well-acted Hollywood musical. In other words, a typical MGM musical. What makes this film better than, say, The Wizard of OZ or Beauty & The Beast, two musicals that were nominated for Best Picture but that did not win? Or better than Meet Me In St. Louis or Singing In The Rain, both of which are better known and better loved MGM musical films? I suppose timing has something to do with it, as OZ lost to Gone With The Wind and B&B lost to The Silence Of The Lambs. An American in Paris, on the other hand, beat out such non-classics as Decision Before Dawn and Quo Vadis. When I talk about timing, I also mean the timing of the age. Hollywood in the early Fifties was under the Red Scare. The two other serious contenders, A Streetcar Named Desire and A Place In the Sun dealt with alcoholism and  class jealousy-murder, respectively. Perhaps members of the Academy wanted to pick the least controversial, most up-beat film as Best Picture?

Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a WWII veteran who wants to be a painter, so stays in Paris after the war ends. He is friendly with Adam (Oscar Levant), an American pianist and composer who is just barely managing to get along. We never find out anything specific about Adam other than he wants to be a great composer. He is a typical MGM musical archetype: a character who plays the piano so that musical numbers can be more easily staged. They have a French friend named Henri (George Guetary) who they nick-name "Hank." (Why do Americans all have to nick-name people? Shades of "ugly American"....) He is a star of the local musical theatre, which explains why he, too, sings and dances. It doesn't explain why he doesn't just give Adam a job, though. Henri is in love with a young lady, Lise, who his family sheltered during the war. When he tells the guys about her, Leslie Caron does an adorable montage of representative dances to match his descriptions. This actually turned out to be my favorite part of the movie. And because this is an MGM musical, and there is only one female co-star, we all know that she and Gene Kelly are going to get together. 
In fact, our knowledge of what this film is really is a liability. Was MGM's reputation already set at this point, or did the audience *not* know that boy always got girls in these things? Either way, we know it now. Watching this film means we have to appreciate the beauty of the voyage because we already know the destination. 
George Guetary, Gene Kelly, and Nina Foch
I mis-spoke earlier; there is one more female co-star, Nina Foch as Milo, an American millionaire. She meets Jerry and wants to be his sponsor. For a scene or two it seems that she wants to buy him, as well as his paintings, but Gene Kelly makes it clear to her that he isn't that type of boy, and the drama of the situation is basically defused. There is a constant reminder that she wants more from Jerry than he is willing to sell her, though. Through her he meets Lise, and by this point we already know she is Henri's girl. Jerry, of course, does not. It turns out that she although she is not in love with Henri, she feels obligated to marry him. Adam learns that she is the same girl both men are pining about, but doesn't do anything about it. This time, the drama inherent in the situation is ignored. Nothing actually happens until Henri overhears Lise saying good-bye to Jerry. After Henri and Lise depart for a world tour, Gene Kelly imagines the classic American in Paris Ballet: American toe-tapping exuberance meets French High Culture. As I said before, it is beautifully filmed and choreographed; however, it is a dream sequence, which makes it almost meaningless. At the very end of the ballet, Lise returns, having been "released" by Henri. Jerry and Lise promise to make their real lives as romantic and fun as the ballet dream sequence that just ended was. The End. 
So...yeah. Gene Kelly is wonderful. If he has ever made a bad film, I have yet to see it. When he is on screen things are fun. However, I have to say that his supporting cast doesn't give him any support at all. Oscar Levant as Adam is dull, dull, dull. George Guetary is happy-go-lucky but hard to understand and has no charisma to speak of. And poor Leslie Caron: I don't find her attractive at all, and she can't really act. She dances amazingly well, but unfortunately she also has to speak. In the end I only cared about Gene Kelly's character, which made the film deadly dull most of the time. Perhaps I should just say, this film just doesn't stand the test of time. 
And as a musical, you would hope that the songs were more memorable. I know a few of the songs, "Stairway To Paradise," "'S Wonderful," and "I Got Rhythm," especially, but thinking about them now, I can't remember how they were presented on film. There's a huge disconnect between the music and the singing, which is a shame, because all of the music was written by Ira and George Gershwin.  
I wonder if I would have liked it more if the film had actually been filmed in Paris? In several scenes it's painfully obvious that the locale is a sound stage. Hollywood is magical, but you have to admit, so is Paris.

An American in Paris
*Academy Award Best Picture of 1951*
Produced by Arthur Freed
Directed  by Vincente Minnelli
Screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Decision Before Dawn
A Place In The Sun
Quo Vadis
A Streetcar Named Desire
Oddly enough, this is the first of two years where the Best Picture and Best Director were for different films. Although An American in Paris won Best Picture, George Stevens won Best Director for his film, A Place In The Sun, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Shelly Winters, and Montgomery Clift. Perhaps the Academy was hedging its bets? Of course, A Streetcar Named Desire won Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress, but Best Actor nominee Marlon Brando lost to Humphrey Bogart. I guess if you were going to lose, losing to Bogie is the way to go. I recommend A Place In the Sun *and* A Streetcar Named Desire; they are both powerful and gripping. If you've seen them you can understand why mainstream Hollywood would not want to make either of them Best Picture. The other two I have never even heard of. Looking them up, I still had no interest in seeing them. 

No comments:

Post a Comment