Original US release date: October 4, 1951
Production budget: $2,724,000
Worldwide gross: $6,981,000
(I’m trying another true classic, this week. The last time I did a movie such as this one, it was Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and it went entirely ignored for over a full year (you can find that column here). If you would like to see more pre-nineteen-seventies films covered here, prove it by clicking on this one!)
Here we are with another #ThrowbackThursday and, for the first time, we take a look at the great Gene Kelly in one of his copious classic musicals, An American in Paris! Back in this era of classic films, Gene Kelly was, to put it colloquially (and anachronistically, in terms of the vernacular), a stud. An immensely talented performer, Kelly was a star in every sense of the word. There was little – if anything – he couldn’t do, making his mark by acting, singing, dancing, directing, choreographing, producing, and writing his way into the hearts and homes of 1950s America. While he’s probably best known for Singin’ in the Rain, Kelly stated that this film, An American in Paris, was actually his personal favorite of his musicals.
Directed by Vincente Minnelli (Father of the Bride, Gigi), An American in Paris features a narrative that seems fairly simple on the surface but is astonishingly complex for a blockbuster 1951 musical and even bordering on controversial for the time. In Alan Jay Lerner’s story, Kelly plays struggling American painter Jerry Mulligan, who lives in Paris and hopes to make a name for himself in the art community. When a wealthy heiress (Nina Foch) discovers him and offers to help push his career along (while she has other benefits in mind), Jerry meets a young French woman by the name of Lise (Caron) and falls in love. Unfortunately, Jerry is unaware that Lise is involved with his friend Henri (Georges Guétary) just as Henri is unaware that Lise may have eyes for another man.
This all sounds very dramatic but the movie is relentlessly upbeat and entertaining, existing as one part love story and one part ode to music. And if one doesn’t love music, then they will struggle with An American in Paris. Exclusively featuring the music of George Gershwin, not only is the film itself a musical, but many of the cast of characters are musicians, themselves. Henri is a cabaret singer, Lise is a dancer, and Jerry’s other friend Adam (the scene-stealing Oscar Levant) is a pianist. The characters love music. They talk about it. They sing about it. They immerse themselves in it. Many of the songs don’t directly influence or reflect the plot and much of the film exists solely to generate the musical numbers.
And those musical numbers are worth it. There are classic songs, here, that most everyone is familiar with (“I Got Rhythm” being my personal favorite of the bunch) but it’s the show-closing dance sequence that has lived on in legend for nearly seventy years. Comprehend this: there isn’t a single word of dialogue in the final twenty minutes of the film. Closing out the movie is an energetic, ballet-inspired performance that can rival any other of its ilk, all the way up to present day.
The scene was designed by Kelly to work with the strengths of his costar Caron. Kelly, himself, discovered Caron when he saw her perform in a ballet while in Paris. When production on this film began, he personally returned to Paris to find her and cast her, wanting a real Parisian to portray Lise, rather than an American. Caron more than makes due with her first acting part, but truly shines when the dancing begins, appearing as proficient and comfortable (and flexible) as anyone I’ve seen on-screen.
As delightful as all the singing and dancing is, I was rather taken aback after being refreshed on some of the narrative content found within An American in Paris. Not only did the film win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (only the second color film to do so, following Gone with the Wind), but screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner took home the trophy for Best Original Screenplay. That may seem unusual for a musical that sacrifices much of its running time to make room for elaborate song-and-dance numbers, but when one digs deep and analyzes what’s going on within this story, it should come as no surprise, at all.
Essentially, the film deals with infidelity. Both Jerry and Lise are involved with someone else (Lise more so than Jerry, really) but are cavorting around town, holding hands, and kissing. In 1951 America, even with neither Jerry nor Lise being married, this would be downright scandalous. Don’t get me wrong, it would still be frowned upon (at least), today, but back then, Lise especially would have been virtually excommunicated and relentlessly shamed – possibly to the point of ruining her life. Yet, Lerner had audiences falling in love with these two and actually rooting for them and that remarkable fact shouldn’t be overlooked.
Along those same lines, Lerner’s narrative calls attention to the human tendency to stick with security over happiness. This is a tendency that many don’t wish to acknowledge or, if acknowledgement is granted, they jump through hoops to justify it. Life is short, but so many people choose to spend the little time they have with people who don’t truly make them happy. These people appear dependable and safe, or perhaps there’s a sense of obligation for some previous shared experiences, so they often get the nod over someone who would be more suitable as a partner. It’s a lamentable way to live, but it’s what so many choose. And if people don’t want to admit as much, now, I can’t imagine how resistant they would have been to the idea in 1951.
But, folks, it doesn’t stop there. More than anything, I was impressed and astounded at the presentation and statements made surrounding gender roles and equality. While the film still has moments that mark it as a product of its time (for example, before knowing where she got her money, Jerry asks the wealthy heiress Milo if she inherited it from a dead father or a dead husband), the entire production spends much of its time making a point of showing men and women being true to themselves, living outside of societal parameters, and standing up for their own personal value.
I’m sure there are some out there who would watch the film with the goal of being offended by it and therefore find reasons to be, because that’s clearly all some people have to live for, these days. But the truth is that, in this film, men and women are presented as being on the same level with equal levels of autonomy and agency. Women are making their own decisions regarding their own lives. Men are shown as being comfortable and confident enough to dance and sing with each other without sexuality being a concern. Much like the infidelity issue, homosexuality isn’t explicitly referenced, but Lerner and the rest of the cast and crew send the message that, while these particular characters aren’t homosexual as far as we know, it wouldn’t matter if they were. And, yes, while the primary issue at hand for Lise is to decide which man she wants to be with (and note that neither resents her for her choices in the matter), the men are just as over the moon for the women in their lives as vice versa, if not more so.
An American in Paris is a story about love, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not just a story about the love of other people; it’s also a story about the love of music. But around all of that, Minnelli, Lerner, and Kelly crafted a film that, in many ways, was thematically so far ahead of its time that we still haven’t completely caught up to it as a society in 2018. I know people personally who would feel very threatened by some of the film’s content. Small-mindedness has always existed and the fact that a film that came out 67 years ago was taking a stand against it is a stark reminder that the battle to quash it has been long and hard-fought. But the film manages to be a fun, entertaining, and downright joyous reminder. Mix that with an unexpected level of substance and An American in Paris earns its place as an all-time classic that will live on in the hearts of film lovers forever.
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