The Best Picture winner from 1951, Vincente Minnelli’s musical romp An American in Paris isn’t so much a feast of plot as it is of circumstance, but oh boy… what circumstance it is. It is the perfect example of what studio films in Hollywood once were, back in the day when directors like Minnelli could still put their own personal artistic stamp on such films through visual means despite studio restrictions. With An American in Paris, he takes a quaint and fluffy musical and elevates it to something magical.
Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is an American who decided to reside in Paris following World War II so that he may live out his lifelong dream of being a painter. He is friends with a concert pianist Adam Cook (Oscar Levant) who, as Mulligan jokingly quips, “has yet to play in a concert.” Through Cook, Mulligan is introduced to singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guétary).
Like most artists Mulligan struggles to get by until a wealthy American divorcee Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) sees his paintings and offers to buy a couple and act as his agent. Milo has feelings for Mulligan, but he is not interested. Instead, he starts to fall in love with a young girl who he meets at a club (Leslie Caron). Little does he realize, however, that this girl is Baurel’s fiancee.
The story is good enough to keep the film going and the dialogue was sharp, but this film is very much all about the visual and musical spectacle. If you go in expecting to get a feast for the eyes and ears chances are you won’t be disappointed. It is extremely colorful and lively throughout, and unafraid to take things in a surrealist direction (in particular the first scene with Caron’s character and the concluding dance sequence).
Say what you will about it winning Best Picture over A Place in the Sun or A Streetcar Named Desire (seems like a common complaint), but its Oscar victories for costume, art direction, and cinematography are entirely deserved. The film manages to find a balance between realism and taking on the appearance of a watercolor painting so appropriate for the city of lights.
So the film has a story that is fun, but extremely light. It basically acts as a framework onto which Minnelli can showcase his directing talents, and Kelly can showcase his dancing and singing skills (and, according to TCM, his directing skills as well since Kelly apparently helped direct the dancing sequences). What surprised me the most was how few songs there were in this film. There was a song here-and-there, some good orchestral music, and a stunning ballet performance to bring it to a close.
The songs aren’t the most memorable, but they’re still fun. To me, it was the orchestral music and the dance sequences that were the strongest musical components of the film (which would explain why Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin won Oscars for the score, but the film failed to get a nomination for Best Song). It is hard not to get into the film whenever the charismatic Kelly showcases his skills as a tap-dancer.
It is hard to dislike a film as charming and as visually impressive as An American in Paris. It really is a technical marvel to the point that I can overlook the somewhat pedestrian plot due to the brilliance of everything that surrounds it. Let’s not forget that film is a visual medium, and a simple story can be elevated to greatness in the hands of a capable director, crew, and cast. That is very much the case here. Minnelli does an excellent job drawing you into this world of pure, innocent, escapist bliss.
I also mean no offense to screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner. His script wasn’t bad by any means, and is a competently told story. It just wasn’t anything particularly spectacular. It did the job it was supposed to, and that was enough to create the foundation for a very good musical (then again Lerner’s screenplay won the Oscar so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about).
4 out of 5
P.S. From now on I think that I will include the trailer in the review.
“An American in Paris” imdb (and just imdb in general): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043278/
“An American in Paris” wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/An_American_in_Paris_(film)
Also here’s a link to my review on Letterboxd