Program Notes: An American in Paris (1951)

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Perhaps the most famous movie about Paris was shot not in France but in Culver City, California.

On M-G-M’s back lot.

Indeed, An American in Paris (1951) sums up the very essence of Hollywood in its Golden Era: Why bother with the real and true when the make-believe is so much more satisfying?

Here is a film that exemplifies the virtues of the old studio system, with craftsmen and artists from the various M-G-M departments (music, scenic design, costuming, cinematography, sound) working in apparently selfless harmony to create a movie that delights at every turn.

The film – one of the rare musicals to win the Oscar for best picture – represents for many movie lovers the high-water mark of the studio’s “Freed Unit,” which under the leadership of producer Arthur Freed turned out some of the greatest movie musicals of all time: Meet Me in St. Louis, The Harvey Girls, Till the Clouds Roll By, The Pirate, Easter Parade, On the Town, Annie Get Your Gun, The Royal Wedding, Singin’ in the Rain, The Band Wagon, Kismet, Gigi ... well, you get the picture.

Film Screening:
An American in Paris (1951)
Saturday, May 26 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

More than 60 years later it continues to delight with its cheeky blend of high art and low art, its joyous celebration of music and dance, and especially its audacious final 16 minutes, a dazzling wordless ballet that brought out the best in choreographer/star Gene Kelly and director Vincente Minnelli.

In his autobiography, I Remember It Well, Minnelli wrote: “As no one sets out to make a bad picture, rarely under the old studio system did anyone set out to make a classic. An American in Paris certainly wasn’t designed as such. Arthur Freed and I, in our earliest discussions about the proposed picture, were planning a solid commercial entertainment aimed at a mass audience. Yet all the elements meshed so perfectly that what was originally planned as another slick musical became a standard by which all other such pictures are measured.”

Under Freed’s guidance, An American in Paris assembled one of the greatest casts and crews ever for a Hollywood production.

First there was the score of George Gershwin tunes Freed obtained from the composer’s surviving brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin: “Embraceable You,” “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” “I Got Rhythm,” “S Wonderful,” the “Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra,” and the “American in Paris Ballet.”

The Oscar-winning screenplay was by Alan Jay Lerner, the lyricist usually paired with composer Frederick Loewe.

Behind the camera was Minnelli, a visual fabulist who had cut his teeth on the M-G-M musicals Cabin in the Sky and Meet Me In St. Louis and who had branched out into non-musical hits like Father of the Bride.

And then there’s the cast.

Gene Kelly stars as Jerry Mulligan, a former GI who has stayed on in France to study painting (although from what we see of his ersatz Utrillo canvases, his great talent is song and dance). Jerry has another expatriate buddy in the dour Adam (Oscar Levant, a pianist and close personal friend of George Gershwin whose recording of “Rhapsody in Blue” was a chart topper).

Jerry is torn between two women: An American heiress (Nina Foch) who becomes his patroness, and the young dancer Lise (newcomer Leslie Caron). The latter relationship is tricky because Lise is already spoken for – she’s seeing Jerry’s friend Henri (Georges Guétary), the music hall entertainer who sheltered her when she was orphaned during the Nazi Occupation.

Okay, so this isn’t exactly Shakespeare. But it doesn’t need to be. This experience is about Kelly’s dancing, Gershwin’s songs, and the French setting.

Kelly, 38 at the time of filming, is irrepressibly watchable. Caron, only 18 when Kelly recruited her from a Paris dance troupe, ended up becoming a major star because of this film.

Meanwhile Minnelli, always fascinated by French Impressionist painting (he would film Lust for Life, the story of Vincent Van Gogh, just a few years later) gave the movie and especially the concluding ballet a distinctive painterly look.

“No Hollywood filmmaker was as conscious of the painterly aesthetic as he was,” wrote one biographer. “Minnelli’s work had always sought to use light and color in a cinematic homage to the canvases he loved. He had enjoyed a close personal association with the Gershwin family dating back to his early Broadway days, and he’d proved how mutually inspiring his teamwork with Kelly could be.”

Initially plans called to shoot the entire film in Paris. But the cost and logistical problems of working in one of the busiest cities in the world (how long would the French shut down, say, the Louvre, to allow an American movie company to shoot there?) convinced Freed that he’d be better off keeping the production in California.

In the end there was more artistic freedom to be found on a soundstage. The dream Paris of the movie studio surpassed even the real thing.

While filming of the main story portion of the film proceeded smoothly, the final ballet – the single riskiest element of the movie – remained in limbo. Kelly, who was choreographing, needed more time to put this challenging dance routine together.

In fact, between shooting the main story and the ballet sequence Minnelli had enough time to make another movie: Father’s Little Dividend, the sequel to Father of the Bride. When he returned, Kelly was ready.

What Kelly was proposing was a ballet with different scenes designed to reflect the styles of the great Impressionist painters. Minnelli loved it.

But he didn’t think that Alfred Gilks, who had shot the bulk of the film and had a tendency to flood his sets with light, was the right man for the ballet sequence, which would unfold mostly in nighttime Paris. So Minnelli called in cinematographer John Alton, who had never shot in color but who had enjoyed a distinguished career photographing film noir thrillers.

It proved a magical collaboration. Minnelli’s mastery of color, framing, and movement allowed him to perfectly capture Kelly’s dance creation.

At the Oscars the next year, An American in Paris found itself vying for top honors with such dramatic classics as A Place in the Sun, A Streetcar Named Desire, and Quo Vadis.

Nominated for eight Academy Awards, An American in Paris won six, including best picture.

Hollywood was stunned, but in retrospect it became clear why: The film had striven to expand the boundaries of the traditional movie musical. And it succeeded brilliantly.

Other films in the series “Vincente Minnelli: A Little Magic”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

 

Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:

 

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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