I remember the first time I saw An American in Paris. It was playing at the Pacific Place Theater in downtown Seattle as part of a Turner Classic Movies Oscar bash in 1999. I saw the film as part of a quadruple feature that also included Casablanca, Citizen Kane and Bonnie and Clyde. An American in Paris was the first movie playing, and after seeing it I had to head across town for a class at UW—which unfortunately meant I had to miss the fifth feature playing, The Philadelphia Story. I remember leaving the theater in a great mood; as good a mood as I have ever left any movie. As I walked across campus that afternoon, I felt as though I was strutting much the same way as Gene Kelly joyously strutted his way across the Hollywood backlot version Paris.
An American in Paris is one of those movies that can quickly cheer you up when you are down and have you whistling, singing and dancing your way through the rest of your day; the memorable tunes of George and Ira Gershwin implanted in your head. The movie’s gaiety likely played a big part in the film winning 1951’s Best Picture Oscar over such darker fair as A Place in the Sun and A Streetcar Named Desire. Hollywood was in the middle of one of its darker periods at the time. The House Un-American Activities Committee was still having hearings on Communist influence in Hollywood and blacklisting was still a common occurrence. Hollywood needed a little cheering up.
The early 1950s was also when Hollywood first found itself having to compete with the medium of television. In order to stay on top, the movie industry went for bigger, brighter and more colorful, something you could not get on the small screen. Following Gone with the Wind in 1939, An American in Paris was only the second color film to win Best Picture and it would kick off a decade that saw six such movies take home the top prize.
An American in Paris first came about when producer Arthur Freed asked his friend Ira Gershwin if he would sell him the title ‘An American in Paris.’ Gershwin agreed, but only if Freed used only Gershwin music in the film. There was not much difficulty in persuading Freed, and the rest is movie history.
The story of An American in Paris revolves around Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), a former G.I. who is now living in Paris and painting. One day when selling his paintings on a corner in Montmartre, he is approached by an American sun-tan oil heiress named Milo Roberts (Nina Foch) who takes an immediate interest to his paintings and to Jerry himself. She invites Jerry to an informal party at which they are the only two guests (“That’s a nice dress you almost have on”). Suggesting they go to place he can afford, they end up at a small nightclub where Jerry meets and falls for Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron) who—unbeknownst to him—is the fiancée of popular French singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetary) whom Jerry has become friends with.
After spending time falling in love with each other on the riverfront, Lise must finally tell Jerry the truth before she marries and runs off to America with Henri. After saying their emotional goodbyes at the extravagant Art Students ball, Lise is gone and Jerry is left to daydream the film’s central number, a fifteen minute ballet set to the Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” number.
The ballet was the centerpiece of the film and the number that—not surprisingly—took up most of the production time. In fact, while choreographer Kelly prepared the ballet, director Vincente Minnelli left the production to direct Father’s Little Dividend, the sequel to his 1950 hit Father of the Bride starring Spencer Tracy and Elizabeth Taylor. The number also provided a challenge for the film’s art director Preston Ames, who had to create Parisian sets in the style of Impressionist painters. Another hurdle proved to be convincing the studio executives that the number was necessary. Freed had had a little bit of experience with this, having had to convince studio execs twelve years earlier that the “Over the Rainbow” number in The Wizard of Oz should not be cut. Thanks to Freed, these two classic numbers ended up on the big screen rather than the cutting room floor.
The centerpiece, yes, but the concluding ballet is not the only memorable number in An American in Paris. If it were, it’s unlikely the film would remain as popular as it does today. My personal favorite number is Jerry and Henri’s “S’Wonderful.” It’s a joyous number and yet underneath it all is the irony that they are both rejoicing over the love of the same woman, a fact known only at this time by mutual friend Adam Cook (Oscar Levant). One of the more memorable numbers and perhaps—outside of the ballet—the most visually stunning is the dance under the bridge as Jerry and Lise romance to the tune of “Our Love is here to Stay”.
The remaining numbers work wonderfully as musical comedy. Jerry teaches some Parisian children English and some American dance moves while performing “I’ve got Rhythm”; Jerry’s mood for love annoys Adam’s cynicism in “Tra-la-la (this time is really love)”; and Adam lives out his dreams of performing a concert—by himself—with “Concert in F for Piano and Orchestra.”
As Jerry’s comically self-deprecating friend Adam, Oscar Levant provides many of the film’s best lines. Professionally a musician, Levant was originally intended to star as Kelly’s friend in the next year’s Singin’ in the Rain, a casting choice that—although intriguing—one can’t even begin to imagine today. We never would have had Donald O’Connor’s brilliant “Make ‘em Laugh” number, for instance.
For 19-year-old Leslie Caron, An American with Paris would be her debut film. Kelly discovered her performing in Paris two years earlier. She arrived on the set her first day with a new haircut that she had given herself and the shooting schedule had to be rearranged for her hair to grown back. Following this film, Caron had a good career in film that continues today (she recently appeared in Le Divorce). Career highlights include the Oscar-winning Gigi, Fanny and Father Goose.
Gene Kelly was already a big star when he made An American in Paris having appeared in such films as On the Town, Anchors Away and The Three Musketeers; but it would be An American an Paris and the next year’s Singin’ in the Rain that he would be most remembered for.
An American in Paris ranks as one of the greatest musicals of all time; and I love it. It gets an A+.