81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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An American In Paris

September 12th, 2009 · No Comments · 1951, An American In Paris, Color, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, M-G-M Studios, Musical, Original Screenplay, Vincente Minnelli

An American In Paris I need to get two things off my chest:

1. I love Gene Kelly. Call it a man crush, a bromance. I don’t care. I think the guy was amazing. I enjoy the man’s smooth-as-silk singing, his 100-watt smile, his remarkable dancing, his undeniable charisma, and his extraordinary energy. Gene Kelly can do no wrong in my book.

2. I hate musicals.

Well, maybe hate is too strong a word.

How about loathe? Despise? Fear?

Yet, when Gene Kelly is in a musical, I’m torn. Love Gene Kelly. Hate musicals.

Gene wins.

I can watch any musical Gene Kelly is in, with Singin’ In the Rain being at the top of the list. For my money, there’s no finer musical in the world. For that matter, I can’t think of a movie I enjoy watching more. Singin’ In the Rain is a movie I can watch all day long, day after day.

But enough about Singin’ In the Rain. Tonight’s movie is An American In Paris, the movie Gene made the year before Singin’ In the Rain.

An American In Paris was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won six: Best Picture, Best Cinematography, Best Musical Score, Best Writing, Scoring and Screenplay, Best Art – Set Direction, and Best Costume Design. In addition, Gene Kelly was given an Honorary Academy Award “in appreciation of his versatility as an actor, singer, director and dancer, and specifically for his brilliant achievements in the art of choreography on film.”

The Real OscarThe curmudgeonly book The Real Oscar: The Story Behind The Academy Awards by Peter H. Brown has a different take on the film. He includes it in a section titled Five Films Which Shouldn’t Have Won:

Rabid fans of the movie musical will defend the selection of this frothy poem to Gershwin and Paris. And is IS a fine musical, although not as fine as Singin’ In the Rain or Bandwagon, which weren’t nominated. In another year it might have been an obvious champ. But in 1951 it triumphed over A Streetcar Named Desire, A Place In the Sun, and Quo Vadis. The African Queen, Detective Story, and Hitchcock’s Strangers On a Train were not nominated.

Gee, whiz, Peter. What do you do for fun – push little old ladies into oncoming traffic?

Of course this isn’t a heavy, weighty film. It’s a musical! It stars Gene Kelly, M-G-M’s hottest hoofer! What did you expect – Citizen Kane?

A couple of initial observations:

1. This is the 24th Oscar-winning film, and only the second Best-Picture winner to be shot in color, the first being Gone With the Wind in 1939.

2. An American In Paris shares a screenwriting convention in common with the previous film, All About Eve: voice over narration from multiple characters, which I find odd. Prior to All About Eve I’d never seen that used before. And here, with An American In Paris I’ve seen it two movies in a row.

What do I mean?

The movie opens with Jerry Mulligan (played by Gene Kelly, 1912-1996) lying in bed in his tiny Parisian apartment. His character provides the first-person narration until he mentions a friend…

…Adam Cook (played by musician/humorist Oscar Levant, 1906-1972) who picks up the story and moves the story along until he mentions another friend…

…Henri “Hank” Baurel (played by French singer, dancer, cabaret performer and film actor Georges Guétary, 1915-1997).

So there are three characters that start the movie, each providing first-person voice over narration.

As I mentioned, I’d never seen that done before.

Here comes the first musical number: Gene Kelly singing “I Got Rhythm” with a group of French kids. I’ve never seen anyone dance like Gene Kelly. So seemingly effortless. So incredibly athletic. So…

Oh-oh. Man crush police.

Leslie Caron (1931- ), who plays Lise Bouvier, is cute as a button. And flexible as a Gumby toy. A ballet dancer by profession, Ms. Caron made her Hollywood movie debut in this film. She’s wonderful.

Jerry Mulligan has the hots for Lise. But Milo Roberts (played by Nina Foch, 1924-2008), a well-to-do woman who bought some of Jerry’s paintings and would like to buy his affection as well, has the hots for Jerry. Jerry doesn’t know that Lise is already going out with Hank and, eventually, gets engaged to him. But Lise doesn’t love Hank, she loves Jerry.

The Melody Lingers On Say, I’m not sure I mentioned the plot of this movie. So I’ll let the fascinating book The Melody Lingers On: The Great Songwriters and Their Movie Musicals mention it for me:

However disappointing the “new” Gershwin musical of 1947 may have been, MGM’s recycling of “old” Gershwin for 1951’s An American In Paris resulted in one of the best musicals of all time – and the 1951 Academy Award winner for Best Picture (plus six other Oscars). The story is slight, about an American GI (Gene Kelly) who stays on in Paris after World War II to study painting and falls in love with a shop girl (Leslie Caron), but not without complications. What counts most is the way Gershwin’s songs – half of them already familiar standards by ‘51 – are worked logically into the story and then sung and danced with exuberance and panache by Kelly and his costars.

…there’s an infectious joie de vivre about An American In Paris that few American movie musicals have ever sustained so completely throughout nearly two hours’ running time…

…Not only is the symphonic poem An American In Paris used for an extended ballet finale, but “Our Love Is Here To Stay” becomes the romantic ballad of the picture.

There’s probably a lot more I could write about this movie. But my wife just asked me to stop typing so we can watch it together.

Just one more thing: The “extended ballet” scene at the end of the movie is one of those show-stoppers (like Kelly’s puddle-splashing “Singin’ In the Rain” number in the movie of the same name) that will be lauded for decades to come, if not for as long as movies are made. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears, a remarkable tribute to French painters with sets that defy description – at least description in the amount of time my wife is giving me.

She’s right, you know. An American In Paris isn’t a movie to be analyzed. It’s a cinematic achievement to be enjoyed. Especially the last 18-20 minutes, which is the epitome of the screenwriter’s axiom “show, don’t tell.” The entire last act is nothing but eye-popping visuals, exciting choreography, and exquisite dancing. No dialogue.

But there’s lots of joie de vivre.


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