A watershed musical that explodes with color and joy
Arthur Freed, Vincente Minnelli, and Gene Kelly came together with the intention of elevating the movie musical into an American art form, and the result was “An American in Paris”, considered one of the finest movie musicals ever made. Made by a bevy of talented professionals, this daring film was a revelation. It earned six Academy Awards (including Best Picture) from eight nominations, won two additional honorary Oscars, and was the first film to win a Golden Globe in the newly created category of Best Motion Picture (Comedy or Musical). Decades later it inspired two stage adaptations and was heavily referenced in the 2016 movie musical, “La La Land”, most obviously in its epilogue. The American Film Institute has named it the 9th Greatest Musical of All-Time, the 68th Greatest American Film of All-Time, and the 39th Greatest Love Story of All-Time.
Anchored by preexisting George and Ira Gershwin songs, “An American in Paris” tells the story of two people falling in love. Set in post-WWII France, American ex-GI turned short-on-cash painter “Jerry Mulligan” lives a bohemian life in a cramped upstairs apartment on the left bank of Paris. In the same building resides his friend “Adam Cook”, a struggling American concert pianist, who is friends with French singer, “Henri Baurel”. While trying to sell his paintings, “Jerry” meets a wealthy woman named “Milo Roberts” who buys two of his paintings with the intention of getting more than just his art. While trying to fight the temptation of becoming a kept man, “Jerry” spots the young and beautiful "Lise Bouvier”, and for him it is love at first sight, though he doesn’t know she is engaged to “Henri”, and as “Jerry” and “Lise” fall in love, they hide their personal lives from one another.. Told with the elegant artistry of director Minnelli, the energetic choreography and dance of Kelly, and the infectious jazziness of music by Gershwin, the film becomes a joyously colorful explosion of emotion.
Like the “Star Wars” type spectacles of today, lavish musicals like “An American in Paris” pushed the confines of realism, creating their own escapist worlds. A successful movie musical works because it establishes its own unique reality, style, and tone, and whether silly, fun, dramatic, or outlandish, it never veers outside those self-imposed boundaries. Playful liberties with reality are taken from the start of “An American in Paris”, as the film’s protagonist “Jerry”, introduces himself to us through fun narration and fleetingly looks directly at us with annoyance as we seem to wake him from his sleep. He gets out of bed with an exaggerated stretch and prepares his tiny flat for the day using his feet, hands and body. Already we know this film will be playfully larger-than-life. As it continues with narrated introductions by “Adam” and “Henri”, followed by a danced introduction by “Lise”, we’ve learned to expect anything in this film, including singing and dancing - a rather ingenious way to set up the film! Just as “Lise” seamlessly exhibits her personality traits while dancing to Gershwin’s “Embraceable You”, the film continues to integrate song and dance all through the film, usually for emotional effect. There’s “Jerry’s” elation at meeting “Lise” which turns into a magnificent tap dance with lighthearted antics to the song "Tra-la-la (This Time It's Really Love)”, and the highly romantic pas de deux on the left bank of the Seine danced by “Jerry” and “Lise” as they fall in love. In that particular scene they dance to the song “Love is Here to Stay”, which was an obscure Gershwin song at the time. The power and elegance of this dance made the song a hit, which is now a standard.
While “An American in Paris” is filled with magical moments like these, it is most famous for its adventurous, unprecedented seventeen minute finale. Set to Gershwin’s orchestral jazz piece titled “An American in Paris”, the film's stellar climax, aptly called “An American in Paris Ballet”, takes place inside the imagination of “Jerry”. In a resounding orgy of color and movement, the ballet is a reverie of “Jerry’s’” emotions about “Lise”, love, art, and Paris. As the music’s mood changes, “Jerry” winds his way in thrilling combinations of ballet, tap, jazz and modern dance through dreamlike Paris settings whose looks and atmospheres take inspiration from Master Impressionist painters such as Raoul Dufy, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Maurice Utrillo, Henri Rousseau, Vincent Van Gogh, and Toulouse-Lautrec. The ballet’s centerpiece fountain is based on the one at the Place de la Concorde. Spouting a steamy fog instead of water, it becomes a sensuous backdrop for dance as the colored lights change and a bluesy trumpet seductively blares out Gershwin’s notes. The ballet’s choreography, sets, colors, costumes, and music all come together to create a ravishing tour-de-force unlike anything seen before or since in American films.
The music used in the finale was actually the catalyst for the film's creation. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) producer Arthur Freed was a longtime friend of the songwriting brothers, George and Ira Gershwin. Upon hearing that Gershwin piece at a concert, he asked to buy it from George who said he would have to buy his whole catalogue. Freed did, intent on making a musical based on Gershwin’s songs ending with an uninterrupted ballet to that lengthy instrumental itself titled “An American in Paris”. Such a long musical sequence with no dialogue had successfully been done in the art house world with the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger British film “The Red Shoes” in 1948 but was unheard-of in a Hollywood musical. But that was Freed’s vision and he stuck to it. He convinced the powers that be at MGM to get onboard, and they gave him a giant budget (close to half a million dollars) for that sequence alone. The ballet’s details were not worked out when filming began, and by chance, halfway through shooting, actress Nina Foch (who plays “Milo”) got the chickenpox and the film shut down for three days. During those three days, Minnelli, Kelly, and Irene Sharaff (designer of the ballet’s spectacular costumes) sat in a room together and came up with the entire ballet. Sharaff, along with costume designers Orry-Kelly and Walter Plunkett won that year's Academy Award for Best Costume Design. Cinematographer John Alton was brought in specifically to direct the ballet sequence and won that year's Oscar for Best Color Cinematography (along with Alfred Gilks).
In the 1940s and 50s, MGM consistently produced movie musicals of a caliber unmatched by any other studio in the world. A majority of those musicals were developed at the hands of producer Arthur Freed. Having started as a lyricist, he helped produce the 1939 classic, “The Wizard of Oz”, and because of its success was made an MGM producer. The first film he produced was the smash hit “Babes in Arms”. Studio chief Louis B. Mayer soon gave him the authority to hire cast and crew, and over time Freed built a steady group of people from which to draw upon for the films he produced. His office and cinematic repertory company became known as the Freed Unit, of which Minnelli and Kelly were a part. Gene Kelly summed it up concisely in the forward of the Clive Hirschhorn book, “The Hollywood Musical”, when he wrote: “The members of the group who worked at MGM during my tenure there were very serious about musicals. That is not to say that we didn’t make them to entertain and uplift the spirit, but we thought that to do this effectively they had to be superbly crafted; and that meant the closest kind of collaboration among the choreographers, directors, producers, musicians, conductors, musical arrangers, designers, costumiers - the list is endless. There were probably more assembled talents in this field at Metro than anywhere else at any other time”. With his desire for creativity and MGM’s vast resources at his disposal, Freed allowed his Unit the freedom to take risks, and as a result reshaped the face of the movie musical from old-fashioned to excitingly modern. Freed’s impact is so clearly evident in this film that in addition to earning a Best Picture Oscar (as producer of “An American in Paris”), he was also awarded that year’s Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Academy Award for consistently producing high quality motion pictures. The following year he produced “Singin’ in the Rain” (universally considered the top movie musical ever made), and produced the 1958 Minnelli directed musical, “Gigi”, for which Freed won his second Best Picture Oscar. Freed was also awarded an honorary Oscar in 1967 for his distinguished service to the Academy and the production of six top-rated Awards telecasts. A few of his other classic films include "The Band Wagon”, "Meet Me in St. Louis”, “Easter Parade", "On the Town”, "Brigadoon", "Silk Stockings”, "Cabin in the Sky","Show Boat”, “Annie Get Your Gun”, and "The Barkleys of Broadway”. He was married once until his death. Arthur Freed died in 1973 at the age of 78.
One can’t separate the brilliance of film director Vincente Minnelli from the stupendousness of “An American in Paris”. He was given free creative reign over the film and his impeccable artistic flair and visual sense lift the film from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Minnelli meticulously oversaw all of the film’s details from the exact color of the largest wall to the precise placement of a tiny flower. Scenes are beautifully packed with furniture and objects adding just the right tonal accent while informing us about the characters. In the 1973 documentary “The Men Who Made Movies”, Minnelli said, “A picture that stays with you is made up of a hundred or more hidden things…. What you try to create is a little magic. And if that depends on the turning of a leaf, fine, so be it. But the main search is for a little magic in our lives”. And like “An American in Paris”, Minnelli’s films were filled with magic.
Vincente Minnelli started as a window dresser, photographer, and then became a theater costume and set designer in Chicago. He moved to New York where he eventually became a stage manager at Radio City Music Hall and was also tasked with choosing the colors for Rockefeller Center's original famous Rainbow Room. He began directing theater in 1935 and after staging and directing a couple of musical numbers in Hollywood films, his success caught the eye of Freed, and in 1940 he became a part of the Freed Unit. Freed let him choose his first film to direct and Minnelli chose the musical “Cabin in the Sky” in 1943, with an all-Black cast that included Ethel Waters and Lena Horne. A couple films later, in 1944, he directed the classic musical “Meet Me in St. Louis” which starred Judy Garland. The two fell in love and married in 1945. He directed Garland in several more films, including her first non-musical “The Clock”. In 1948 he directed Garland and Kelly in the somewhat overlooked and often misunderstood musical “The Pirate” - now considered a classic. He earned his first Best Director Academy Award nomination for “An American in Paris” and a second for the musical “Gigi” - which he won. Though often thought of as a director of musicals (he directed many of the best, including “The Band Wagon”, "Brigadoon", "Bells Are Ringing", "Ziegfeld Follies", "Till The Clouds Roll By" and "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever”), he mostly directed non-musicals, including "Father of the Bride", "Some Came Running", "The Bad and the Beautiful", "Lust for Life", "The Sandpiper", and "Designing Woman”. One of cinema’s legendary creative figures, his solid foundation in theater, astute artistic sensibility, and exquisite taste poured out of his films. He used inspired camera movements and arguably had the most expert use of color by any American film director. An example of Minnelli’s masterful mind and knowhow is how he uses a strictly black and white palette for the masked ball sequence in this film, giving the viewer’s eyes a rest before the amply colored finale. He was married four times and had two daughters, including his daughter with Garland - the legendary singer/dancer/actress Liza Minnelli. Even with his marriages he was widely recognized by many who knew him as a gay man, seeming to enter the closet when he entered Hollywood. Vincente Minnelli died in 1986 at the age of 83.
Another of the film's vital forces was its star, choreographer and co-director Gene Kelly. If you want to understand the qualities that made Kelly a movie star rated by AFI as the 15th Greatest American Male Screen Legend of All-Time, look no further than this film’s jubilant dance number, “I Got Rhythm”. As he clowns around teaching English words and dance steps to French children, his abundantly joyful charm, sexy masculinity, dazzling smile, effervescent humor, and astounding dancing skills are all in full force. Watching Kelly dance is something to behold. Add the children’s reactions and it is a moment to cherish. Kelly choreographed the entire film, and like Minnelli was given creative control. Not wanting to use child actors, he hired a large group of French emigrant children - which accounts for their genuine behavior. Though the song "I Got Rhythm" had been featured previously in other films, its presentation here is so exhilarating that this version was chosen by AFI as the 32nd Greatest Song in American Movies. Kelly also directed this dance number, “Lise’s” dance to "Embraceable You”, and the film’s climactic “An American in Paris Ballet”. It was a challenge for him, Minnelli, and musical director Saul Chaplin to narrow down songs from Gershwin’s vast collection when preparing the film, and screenwriter Alan Jay Lerner helped tremendously in organizing and finalizing their choices. Along with Johnny Green, Chaplin won that year's Academy Award for Best Musical Score, and Lerner took home that year's Best Screenplay Oscar.
Fred Astaire and Kelly established themselves as the top male dancers in cinema (picking one of them as the single best is like saying one color of the rainbow is better than the others). Though Astaire was graceful, light, and at home in a tux, while Kelly was acrobatic, sensual, and more like a guy on the street, they were both driven to figure out how to best capture dance on-screen. Kelly was committed to make dance look as dimensional as possible in a 2-D medium, and to raise the movie musical into an American art form. The film’s ballet was his giant leap and almost certainly his single most successful undertaking towards those goals. For his work in this film, Kelly was awarded 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. It was the only Oscar he would receive. With “An American in Paris” he took over Astaire’s spot as the reigning king of movie musicals (Astaire was nearing a second retirement). Though Kelly studied ballet, he always wanted to dance to the popular American music of his day by composers such as Cole Porter and Roger and Hart. His work in movies gave him that opportunity and he formulated choreography based on character, incorporating all forms of dance into his work while creating his own unique style. He also wanted to make dance more accessible, so rather than wearing the traditional top hat and tails he opted for more casual clothes - often a sweater and trousers. The costume designers in the Freed Unit even built him custom dance shoes to look like everyday footwear.
When he was eight years old, Gene Kelly’s mother enrolled him and his brother into a dance class. After being called a “sissy” by other boys, he stopped dancing until he was fifteen, and began dancing in talent contests and nightclubs. While studying economics at the University of Pittsburgh, he appeared in the University’s theatrical company and after graduating became its director. In 1932, his family opened a dance school which they named the Gene Kelly Studio of the Dance, where he taught while pursuing a law degree. After briefly moving to New York in an unsuccessful attempt to become a choreographer, he returned to his home of Pittsburgh where he began to work in theater as an actor and choreographer. He made his first Broadway appearance as a dancer in Cole Porter’s 1938 musical, “Leave It to Me!”, had a breakthrough appearing in 1939's “The Time of Your Life”, and became a Broadway star as the lead in 1940’s “Pal Joey”. Hollywood came calling and his first film appearance was starring opposite Judy Garland in the Freed musical “For Me and My Gal”. His sixth film, "Cover Girl", did the trick in 1944, and Kelly (along with co-star Rita Hayworth) became a movie star. In 1945 he choreographed and starred in “Anchors Aweigh” opposite Frank Sinatra, which established Kelly as a top-rate dancer. That film was a big success and earned Kelly his only Best Actor Academy Award nomination. After a stint in the U.S. Naval Air Service he returned to films, including the breakthrough movie musical, "On the Town" in 1949 - the first feature film Kelly directed (he co-directed with Stanley Donen). After “An American in Paris” came “Singin’ in the Rain” (also co-directing with Donen). Kelly steadily worked in films, tapering-off a bit starting in the late 1950s. His other classics include "The Young Girls Of Rochefort", "Summer Stock", "The Three Musketeers", "It's Always Fair Weather", "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", “Brigadoon”, and a dramatic role in the non-musical, “Inherit the Wind”. Kelly’s final film was 1980's "Xanadu", though he subsequently appeared on three television series. He also directed a total of seventeen films and TV shows, including his 1956 lifelong dream, all-dance film “Invitation to the Dance”, and 1969’s big budget "Hello, Dolly!” starring Barbra Streisand. He was married three times, including his first marriage to actress Betsy Blair, and his final to Patricia Ward Kelly (forty-seven years his junior) to whom he remained married until his death. Patricia keeps her husband’s legacy alive today through public speaking, DVD commentaries, and one-woman tributes, including "Gene Kelly: The Legacy, An Evening with Patricia Ward Kelly”, which I was lucky enough to see at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in 2012 (it was fabulous). I hear rumors she has something new in the works. Gene Kelly died in 1996 at the age of 83.
In a stunning film debut, Leslie Caron portrays the young gamine “Lise Bouvier”, the object of “Jerry’s” affection. Her youthful innocence is infectious and her dancing sublime. Caron was purely a ballet dancer and this was her first time dancing jazz and modern. It was a tough experience for her as she was ill during filming with mononucleosis and anemia, and had to build up strength and stamina due to suffering from malnutrition during WWII. As he always did, Kelly choreographed to the skills of his partner and made her look good. Her dancing shines as in “Embraceable You” - in which she enchantingly dances en pointe ballet, vivaciously does the Charleston, and sexily shows off her intelligence doing splits while reading a book. Caron had never acted, and though her mother was American, her English was minimal. Kelly helped her phonetically with the dialogue and luckily most of her part was spent silently dancing, though her acting is surprisingly good for a newcomer. You can see how natural she is in her first scene dancing with Kelly in the basement bistro and again as she warms up to “Jerry” while he helps an older woman in the perfume shop. Caron’s success in “An American in Paris” got her a seven year contract at MGM.
Leslie Caron was born in the Parisian suburbs to a mother who studied dance and wanted her to become a dancer. By the time she was fourteen, Caron began performing ballet with dreams of becoming the next Anna Pavlova. By sixteen she was dancing professionally, and on opening night of her performance with Roland Petit’s Paris ballet company, Gene Kelly happened to see her. The way she moved made an impression on him and a year later he came back to Paris to audition her for “An American in Paris”. Never having heard of Kelly or Gershwin and with no interest in movies, she unassumingly did what they asked and forgot about it. A few days later she was told she got the part and to leave for the US. From then on her life changed as she soon became the first French female Hollywood movie star. While filming “An American in Paris”, the studio gave her English lessons, and rather than study with MGM acting coach, after the film she secretly trained outside the studio. Not quite sure what to do with her, MGM cast her in several films including 1953’s “Lili”. The studio thought “Lili” would be a disaster so Freed told her they needed to come up with another film ASAP to save her career. He asked what she wanted to do and she said “Gigi” - a play currently on Broadway starring newcomer Audrey Hepburn, so Freed embarked on getting the rights. In the meantime, “Lili” turned out to be a success and for it Caron earned her first Best Actress Academy Award nomination. In 1956 she decided to star in the London version of the play “Gigi” as preparation for the film. It was brought to the screen by Freed and Minnelli in 1958 as a musical and ended up winning eight Academy Awards including Best Picture. It is Caron’s most famous role (with “An American in Paris” and “Lili” vying for second place) and is often named as the last great MGM musical. As audience’s tastes were shifting towards the gritty realism of Elia Kazan and Marlon Brando, Caron asked to get out of her MGM contract to be able to change with the times. She found her way into European films, most notably the 1962 British drama “The L-Shaped Room” which earned her a Best Actress BAFTA and Golden Globe, and a second Best Actress Academy Award nomination. Other notable films from her seventy-plus film and TV credits include "Daddy Long Legs", "Fanny", "Valentino", "Father Goose", "Is Paris Burning?", and “Chocolat”. She was married and divorced three times and had a famous affair with actor Warren Beatty. In 1982 she wrote a book of short stories titled “Vengeance”, and her autobiography, "Thank Heaven: A Memoir" in 2009. Leslie Caron just turned 90 years old last week, on July 1 (sharing the same birthday as me). Happy belated birthday Ms. Caron!
Oscar Levant plays “Adam Cook”, the concert pianist and friend of “Jerry”. His believability as the sarcastic, neighborly curmudgeon takes any would-be sugar out of the film, giving it a darker tinge. An actual concert pianist (Levant plays the piano in the film), he was also a composer, conductor, and became a comedian and character actor known for playing grouchy types to comedic effect. He had trouble choosing which Gershwin song would be his showcase number in “An American in Paris”, and settled on "Concerto in F for Piano and Orchestra”, in which he is portrayed as playing all the instruments. Oscar Levant moved to Hollywood in 1928 and soon began writing music for films. After conducting and composing for Broadway, he became a household name in America as the witty host of the radio quiz show “Information Please” in the 1930s and 40s. He appeared in fourteen films as an actor, including the classics "The Band Wagon", "The Barkleys of Broadway", and “Humoresque”. He was a friend of the Gershwin brothers and eventually became known as a virtuoso performer of their music - so it was a natural for him to be in this film. He was married twice. Oscar Levant died in 1972 at the age of 65.
Nina Foch is wonderful as “Milo Roberts”, the wealthy woman who buys “Jerry’s” paintings. Foch completely captures the air of a sophisticated, spoiled, wealthy woman and somehow manages to keep her not completely unlikeable (more like desperately lonely). Dutch born Nina Foch moved to the US as a very young child where she became interested in acting and eventually studied method acting with both Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. She began appearing in films in 1943 and by 1945 was starring in B-films such as “My Name Is Julia Ross” and "I Love a Mystery”, making a name for herself playing tall, cool, aloof characters. In 1949 she began to appear on television, which is where she worked extensively in her 172 film and TV credits. A sampling of her films include "Spartacus", "The Ten Commandments", “Mahogany", "Rich and Famous”, and “Executive Suite” in 1954, for which she earned her only Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination. She was married and divorced three times, including her marriage to James Lipton (from the TV series "Inside the Actors Studio"). Nina Foch died in 2008 at the age of 84.
Just a fun mention that Anna Q. Nilsson quickly appears as “Kay Jansen”, the wife in the couple “Jerry” sits with in the bistro when he first sees “Lise”. Nilsson was a major silent film star, and appeared as one of the “waxworks” in the classic, “Sunset Boulevard”, (where you can read more about her). Also quickly appearing in that scene is jazz musician Benny Carter, who can be seen for a second leading the jazz band. And for those fans of the 1960’s “Batman” TV Series, the older woman helped by Kelly when buying perfume is Madge Blake, who played “Robin’s” “Aunt Harriet Cooper”.
In addition to its Academy Award wins for Best Picture, Screenplay, Cinematography, Costume Design, and Score, "An American in Paris" also won an Oscar for its Art Direction - Set Design by Cedric Gibbons, E. Preston Ames, Edwin B. Willis, and F. Keogh Gleason. In addition to Minnelli's Best Director nomination, Adrienne Fazan earned an Oscar nomination for Best Film Editing.
Exuberant, vibrant, and-oh-so-joyful, this film dazzles with its inventive directing, spectacular choreography, stunning colors, and classic Gershwin tunes. There may be just one or two more beloved musicals, but the superlative artistry and innovative elegance in this milestone have never been matched. Enjoy, “An American in Paris”!
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