60 Second Movie Review: An American in Paris (1951)
August 16, 2012 3 Comments
Seeing An American in Paris on the big screen at the Stanford Theatre was my first time seeing it all the way through on any screen. I’ve been a huge Gene Kelly fan since childhood — one of my now not-so-private secrets is that I took a couple years of tap dancing lessons as a kid. My fandom was founded primarily on Singin’ in the Rain, with a dash of On the Town sprinkled on top. But An American in Paris? Whenever it came on the teevee, it seemed a tad disjointed and superficial, without that sustained momentum of my favorite Kelly flicks, so I never stayed with it. I still feel that way, but the movie has plenty of delightful performers and performances.
The plot synopsis of An American in Paris goes as follows… A young American painter named Jerry Mulligan lives in Paris after the war — that’s World War II, for you young ‘uns. Mulligan is chased by a wealthy older woman but himself chases a beautiful young girl-woman of 19, who is in a relationship with an older French singer to whom she owes her life, but for whom she doesn’t feel as much passion. The main players are Gene Kelly as Mulligan, Nina Foch as the socialite cougar Milo Roberts (pushing the envelope at age 27), Leslie Caron as the enchanting Lise Bouvier, Georges Guétary as the French singer Henri Baurel, and Oscar Levant as everyone’s best friend, Adam Cook.
An American in Paris has its roots in the 1928 Gershwin composition of the same name, with its romanticization of, you know, Americans living in Paris. Although Gershwin must have been thinking of expats such as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein.
Those glory days are gone by the time we get to the Hollywood film, but Americans still rule the roost in An American in Paris — particularly the white males, as always. It’s a world which is already nostalgic about itself, in which all one needs is a paintbrush, a little bit of will, and some good old-fashioned charm to make it. And Gene Kelly’s main mode of operation is charm. Did you know that he got that scar on his face from a tricycle accident when he was five or six? (That’s according to the interwebs.)
The weakness of the film is the plot — not because it isn’t more complicated, but because it doesn’t dance very far from the surface. It works better as an ode to art (music! dance! painting!) which allows the talented cast to show off their talents (in music! in dance! But not in painting, because Mulligan’s muse apparently has a taste for the trite).
Despite their guilelessness, most of the characters are captivating. Or perhaps they are enchanting because of their simplicity. Lise is the shining centerpiece whose youth captures all. She’s the perfect young woman in part because she can be molded to fit the fantasy. We see this before we even see her. Henri offers up a few competing descriptions of her and we get glimpses of her dancing the different stereotypes.
Leslie proves herself in the film by performing off of Kelly, who leads with almost every dance step and action. Fitting, as Kelly apparently discovered her dancing ballet for Roland Petit. Seven years after An American in Paris, she would again play the young ingenue winding up in a relationship with a man who watched her grow up, this time in Gigi. Milo is the character who really gets the short end of the stick in the misogyny sweepstakes, though. When she gets forward with Jerry, it’s an affront to his manhood and a sign of her desperation. When Jerry gets pushy with Lise, it’s a celebration of his manhood and a testimony to her allure.
So yeah, there’s tons of gender inequity, and it portrays postwar France as a place full of stock characters, where everyone from police officers to old women are there to serve as props in the music and comedy.
The pleasure of the film comes from not taking it as a stab at realism, but appreciating the skill with which all of these performers inhabit those very stereotypes. Indeed, we can tell that they are stereotypes in large part by how much they are such obvious performances.
As the old song (written the next year, in 1952) goes, that’s entertainment, and if you already like MGM song-and-dance movies, this one is definitely worth a watch. If you’re not sure about 1950s movie musicals, though, start with the best, which would be Singin’ in the Rain. Or, you could relax and read a book…
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