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Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here but it sounds better in French.

Movie

An American in Paris
(1951)

 

Vincente Minnelli’s musical won the Best Picture Oscar in 1952 but you’d be hard-pressed to explain just what made the film so deserving. Likely, it was a response to the ever-expanding artistic aspirations of star Gene Kelly, resulting in an extended seventeen-minute dance sequence at the climax.

Of which, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Minnelli was channelling Michael Powell (except without the visual precision or narrative grasp); fittingly, Kelly screened The Red Shoes to MGM to convince them to make the film. The final sequence is by some distance the most impressive one here, but it is all spectacle and insufficient content. Elsewhere, the moves are as accomplished as you’d expect from Kelly, but the complete routines aren’t nearly as winning. And while the Gershwin songs are generally agreeable, they are not, aside from the title song, the most memorable work of George and Ira.

Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a WWII veteran settled in Paris as an unsuccessful but typically-cheerful-Kelly-type artist. His associates include Adam, a concert pianist (Oscar Levant), and Henri, a successful singer (Georges Guetary). Fortunes change when he meets wealthy heiress Milo (Nina Foch) who assumes his patronage but has amorous intentions in mind. Jerry, however, is smitten with young French girl Lise (Leslie Caron) whom, unbeknownst to him, Henri is romancing.

So it’s a solid enough set-up, but one that rarely comes alive. The sound stage version of Paris is impressive but claustrophobic (Kelly wanted to film on location). There’s too much cutesy business with Kelly goofing off in front of annoyingly American-French kids. Crucially, there is zero chemistry between Kelly and Caron. In fact, the latter makes little impression at all aside from her teeth. Lise is insipid and bland, and if it weren’t for her dance skills you’d be clueless as to why Caron got the role (Cyd Charisse was cast but dropped out due to pregnancy). There’s something entirely unconvincing about the way  Jerry is instantly smitten and, further, this is made slightly unsettling by the Kelly clearly being twice as old as Caron.

The result is an unbalanced film. You don’t believe in the love story, so the supporting plot threads have to do the trick. Levant is amusing in the best buddy role; he gets much of the smarter dialogue and, in particular, has an amusing “performance” dream where he plays every part on stage and also makes up the entire audience.

Crucially, in terms of the film’s greater failure, the performers who spark off each other are the ones destined to remain apart. Jerry is essentially manoeuvred into the position of Milo’s gigolo (the film is far too demure to ever say this explicitly), and we’re clearly not supposed to care about this rich, privileged gal too much; the last we see of her, rejected, is exiting stage right to look for champagne. But Foch (by far the most talented actor in the cast and, though twelve years younger than him, every bit Kelly’s equal) makes her so sympathetic and likeable that you end up concluding that Jerry’s an idiot to ignore someone so alluringly feisty and who is loaded (there are a number of films where the leading man wanders off with the least interesting woman in the cast; at the front of the pack are a couple of Andie McDowell starrers, Four Weddings and a Funeral and Green Card).

If An American in Paris can’t live up to the hype of being showered with Oscars, that’s nothing new. It does remain a strong indication of the direction Kelly (who directed some of the scenes here) was heading in; the following year’s Singin’ in the Rain would prove artistically and commercially satisfying and more than justify its reputation over the passing years.

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