An American In Paris – 1951
Director – Vincente Minnelli
Starring – Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, and Oscar Levant
So I’ll admit it, I have a love affair with all things French. Paris, specifically, is one of my favorite places ever. So much so, that occasionally, I have been known to pull up the Google map of the city and street-view surf around to various places that I either want to go, or remember fondly. Imagine my delight, when I found out that Gene Kelly, the man who was primarily responsible for the best musical ever (Singing in the Rain), was in a movie set in the romantic, free-spirited, and gorgeous streets, and hearts of Paris! Motherfucking, Paris, son! So did it stand up to all that hype and ballyhoo? Almost.
Firstly, lets just get this out of the way. I don’t think any musical is going to quite equal Singing in the Rain. The color, the musical numbers, the athleticism, and the practical use of singing and dancing numbers to naturally advance the plot, is not only remarkable, it’s also just not fair measure upon which to hold the competition. It’s like comparing Total Recall (the Schwarzenegger version, for gods sake) to another Sci-Fi movie. No comparison, everything else loses.
Okay, so discounting the unfair competition, how was An American in Paris? Very good. When preparing for this review, I had a set number of routines in my head that I wanted to talk about, but as I tried to isolate what made each stand out from the others, I’d remember just what elements of the other routines I liked as well. For instance, possibly my favorite dance number was the description/introduction of the many faces of the film’s love interest, Lise (Leslie Caron). In said dance number, an admirer explains to his friend just what this siren is like using different styles of dance to illustrate different facets of her personality. But as I was typing up how that set of mini-routines was so fantastic, I remembered Gene Kelly’s Buster Keaton-esque morning routine putting away his bed, and preparing breakfast. Awesome, and totally worthy of its own mention. Each routine, and each song had something like this that made it worth watching, and as such, the ranking system I originally devised doesn’t work out so well when writing about them.
The dancing and choreography were certainly fun to watch, but there were a few times where I would have liked a bit more storytelling instead of dancing just for dancing’s sake. A prime example would be in the films final dance routine (which, by the way, lasts a full 18 minutes without any dialog of any kind). Though I liked the tour through the famous french paintings, the stretch was a pretty long one where I found my attention wandering a bit. By and large though, I found myself engaged (mostly) throughout. I’m sure I’m not making any real revelation here when I say that Gene Kelly was a pretty competent dancer, so watching him wasn’t really that hard.
When it came to the secondary characters, however, the magic slipped away a little bit faster. Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, and Georges Guetary simply were never quite given enough to do, with the exception of accompanying Gene Kelly. Similarly the plot for those characters seemed a little thin as well…but speaking of plot…
The story goes like this, Gene Kelly plays Jerry Mulligan, a painter. A rather mediocre one, even by his own admission. He and his starving artist friends live hand to mouth in a beautiful building on the left bank of the Seine, each struggling and working hard to sell their art, be it painting, piano, or dance. While out selling his paintings, or trying to, he meets a rather well to do socialite who does all she can to seduce him, and lure him in. While out on the town with her one evening, Mulligan doesn’t recognize their first date for what it is and finds himself captivated by the beauty at another table.
The trouble comes in when we the audience realize that this girl, the object of his affection, is in a relationship with one of his good friends and is about to be swept off to the wedding chapel with him. So now Jerry has to pick, between a woman who is the unavailable ideal, or the woman who is the pines after, but is his clear second choice. Unfortunately this plot weakens toward the end and seems more like a formula conducive to the inclusion of dance numbers than it does a reasonable plot that happens to have dance numbers in it. We never really get a satisfactory resolution for around fifty percent of the stories, they are just left open-ended.
As with the unattainable ideal that is Singing in the Rain, An American in Paris is so vibrant, it nearly causes your brain to explode with colorful seizures. The set pieces are all fun, especially when they rather faithfully re-create some recognizable Parisian landmarks as with the fountain at Place de la Concorde, or the nest of little book-stalls that exist along the both sides of the Seine.
So, An American in Paris is definitely my second favorite musical that I’ve watched for this list, which isn’t very descriptive considering it exists somewhere between Singing in the Rain (which, we’ve established is fantastic), and West Side Story (which is fucking awful). That’s like saying something is between noon and midnight, or someone is between a humanitarian and a murderer. Rest assured that I really enjoyed An American in Paris. I’ll count myself as super lucky if all of the other musicals on the list are this good!