An American in Paris (1951)
Originally published August 23rd, 2012
Director Vincente Minnelli returns to the blog! I’ve seen five of his films, one I’ve reviewed (Father’s Little Dividend) and three I’ve enjoyed (Dividend, Meet Me in St. Louis and The Long, Long Trailer). I don’t seem to connect with his many of his musicals as all of the ones I’ve seen (Gigi, The Band Wagon and this) were too long and tedious for me. Oddly enough An American in Paris is listed on Premiere’s list of the twenty most overrated films of all time and I have to say that’s true. I honestly don’t get what makes this movie so special? Stars Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are beautiful dancers, but when they actually have to act romantic I felt no chemistry. The rest of the acting is equally blase, and while the location is amazing it’s not used to full effect (probably due to not being filmed on location). An American in Paris is the go-to film if you need an example of an overblown musical. (Sorry if I broke a lot of hearts.)
Jerry Mulligan (Gene Kelly) is a painter living in Paris. One day, his art is discovered by a lonely heiress (Nina Foch) who falls in love with him. Complications arise when Jerry falls for the beautiful Lise (Leslie Caron) who happens to be dating a wealthy playboy (Georges Guetary).
What can be said about Minnelli’s musicals revolves around his ability to imbue the plot with a sense of quirk. Throughout the introduction of the film you see how eccentric each of the characters are, giving them an added layer of individuality. When you first meet Jerry, his apartment is small, leaving him to have items which provide three or four uses. His turn to his pantry includes a table that turns into something else and is an effective bit of humor and stage business as Kelly looks so casual setting things up.
Kelly is the heart of the film and the main reason to watch. I don’t care for this movie, but I’ll give Kelly credit because I enjoyed him. His dancing is astonishing but what do you expect from a Gene Kelly movie? He plays a myriad of different personalities, all with aplomb, from lovesick to smart aleck. The best moment has to be his performance of “I Got Rhythm” with a group of children. Sure, none of the children sound remotely French, but it’s an adorable and well-rehearsed number. Jerry’s love triangle is a bit ill-defined as I’m not sure how exactly we’re supposed to see Milo, the heiress, trying to finance Jerry. Are we meant to sympathize with her for her loneliness, or see her as a daffy socialite trying to manipulate Jerry? I felt for her and thought Milo started out well-written. She dresses Jerry down when he assumes she wants a boy toy and I loved how she hit him where it hurt, explaining she’s not trying to hurt his “male initiative.” It’s a small segment of the movie, but their relationship highlights the unfair dichotomy in prostitution featuring males vs. females (males are “kept men” while ladies are hookers).
One can always tell a Minnelli movie by his use of color, which goes from beautiful to garish in certain scenes but always with an eye toward beauty. The opening scenes of An American in Paris are simply breathtaking; the colors pop on the Eiffel Tower and Champs Elysee even if it’s plain white. The white has a glow effect to it, and while I was using a Blu-Ray player the disc was a standard DVD on a regular television, so I’m sure it all looks a million times better with a superior home theater. Scenes like Lise’s introduction also have loud color schemes overwhelming you with their brightness.
I’ve previously seen Leslie Caron in Gigi and thought she was sweet, but here she had very little personality outside of being pulled between two men, one she loves and one she feels indebted to. The relationship with Kelly was weird, considering she looks significantly younger than him, same with her relationship with Henri (Guetary). The main issue I had was how infantilized she is next to the men. Her opening dance scene has her playing both angel and slut based on how the men see her. She mentions she stays with Henri because he saved her during the war as a child, whereas her relationship with Kelly seems based on the fact the movie tells them to be together. I’ve included her introductory dance above which is a stunning sequence and was controversial at the time for Caron’s lascivious work with the chair. Caron proves she can dance any style and has moves I’ve never seen a dancer do. In that regard she’s comparable to Vera-Ellen but look at the scene and how she’s depicted through how the men describe her.
As for the two men, they’re pretty forgettable. Guetary is a poor man’s Louis Jourdan, simply playing the Lothario Frenchman with a heart of gold. (He did have me singing “Stairway to Paradise” for the last three days.) Oscar Levant is the weak link of the group and it’s mentioned on IMDB he only took the role as a favor to George Gershwin. Levant said he saw himself as a pianist, not an actor, and that really shows. He says all his lines stilted as if he’s trying to remember them. He also comes off poorly dubbed and while I can’t prove it, I swear it sounded like Thurl Ravenscroft dubbed his voice, either him or Bane because the voice gets freakishly loud.
The story is formulaic and works out for the best. Minnelli tries giving this film the voiceovers he’s generally known for, but it doesn’t work here. It starts with Jerry narrating, than shifts to Adam (Levant). Apparently Minnelli realized it wasn’t aiding the film because it disappears after the opening and doesn’t return. It’s also never explained why it takes so long for Jerry to realize Lise is with someone else; she’s secretive, doesn’t want to be seen out with him during the night, and always leaves in a hurry, yet Jerry thinks that’s normal.
An American in Paris has dazzling dance sequences, not just the two I’ve included but the ending ballet is spectacular and should be seen. The story is the problem, falling under the weight of the city and the dancing.
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Kristen Lopez View All
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.
Frankly, I don’t get this movie either. I guess the major draw is the fun song and dance numbers, of course, but not so much the plot. Or the romance. I’m tots with you there. But I think you’ve also hit the nail on the head appreciating Minnelli’s use of color – love it every time!
Glad to know I wasn’t being too harsh and loved your Kelly post!
I’m not sure I’ve seen An American In Paris all the way through, but it would sure be tough to beat Singin’ in the Rain or On the Town (IMO)
LOVE Singin’ in the Rain. Never gets old!
I appreciate your write-up, but I’d like to say a few words in the movie’s defense. For one thing, I appreciate the fact there’s no character here we’re supposed to root against; both Nina Foch and George Guetary’s characters are treated sympathetically. Also, I realize this is a matter of taste, but I do see chemistry between Kelly and Caron, particularly when they dance, and I also like the acting better than you seem to do. Finally, a musical needs great numbers to work, and this has them, from Kelly and Guetary singing “S’Wonderful” (made all the more poignant that neither of them realize they’re singing about being in love with the same woman) to the “I Got Rhythm” number you mentioned, this is filled to the brim with great music and dancing, and that doesn’t even count the famous ballet sequence at the end. I don’t think this stands up to Singin’ in the Rain, say, but I do think this is a fine movie. Sorry you don’t, though I did enjoy your write-up.
I also still get tickled with Oscar Levant sitting in the cafe between Jerry and Henri when he figures it out!
I definitely can understand the appeal of it. I think my problem is I just don’t understand Minnelli’s musicals (this and The Band Wagon as well). I did love Nina Foch and felt her character should have gotten treated a smidge better and your right on about Caron and Kelly having chemistry in dance. Actually, I think Kelly was the master at creating chemistry through dance with all his leading ladies be they Debbie Reynolds or Olivia Newton-John! Thanks for reading even though we differ!
I reckon I stand out here. It’s my favorite Kelly movie (and Joel – my son prefers On the Town and Singin’ In The Rain, hands-down, too). I was a little girl when I first saw it and that’s when I fell in love with watching Gene Kelly dance for the first time and I still get lost watching him in this and naturally the others. Also when we played Gershwin in my school band, I made the connections with it and it caught more of me. I also absolutely love the pastel scenes of Paris after the war and the illustrations remind me of my favorite children’s books. Call me sappy, too – it’s the ending that gets me everytime, on the steps. It really does… Besides, since it was my first Kelly movie, I’m still quite partial to it. 🙂
Singin’ was my first Kelly film and I can see how he’d get anyone to become a fan of his! I need to see On the Town asap! Thanks for reading!