Monday, August 4, 2014

#1,449. An American in Paris (1951)

Directed By: Vincente Minnelli

Starring: Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant

Tag line: "What a joy! It's M-G-M's Technicolor musical!"

Trivia: No words are spoken during the last 20 minutes and 25 seconds of the film

Typically, the best scenes in any musical feature singing and dancing. 1951’s An American in Paris , however, is an exception to this rule. The film certainly has its share of extraordinary musical numbers, but it’s the performance of star Gene Kelly that drives the movie, and keeps our undivided attention even when the music dies down.

American Jerry Mulligan (Kelly), an ex-GI, hung around Paris after the war ended to pursue his passion for painting. Alas, neither Jerry nor his good friend Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a concert pianist living just next door to him, have been able to carve out a living for themselves, and must beg and borrow to survive. 

Jerry’s luck finally changes when he meets Milo Roberts (Nina Foch), a wealthy American who takes a liking to both Jerry and his art. She promises to feature him in an upcoming exhibition, which could put Jerry on the fast track to fame. 

The situation becomes a bit more complicated, however, when Jerry falls in love with pretty French girl Lise Bouvier (Leslie Caron), not realizing she is already engaged to his friend, singer Henri Baurel (Georges Guetry)!

An American in Paris owes its success to a number of factors. First and foremost is the music of George and Ira Gershwin, which perfectly complements both the story and its Parisian setting. Then there's the cast. Looking very young (she was 19 at the time), Leslie Caron is positively charming as Lise, an innocent girl trapped in a difficult situation, and Oscar Levant as the oft-depressed best friend / concert pianist has his share of funny moments. 

What propels An America in Paris to the rank of a classic, however, is the work of Gene Kelly, who belts out a number of fantastic Gershwin songs, including “I Got Rhythm” (accompanied by a collection of French kids) and the incredibly upbeat “S’ Wonderful”, performed as a duet with Georges Guetary. Aside from being the film’s star, Kelly was also responsible for the excellent choreography, which is on full display in the grand finale, an extended dream sequence that guides us on a magical tour through the streets - and even the history - of Paris.

The fact that Kelly tackled the musical routines with such gusto is no surprise, yet what truly impressed me was his overall portrayal of Jerry, who is just as charismatic in the film’s quieter moments as he is when the music swells. A vagabond traipsing through life with a smile on his face, Jerry is one of those guys you can’t help but like, and when Lise abruptly has a change of heart, finding him annoying one minute and irresistible the next, we understand why. To know Jerry is to love him, and it’s the energy Kelly brings to the role that makes the character so damn endearing. Gene Kelly was, without question, one of Hollywood’s best song and dance men, but in An American in Paris he proves he was a terrific actor as well.

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, An American in Paris is a vivacious musical, a touching love story, and, ultimately, a showcase for its star, who pulls out all the stops to make it one of the most entertaining films of the 1950’s.

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