An American in Paris is a musical that tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, an American artist living in Paris, and his interactions with friends and love interests. The film blends vibrant color, set pieces with memorable music and dance numbers, and a complicated love story in a harmonious and entertaining manner.
Jerry is a gifted artist, though he acts like his work never attracts buyers or patrons. One day, seemingly out of the blue, his artwork receives the praise of a wealthy American woman who would like to become his “sponsor.” Jerry is leery of the deal, because it is clear she wants to be involved both on a business level as well as romantically. The situation is then compounded when Jerry becomes friends with a French singer, Henri, and Mulligan inadvertently falls in love with Henri’s girlfriend and eventual fiancé, Lise. Jerry consoles his friend, Adam, another American living in Paris on a music fellowship, who happens to be friends with both Jerry and Henri. Despite the serpentine romantic interests, this musical is a brilliant movie.
The movie’s pacing is handled well. The characters are introduced in a natural fashion and the story does not waste any time hitting the beats that translate into an engaging and passionate, emotional roller coaster. Being a musical, the story features several interstitial musical numbers; they consist of choral, orchestral, dancing, and pieces that fuse all three elements together. These moments are fresh and add an additional layer of energy to the film.
An American in Paris is clearly a musical, but it is also undoubtedly a drama. This does not mean that it lacks pep and light-hearted, comedic elements because those are peppered throughout the movie. The tone is similar to the elements of the story; it is at once light and humorous as well as emotional and engrossing.
Some of the main elements of the story are definitely a sign of the times of the movie’s original release. When Jerry firsts sees Lise, he is out with his “sponsor,” Milo. Once Lise catches his eye, his quick to ignore Milo and is insistent on learning more about this “mystery” girl. He proceeds to eavesdrop on Lise’s conversation with friends. Through this, Jerrry learns that her name. He is quick to approach Lise, acting like another friend as to not alter her company and uses that as a means to get a dance with her. She is quick to shut him down, but as they go back to her table, he asks her for her phone number. Smartly, Lise provides a sham number, but her friends are quick to correct this, thus supplying Jerry with her actual number.
Jerry is quick to follow up on his introduction to Lise. He calls her, but she, once again, tells him that she is not interested. Not taking the hint, Jerry (I believe he used the phone number to discern the location; her number appears to have been her work number, so I think he connects the dots) stops by the perfume emporium in which she works. She remains cold at first, but then succumbs and comments about his persistence. The two then arrange to meet each other.
The progression of Jerry’s initial interactions serves as a definite example of the “sign of the times.” Such pursuit and insistence may have worked and been accepted in the 1940s and 1950s, but if one were to emulate Jerry’s methods today, they would quickly be issued with a restraining order or arrested for stalking. Thus, when viewing An American in Paris it is important to keep the original time frame in mind and enjoy the movie for its reflection of the mid-twentieth century. If you watch the movie with a twenty-first century perspective, you will likely find it to be obnoxious and not enjoyable.
The acting throughout the film is superb. Gene Kelly provides a spot-on portrayal of Jerry. He effectively communicates Jerry’s emotions, from being suspicious of Milo, to his fascination with Lise, to his interactions with Oscar, Henri, and the French citizens in his neighborhood.
Leslie Caron’s Lise is also expertly acted. Like Kelly, Caron does a great job of communicating her affection for Jerry while being conflicted with another relationship. Her character arc is effectively illustrated. She is initially annoyed by Jerry’s tenacity, but she eventually falls in love with him. She also feels guilty about her relationship with Henri, an element that is stressed in the third act and plays an important role in the film’s conclusion – will she continue her relationship and get married to Henri, or will she strike off with Jerry, her new love interest?
The supporting cast of Oliver Levant, Georges Guétary, and Nina Foch help round out the great performances. Levant provides great comedic relief, particularly in the scene in which he learns that Jerry’s new love interest is Henri’s girlfriend. Guétary’s Henri is solidly acted and features good solo and ensemble musical performances.
Foch’s Milo is also great. Foch depicts Milo’s character in a raw manner. You empathize with her when she is rudely treated by Jerry when they are on their first date. Although there is not a traditional antagonist, Milo comes as close to being one as there is in the movie. Milo is more a complex counter-love interest than a standard antagonist. You want Jerry and Lise to be together, but you feel sympathetic for both Milo and Henri, a demonstration of the performances given by Guétary and Foch.
Like many of the classic MGM musicals, An American in Paris features terrific music and dance numbers. I personally really enjoy these musicals and would say that this movie is one of my favorites. The brother duo of George and Ira Gershwin wrote several of the musical numbers and lyrics which provide the skeletal framework and inspiration for the music and story. George Gershwin himself was an American in Paris as he lived there for part of his life. The music is catchy and has become iconic. Conrad Salinger (listed on IMDb as an uncredited music contributor) and music director Saul Chaplin do a great job in marrying the Gershwin pieces with the rest of the film. My favorite numbers in the movie are: “Tra-La-La,” and “’S Wonderful.”
Kelly himself did the film’s choreography, which, not surprisingly, is stellar. Most of the musical routines in the film are moderately short in duration, but the big showcase is the final ballet. It is a seventeen minute production that reportedly cost half a million dollars and was shot over a one month period. The focus and attention to detail during this sequence is evident in the final product. The ballet is beautifully shot and is introduced as being one of Jerry’s drawings. The whole ballet is an imagination of Jerry’s about his love for Lise and the fear of losing her as she is set to marry Henri.
The set design during this number is outstanding and uses the theme painting/drawing aesthetic masterfully. Being the final musical number, it clearly communicates that art and love are An American in Paris’ leitmotif. The editing is also wonderfully done. The scene and costume transitions are fluid, and, had it not been for the changes in setting and wardrobe, it could easily be interpreted as one long shot. The dancing, choreography, and lighting brilliantly show the range of emotions that are depicted in the piece. This number is all music and dance, it does not have any vocals, but it is the musical highlight of the film.
The amazing set and production design is underscored in the final ballet, but it looks great through the entirety of the movie. The cinematography also features great shots of iconic Parisian landmarks and locations. It captures the aura of the film’s various settings, particularly the sequences that take place along the Seine River; during those sequences, the color is wonderfully blended with the rest of the atmosphere.
Vincente Minnelli’s directing is marvelous. Under his direction, An American in Paris won the following Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Art, Set Decoration, Color, Best Cinematography, Color, Best Costume Design, Color, Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture, and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. It also received the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Musical or Comedy.
Minelli’s other directing credits include other musicals such as: Gigi (1958), Brigadoon (1954), The Band Wagon (1953) as well as comedic dramas like Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Father of the Bride (1950) among others. Given his directing accomplishments, Minnelli’s proficiency not only in musicals but film in general is evident. He directed great films prior to and after An American in Paris.
Overall, An American in Paris is a terrific film that depicts a great love story. Despite the relationship (pursuing, dating) elements that would not fly today, if you adopt a mindset of the movie’s time frame and embrace the differences of the era, you will likely enjoy the characters, story, beautiful settings, and unforgettable music and dance that comprise the cinematic fabric of An American in Paris.
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenwriter: Alan Jay Lerner (story and screenplay)
Director of Photography: Alfred Gilks
Editor: Adrienne Fazan
Art Director: Preston Ames; Cedric Gibbons
Musical Director: Saul Chaplin
Music: George Gershwin
Lyrics: Ira Gershwin
Choreographer: Gene Kelly
Special Effects: Warren Newcombe; Irving G. Ries
Costume Designer: Orry-Kelly
Ballet Costumes Designer: Irene Sharaff
Budget: ca. $2,723,903
Release Date: November 11, 1951 (USA)
Cinematographic Process: Spherical
Copyright Holder: Loew’s Incorprated
Cast: Gene Kelly; Leslie Caron; Oscar Levant; Georges Guétary; Nina Foch; The American in Paris Ballet
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Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 1 hour and 53 minutes (113 mins.)