Talking Pictures

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An American in Paris

Posted by keith1942 on December 21, 2010

 

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-­Mayer Picture Corp.; 1950; Technicolor, 35mm; running time: 113 minutes. Released 1950.

Produced by Arthur Freed; screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner; directed by Vincente Minnelli; photography by Al Gilks, final ballet by John Alton; edited by Adrienne Fazan; art direction by Preston Ames and Cedric Gibbons, set decoration by Keogh Gleason and Edwin B. Willis; music by George and Ira Gersh­win, music direction by Johnny Green and Saul Chaplin; cos­tumes designed by Orry-Kelly, the Beaux-Arts Ball costumed by Walter Plunkett, and the final ballet costumed by Irene Sharaff; choreography by Gene Kelly. 

Filmed 1 August 1950 – fall 1950 at MGM studios, Culver City, California; also on location in Paris. Academy Awards for Best Picture, Story and Screenplay, Cinematography-Color, Art Direction-Color, Costume Design-Color, Best scoring of a musical, 1951. Academy Award Nomination Best Direction (Minnelli), Best Film Editing (Fazan).

 

Cast: Gene Kelly (Jerry Mulligan); Leslie Caron (Lise Borvier); Oscar Levant (Adam Cook); Georges Guetary (Henri Baurel); Nina Foch (Milo Roberts). 

Gershwin songs and music include: ‘I Got Rhythm’, ‘By Strauss’, ‘Swonderful’, ‘Tra La La’ (new lyrics), ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’, ‘Stairway to Paradise’, ‘Concerto in F (abridged), ‘An American in Paris’ (ballet).

 

The film develops a story out of a number of Gershwin songs and compositions. And Kelly’s choreography provides him with an opportunity for an extended and impressive ballet sequence. The ballet music provides the title, a tone poem composed by Gershwin at the end of the 1920s. It picks up on the North American fascination with Paris, arguably then the cultural capital of [at least] the Western World. Gershwin visited Paris three times in this period. Other US citizens lived and worked there, including such notables as Ernest Hemingway, Man Ray and Josephine Baker. Jerry offers the artistic fame enjoyed by the French capital as his motivation. Paris also offered a space partly free from the censorship, aesthetic conventions and socials restrictions many of these artists faced across the Atlantic. This is one sort of Utopia that can be read into the film’s plot.

However, there is much more in the film’s use of the sensibilities identified by Dyer.

The energy and intensity is predominantly in the music and dance. Gershwin’s style is nearly always energetic and intense. Apart from the ballet itself the other notable performance is when Adam performs part of the Concerto in F.

Energy is also there in the character of Gene Kelly. Whilst he is often graceful and emotional, most frequently his dances strike a feeling of vitality. However, Kelly also has an ambiguous relationship with abundance. In many of his films his ambitions come into conflict with his personal relations. This is the case in Paris. Milo’s ‘interest’ in his paintings is clearly tempting for Jerry. And this both complicates and inhibits his relation with Lise. She herself is caught between romance and abundance in the person of Henri. His Stairway to Heaven number enjoys an excess of abundance.

Abundance also relates to the American dream. One of the students identified this as a utopian aspect of the film. The clearest example is Adam who dreams of success and a return to the USA. But Henri also envisages success in the USA, where he plans to take Lise. And aspects of US culture are everywhere in the film. It is part of the charm that Gerry exercises over the local French children.

Lise would seem to represent transparency. Even when she decides to marry Henri it is more about loyalty than his wealth or success. In this sense she is fairly typical of the heroines who play opposite Kelly. They provide an alternative to the temptation of abundance and offer him a way to achieve a greater sincerity.

However, the lead characters are all fairly individualistic. So that a sense of community relies on the local French people in the quarter where Jerry and Adam reside. This becomes most pointed when Gerry sings ‘I got…’ with the children. Intriguingly this is a rather traditional portrait of a Paris quarter, which was probably already changing in this period. It does seem to overlap slightly with the traditional quarter found in a Jacques Tati film like Mon Oncle (1956).

To varying degrees these sensibilities are all found in the final ballet. The ballet itself seems rather separate from the film’s plot. Just before it Jerry and Lise have parted, and the end they are reunited. The motivation, Henri’s realisation of their romance, is convenient rather than convincing. However, the ballet itself dramatises not only the romance of Jerry and Lise, who are leads in the succeeding sequences. It also dramatises French art, mainly through the personages of Renoir, Utrillo, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. In one sense the ballet can be seen to be working through Jerry’s conflicting emotions and ambitions about art and romance. As the ballet/reverie starts and again as it ends Jerry picks up a solitary rose: this would seem to express his choice.

Several students related the film to Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948, a film that Kelly mentioned to MGM executives). I had not thought much about this, but it is also an intriguing comparison. In both films a couple face separations due to a Svengali-type character. In the earlier film the object is the woman; in the latter it is the man. The former ends tragically, the latter happily. Which raises interesting issues around gender in film?

 

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