Monday, December 7, 2015

Reeling Backward: "An American In Paris" (1951)

"An American in Paris" is wonderful as a musical -- truly 'S Wonderful, indeed -- though it isn't particularly ambitious as a film.

It's essentially pageantry for its own sake, long musical sequences in which the characters sing and prance because they love to do it, rather than advancing the story in any obvious way. It's about bright colors, vivacious George Gershwin melodies and the inestimable choreography and dancing of Gene Kelly, not to mention co-star Leslie Caron.

Despite its undeniable status as a lightweight movie, "American" won the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as earning statuettes for screenplay, costumes, musical score, cinematography and production design (or simply "Best Art," as it was called then).

Vincente Minnelli lost the director award, though he was up against William Wyler for "Detective Story," John Huston for "The African Queen," Elia Kazan for "A Streetcar Named Desire" and the winner, George Stevens, for "A Place in the Sun." That must rank as one of the toughest directors' races in Oscar history.

Kelly did not get an acting nomination, though he was bestowed with a special award for his contributions to the cinematic musical art form. No one else from the cast got a nod, making "American" one of just 11 Best Picture winners lacking an acting nomination. ("Slumdog Millionaire" was the most recent.) Though that apparently was trend in the 1950s, with four winners from that decade lacking any recognition for its performances.

Of course, 1951 was also the year "Streetcar" nearly swept the acting awards, losing only Best Actor, where Marlon Brando probably should've beaten Humphrey Bogart anyway.

I think back then people had a taste for big-budget extravaganzas, and didn't make so much of a distinction between serious films and pure entertainment as we do today.

I enjoyed "An American in Paris," though I admit to growing a bit glazed during some of the dance scenes, some of which go on waaaaay too long. The final 16-minute ballet set to Gershwin's "symphonic poem" of the same title reportedly cost half a million bucks all by itself to stage, a colossal sum back then. If I'm totally honest, I fast-forwarded a bit through parts of it.

Dancing, particularly of the athletic variety practiced by Kelly, is dazzling in short bursts but after a while it becomes repetitive and less impressive. It's like watching a man dead-lift 1,000 pounds -- your breath is taken away the first time, but after 25 reps you're ready to see something else.

One thing I did notice about this film is that Kelly's dancing is often staged in confined spaces, such as inside the cramped apartment of his character, Jerry Mulligan, an ex-GI who stayed on in France after the war in hopes of making it as a painter. He's penniless and proud, and his only real friend is Adam Cook (Oscar Levant), a composer living next door who's similarly situated, though not nearly as cute.

(In his opening narration, Levant cracks jokes about his homeliness and "flabby exterior," even though he's hardly overweight. I always wonder, when a character in a movie talks about their physical deficiencies, what does the performer think about being cast in that role? "They needed an ugly pianist" is not exactly a confidence-booster.)

Kelly shimmies and shakes in the small gaps in between Adam's piano and bed, occasionally using the hallway as an overflow space. In other numbers he kicks and spins dangerously close to old women and children, and I kept wondering how many times Minnelli had to call cut after Kelly accidentally clocked someone with his tap shoes.

I can't help but contrast "American" with "Singin' in the Rain" from the following year, which I consider to be a vastly superior film in every way imaginable. Interestingly, both movies are largely built around songs written two or three decades earlier, Gershwin's and Arthur Freed's, respectively. But there's more singing and less dancing in "Rain," and there the characters are largely warbling about themselves or those they adore.

It's notable that "Rain" contained many memorable songs, while "American" can only claim "I Got Rhythm" as a truly enduring popular hit. Other tunes include "Our Love is Here to Stay" and the aforementioned "'S Wonderful." Most of these were written by Gershwin for Broadway shows or other films, essentially rendering "American" as a greatest hits compilation. Though the humorous "By Strauss" was a goofy ditty Gershwin performed only in private for his friends, until it was included in a 1936 revue and this movie.

The story (screenplay by Alan Jay Lerner) is pretty basic. Jerry is a starving artist who falls in love with a French girl, Lise Bouvier, played by Caron with her iconicly unconventional beauty. Little does he know she's betrothed to Henri Baurel (Georges Gu├ętary), a famous song-and-dance man and friend of Adam's. The fact that she secretly carries on with Jerry and Henri at the same time says something about her worthiness as a romantic ideal, but this is love in the French style.

Meanwhile, Jerry is being helped-slash-seduced by Milo Roberts, a wealthy American woman who has a habit of picking up boy toys and then discarding, or being discarded by them. She introduces him to important art people, arranges a big gallery show of is work, etc. Ostensibly it's all out of art appreciation, but her fierce jealousy when Jerry pays attention to Lise unveils her true nature.

Interestingly, though Milo is supposed to be much older than Jerry, probably middle-aged, actress Nina Foch was actually 12 years younger than Kelly. At 27 she was barely past the ingenue stage, while he was bumping up against 40.

People complain about Hollywood's ageism today, but it was much more rampant back then, with aging actors romancing young girls without anyone giving it a blink. Foch even played Charlton Heston's mother in "The Ten Commandments," even though he was a year older than her.

"An American in Paris" is a delightful frivolity, fun and energetic, happy-happy moviemaking designed to make people forget their troubles. I'm not surprised it's currently enjoying a huge revival on Broadway. But Best Picture?

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